On April 22, 2018, a naked 29-year-old white man named Travis Reinking hurried toward a Waffle House in Antioch, Tenn., gripping an Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. After the state of Illinois took away his right to possess firearms in 2017, Reinking, who had a history of mental illness, relocated to the Nashville area where there were far fewer gun restrictions, with a truck full of weapons. Within minutes of reaching the Waffle House, Reinking gunned down seven Black and brown customers, four of whom eventually died.
The shooting occurred less than half an hour south of Vanderbilt University, where Jonathan M. Metzl, a psychiatrist and sociologist, researches gun violence. In his new book, “What We’ve Become: Living and Dying in a Country of Arms,” Metzl offers a chilling account of the years leading up to Reinking’s murder spree, the family members and institutions that largely disregarded his dangerous delusions, as well as a searing critique of the public health sector’s fruitless attempts to reduce gun violence.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, public health, a field tasked with the prevention of injury and disease, joined the movement to make gun access, use, and ownership safer in the United States. But public health’s approach to gun violence prevention has done more harm than good, Metzl claims. It has not, in fact, reduced the purchase of firearms or improved community safety. It has only succeeded in making gun owners and pro-gun legislators far more defensive.
Disease terminology to describe gun violence, Metzl contends, has flattened the nuances of what public health has deemed an “epidemic.” “[F]or decades, our expertise had emphasized the effects of shooting guns but had relatively little to say about the complex connotations that surrounded carrying them.” Public health has neglected to address, among other issues, white gun owners’ fears of losing their racial majority status in the United States and their anxieties, no matter how unreasonable, of an increasingly overreaching government. In his research, Metzl observed “ever-expanding real and imagined scenarios,” where gun owners “justified the need for more guns and cast any effort to regulate them as oppressive.” Any strategy to reduce gun violence must first attempt to understand the psychology of gun owners, especially red state gun owners, who equate being armed with their security and autonomy.
It’s a big ask given the current socio-political climate in Republican-controlled states, where passing any kind of gun safety laws seems futile. This is what makes Metzl’s Tennessean perspective invaluable. He is keenly aware of how conversations about gun violence, particularly after mass shootings, do nothing more than inflame gun owners’ panic and loosen gun restrictions in red states.
Institutional racism is a significant factor in how gun violence plays out in the United States. “What We’ve Become” tackles the role of race in Reinking’s killing spree, and the mainstream narrative about white gun owners, which portrays them as benevolent protectors of their individual safety, never as potential assailants. Despite several encounters with law enforcement, Reinking received multiple second chances. It wasn’t until after he attempted to force himself into the White House that the state of Illinois eventually stripped him of his gun possession rights.
What Metzl ultimately advocates for is the integration of public health into other socio-political spheres in order to develop a more effective paradigm for ameliorating gun violence. He calls for the establishment of broad coalitions of people and institutions working toward a cooperative vision of safety that invites everyone to the table, regardless of their personal or political positions on guns. Metzl also suggests that public health researchers collaborate with other disciplines to mobilize Southern voters and minimize the influence of dark money in elections. “Public health could become more actively involved in elections for city councils, school boards, or other offices that dictate investment in resources for public spaces.”
It sounds reasonable enough. But it’s not as if this approach hasn’t been championed before outside of the public health realm. Nonpartisan advocacy groups such as the NAACP — as well as single-issue gun safety organizations — have used the kind of holistic, systemic praxis that Metzl endorses to envision ways of making communities safer. Their research has linked gun violence to larger socio-political and economic issues including intimate partner violence, poverty, underfunded public education, low wages, and inadequate health care. In red states, successful change has been sparse.
“What We’ve Become” can be frustratingly vague on how a more integrated approach for public health would manifest in the real world, especially when it relies, in part, on alleviating white supremacy or debunking conspiracy theories about the government. The same race-based suspicions that propel white gun ownership are also responsible for rampant racialized voter suppression and gerrymandering, which disenfranchise Black and other voters of color — the voting demographic most likely to support gun safety laws. “Guns and shootings served agendas of building supermajorities,” notes Metzl, “diluting the effects of liberal and Black votes and consolidating particular forms of power.” He describes this Catch-22 as it plays out in his own state, under Republican Governor Bill Lee, with precision. But we are left wondering how to free ourselves from it.
Metzl’s primary argument — that reducing gun violence requires public health to engage in a more comprehensive and inclusive model than the charged binary between “gun-grabbing liberals” and “pro-gun authoritarianism” — is a forceful one. But at what point do we deem red state gun owners’ views so unshakable and uncompromising that they are beyond anyone’s reach?
WHAT WE’VE BECOME: Living and Dying in a Country of Arms
By Jonathan Metzl
Norton, 384 pp., $29.99
Anjali Enjeti is the author of “Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change” and “The Parted Earth.”