Metzl: We Need to Take a Structuralist Approach to Disrupting the Gun Ownership Binary in America

Jonathan M. Metzl Vanderbilt University
Courtesy Vanderbilt University


I tracked the history of [trying to regulate guns like cigarettes] going back to the ’90s.

And I think, at some point, it made sense. We had had these campaigns in public health in the past. Here is someone whose product is killing people, and we came in as public health advocates and experts and said what we need to do is impose government regulation, we need to have commonsense laws, we need to hold the manufacturers liable.

And that approach worked in cigarettes, it worked in cars for a couple of reasons. One is that ultimately those manufacturers were liable for their products. And the second was that a lot of people across the country had relatives who had died of lung cancer or knew people who had died in car wrecks.

But, unfortunately, as I argue, it was a wrong turn in the gun debate, because guns just meant something really different. Gun manufacturers were protected from liability, the kind of liability lawsuits, but also guns really were not amenable to the kind of government databases and regulations that we were advocating because they were tied to the much longer history of the meanings of just who got to carry a gun in America, what that meant that tied into some of our deepest racial fault lines in this country. …

For white conservative gun owners, the issue is this. There will be a mass shooting in this country. Again, they don’t want that kind of trauma.

But then liberals like me rush in and say what we need are more government databases or more red flag laws that empower police to put people in front of judges. They hear more regulation, more government. And so really what they hear is, for a lot of the gun owners I spoke to, exactly the reason they own guns in the first place, which is that they feel like they mistrust the government.

So I asked a lot of people in the book, well, how do you think we can resolve this? How can we make the — how can we feel safe? And, for them, it wasn’t more regulation. It was basically improving community structures and improving community safety.

And so in the book, I end up being kind of a structuralist and really take seriously, what would it mean to make communities safer? What would it mean to invest in communities and really look at the upstream drivers not just of gun violence, but the upstream drivers of why people feel like they need to carry guns in public in the first place? …

Toward the end of the book, I discuss an eight-part plan that I think can improve the ways that Democrats talk to red state gun owners that really speaks their language a lot more about gun safety entrepreneurialism, fixing larger structures, addressing the upstream drivers of why people feel like they need to carry guns.

Because, right now, what we have is Trump, who’s basically telling red state gun owners, I’m going to let you keep your guns and keep your power, and Biden, who’s saying, I support regulation.

And at least for many gun owners, they’re going to hear that, let me keep my guns and keep my power, because it’s just something that’s very deep. And I think we need to really disrupt that binary.

— William Brangham and Sam Lane in Psychiatrist Advocates for Reforming U.S. Approach to Gun Safety

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