Armed American Public Health

What are the reasons, consequences and outcomes for a more heavily armed America? It is a question increasingly looked at by politicians, policy makers, businesses, and more than a few scholars. One of the country’s foremost experts is Jonathan M. Metzl, a professor at Vanderbilt University. He directs the university’s Department of Medicine, Health and Society. Metzl’s books and scholarship bridge the academy and public discourse. His work is informed, engaging and very important.

What We’ve Become: Living and Dying in a Country of Arms is Metzl’s latest effort. Using a 2018 mass shooting at a Nashville Waffle House, the book builds on research, interviews, history and reflection to understand the multiple factors that led to the murders. While Metzl’s anger propels many of his questions, it is more than tempered by curiosity, persistence and a deep desire to understand. An impressive thread of genuine humanity gives What We’ve Become a special kind of power.

The murderer of four Black Americans, Travis Reinking, was mentally ill and known by the authorities to be troubled. He had been arrested and had even tried to gain access to the White House. He was not allowed to own guns in his home state, Illinois, but when he moved his father returned his guns to him. His new state, Tennessee, has some of the loosest gun laws in the nation. Metzl tracks the missed opportunities, the wilful acceptance that this sick man should own guns, and the killings. There was no “reason” – it is all sad and deeply troubling. The night of the murder, Rienking, naked and armed with an AK-47, drove up to the restaurant and opened fire without any real plan.

What gives What We’ve Become agency and hope are Metzl’s recommendations. He argues, passionately and with evidence, that a public health approach studying guns and gun violence could prevent future killings. It is no guarantee but it is a useful avenue for research. Metzl is also sensitive to questions of race, class and identity. Racism, hidden and overt, is an important part of the public policy debate about guns.

The ways in which the public responds to mass shootings is another part of the story. Some push for more guns as an antidote to these kinds of killings. In Tennessee, in fact, gun controls were reduced after the Waffle House shooting. Metzl’s perspective is different. He believes that robust social networks can offer people care, agency and limit the potential for mass shootings. It is an argument that has traction with some and is outright rejected by others. Acknowledging these differences, if we are to tackle gun violence, we will have to find ways to bring people together to discuss alternatives. Professor Metzl’s approach offers data, understanding and reasonableness.

What We’ve Become is a most interesting book, offering a public health perspective to examine and important issue that is literally a matter of life and death.

David Potash

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