Antiracist challenges to the gun violence debate

by Mihir Sharma for Anthropology Now

Researchers, activists and artists have demonstrated the devastating intergenerational effects of gun violence, among them trauma and disability/debilitation among survivors and kin of persons shot or killed. Following in the footsteps of work done by Jodi Rios, Keona Ervin, and Barbara Ransby, I conducted fieldwork in St. Louis Missouri between March 2018 and October 2019 on organizational forms, political subjectivities, and transformative processes led by a Black-led coalition of organizations, actors and movements. I volunteered for  the campaign “Close the Workhouse” and for the Bail Project. During this time, I attended protests, meetings among activists, public events, informal get-togethers, city hall interventions and in 2020, a range of online events developed by a Black-led coalition of organizers in St. Louis. Although the focus of my research was not gun violence, the issue appeared prominently throughout the time I spent in the St. Louis area. Contrary to the near-exclusive emphasis on mass shootings I found in national media coverage, I became interested in how Black organizers in St. Louis had been working to address broader problems of violence and re-frame the debate to foreground the problems facing their neighborhoods, thereby provide an antiracist intervention for how the issue of gun violence and its attendant structural conditions were discussed, analyzed and ultimately addressed.

United States of Mass Shootings

In 2022, discussions about gun violence in the United States have resurfaced with renewed significance in national and international media. There have been more than three hundred mass shootings this year; some have garnered much more attention and uproar than others. Although no standard criteria for what constitutes a mass shooting exist, several national organizations classify mass shootings as any incident where more than four persons are shot, not including the shooter. A host of contingent and systemic factors—including timing, the societal status of impacted persons, the perceived likeliness of  “something like this” happening in places otherwise considered safe or inured from the assumed causes of mass shootings—inform which incidents are highlighted, by whom, at which scales and how long they remain in public memory beyond their immediate vicinity.

Although school shootings or mass shootings are by no means new phenomena in the United States, several protest movements in the past decade propelled by media attention around mass shootings have sought to combat the political intransigency around the issue of gun control. Indeed, firearms are now the leading cause of death in the United States among youth and the most common cause among young men, disproportionately impacting racialized Black and Brown persons.

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