Guns are woven into the fabric of American history and culture. But with gun deaths in the U.S. peaking in 2017 at 40,000, authors are profiling the growing numbers of those touched by gun violence, and many forthcoming books are wading into the gun control debate.
In America’s Gun Wars: A Cultural History of Gun Control in the U.S. (Praeger, May), social scientist Donald J. Campbell, a professor emeritus at West Point, looks at the profoundly different cultures of pro- and antigun activists. To properly understand them, he argues, one must move beyond the statistics documenting the rise or fall of violent crime and deconstruct the propaganda of such advocacy groups as the National Rifle Association and Everytown for Gun Safety. The debate over guns boils down to, Campbell concludes, “a values conflict” arising from how people perceive themselves, as well as how they make sense of the world they live in.
Another spring release that sets the gun debate in a broad cultural context, Thom Hartmann’s Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment (Berrett-Koehler, June), is the first volume in a planned series of “hidden history” books. Hartmann, a radio talk show host, explores guns in American culture in the centuries between the early European settlements and modern-day school shootings, pointing out that there is a correlation between a widening of socioeconomic disparities in the U.S. and an increase in the number of people killed by gun violence.
In an interview with PW, Hartmann says that he does not support a gun ban, but, “at a minimum for something that is deadly,” gun ownership should be treated like car ownership, requiring registration and title, license to operate, and liability insurance. “Straightforward policies would be a good idea,” he says, noting that Americans should also address the social despair and economic inequality that contribute to violent crime in order to effectively curtail gun violence.
Putting Faces to the Names
A number of spring 2019 releases put human faces to the grim statistics. One father writes of his daughter’s murder at the hands of a former coworker and another of his daughter’s death at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.; others provide narratives of recent mass shootings that include profiles of both victims and survivors.
In For Alison: The Murder of a Young Journalist and a Father’s Fight for Gun Safety (Apollo, Mar.), Andy Parker relates the murders on live television of his 24-year-old daughter, a television news reporter in Roanoke, Va., and her cameraman. On the night four years ago when the two died, he writes, he went on television and vowed to do “whatever it takes to end gun violence in America.”
Tom Diaz writes of the murder of another young reporter, sports journalist Jessica Redfield Ghawi, in Tragedy in Aurora: The Culture of Mass Shootings in America (Rowman & Littlefield, Aug.). Diaz focuses on the impact of Ghawi’s murder in a 2012 mass shooting upon her family and friends, police, medical first responders, and others, and he also examines the causes of and potential solutions to mass shootings, which he describes as a “quintessential 21st-century American sickness.”
In contrast, the father of one of the Parkland victims says that his daughter’s death last February cannot be ascribed to existing gun laws but rather to school officials and local law enforcement ignoring red flags regarding the shooter, Nikolas Cruz. In Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies That Created Parkland’s Shooter and Endanger America’s Students (Bombardier, July), Andrew Pollack and coauthor Max Eden argue that blaming the shooting on Cruz’s easy access to a gun was a diversionary tactic by the school and police to avoid taking responsibility. “Pollack wants the book to be a wake-up call for parents about school safety,” says Bombardier Books associate publisher David Bernstein. “The reason Cruz owned a gun was not because of lax gun laws. He should have had a police record and not been able to buy a gun.”
In Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness (St. Martin’s, June), Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Jennifer Barry Hawes recounts the 2015 attack by a white supremacist upon a dozen members of Charleston, S.C.’s historically black Emanuel AME Church during their evening Bible study. She talks with the families of Dylann Roof’s victims and delves into the aftermath of the murders, both in Charleston and nationally—including a speech by President Barack Obama calling for more comprehensive gun control laws.
The books above focus upon particular crimes, but in An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago (Doubleday/Talese, Mar.), Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here) studies a city long plagued by gun violence. In the past 20 years, 14,000 people in Chicago have been shot dead and another 60,000 wounded by guns. Approaching the issue by assessing the impact of gun violence upon vulnerable communities, Kotlowitz profiles people in those communities, including a man who as a teenager killed a rival gang member and, 20 years later, is still trying to come to terms with what he’s done, and a school social worker struggling with a student who refuses to provide evidence in the shooting death of his best friend.
From Columbine to #NeverAgain
One year after the Parkland shooting, David Cullen, a journalist who wrote Columbine, revisits the incident that resulted in 17 deaths and 17 wounded. His book, Parkland: Birth of a Movement (Harper, Feb.), might be the definitive account of the media-savvy Marjory Stoneman Douglas students who launched #NeverAgain, a national grassroots movement that breathed new life into the gun control lobby. The impact of #NeverAgain was demonstrated yet again earlier this month, when, as Parkland survivors and victims’ families bore witness, the House of Representatives for the first time since 2011 held hearings on gun violence.
Cullen tells PW that he suffered two bouts of secondary PTSD while writing Columbine; afterward, he continued writing about school shootings but from a distance. But last year, he notes, he “could already sense that this might be the start of a revolution” and visited Parkland, adding that he was especially struck by the immediate and spirited response of the survivors, who refused to allow the adults around them or the media to shape their story. Cullen writes that the teens used their grief as “a catalyst for change, transforming tragedy into a movement of astonishing hope that has galvanized a nation.” He adds, “Parkland changed everything—for the survivors, for the nation, and definitely for me.”
In contrast to Cullen’s depiction of those teens, Mark W. Smith argues in Gun Grab: How the Left Is Using Politics, the Courts, and Propaganda to Undermine the Second Amendment and Steal Your Guns (Bombardier, fall) that the debate over gun control is a relatively new phenomenon and that the strategies of the gun control lobby include exploiting mass shootings to advance its political agenda. According to Smith, whose books include last year’s @Duped: How the Anti-gun Lobby Exploits the Parkland School Shooting—and How Gun Owners Can Fight Back, gun control activists “trot out a few traumatized young survivors of the shootings and hail them as the brave leaders of a new antigun movement, speaking truth to power.” He adds, “It works: the all-out campaign has put gun owners and Americans who support the right to bear arms on the defensive.”
Calls to Action
Some authors see the Parkland survivors as models for teen activism. Michelle Roehm McCann has written Enough Is Enough: How Students Can Join the Fight for Gun Safety (Beyond Words, Oct.). McCann, an active member of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Everytown for Gun Safety, is launching Kids Demand Action, an organization for young people wanting to protest gun violence and lobby for gun control legislation. She guides her readers into activism by providing background information on the movement and interviews with teen survivors of gun violence. The book also includes profiles of teens who have launched groups engaged with the issue and organized letter-writing campaigns and rallies.
According to gun control activist Shannon Watts, activism is a family affair. In Fight Like a Mother: How a Grassroots Movement Took on the Gun Lobby and Why Women Will Change the World (HarperCollins, June), Watts—who also wrote the foreword to Enough Is Enough—recounts how, after Sandy Hook, she founded Moms Demand Action. Its members lobby lawmakers on gun control legislation and also work to elect candidates who support their cause—and some have run for office themselves. Watts suggests that mothers in particular use their skills—such as multitasking and giving orders—to become activists. “If the 80 million moms in this country come together, they can put an end to gun violence,” she writes.
In contrast to the activist-authors calling on citizens to be the change makers, antigun activist Igor Volsky urges the government to step up its efforts. In Guns Down: How to Defeat the NRA and Build a Safer Future with Fewer Guns (New Press, Apr.), Volsky presents a “new Second Amendment Compact” as part of his argument that current laws regarding background checks and bans on assault-style military weapons are not enough. In order to permanently reduce gun deaths, he writes, the number of guns in circulation must be curtailed through state and federal buybacks, and guns must be made much harder to obtain. Like Hartmann, Volsky suggests an aggressive licensing and registration initiative, arguing that tighter regulations of the gun industry, the gun lobby, and gun sellers will result in safer communities.
Taking a Stand
Religious leaders are also outspoken in their opposition to gun violence and are urging people of faith to take a stand.
In Common Ground: Talking About Gun Violence in America (Westminster John Knox, Mar.), Donald V. Gaffney, a Disciples of Christ minster who grew up in Newtown, Conn., offers a guide to thinking about guns and gun violence from a spiritual perspective. Common Ground explores the place of guns in our individual and national histories, violence in Scripture, the legal issues surrounding gun rights, and what people of faith can do to help solve the problem of gun violence.
According to Herald Press publisher Amy Gingerich, the Mennonite publisher is “rooted in a tradition of faith-based pacifism” and was recently looking for a book that moved the conversation about gun control “from the public space into the congregation.” The press found it in Collateral Damage: Changing the Conversation About Firearms and Faith (Nov.). Here, Presbyterian minister James E. Atwood (America and Its Guns), who served as interfaith coordinator of the Million Mom March in Washington, D.C., in 2000, asks Christians to work together to stop gun violence, the “theological emergency of our time.” People of faith, he argues, have a “moral and spiritual obligation to side with life against death.”
Shane Claiborne and his coauthor Mike Martin, a Mennonite pastor turned blacksmith, provide some creative ways for Christians to respond to gun violence in a book with a title that evokes the biblical image of swords being beaten into plows: Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence (Brazos, Mar.). Describing gun violence as “one of the most significant moral issues of our time,” the two authors emphasize that the issue should not be about Second Amendment rights but, rather, about the fundamental right of people to live. “We are not going to wait on politicians to turn death into life” via legislation, the duo write, urging Christians to transcend the rhetoric that emphasizes “thoughts and prayers” over action by transforming their firearms into “something that cultivates life.”
In March, Claiborne and Martin are going to show how it’s done: they’re taking Martin’s forge on the road. Each stop on the Beating Guns tour will feature music, art, and stories of people affected by gun violence—culminating with an invitation to the audience to take hammers and beat their guns into garden tools or musical instruments.