For decades the NRA and conservatives have dominated on issues ranging from background checks to red flag laws to assault weapon bans. The reason, argues Jonathan Metzl, author of “What We’ve Become: Living and Dying in a Country of Arms,” is that liberals consistently bring a moral argument to a gunfight.
Metzl, a doctor, public health expert and director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health and Society, writes books and articles about gun violence, race and public health issues. Metzl, who splits time between Nashville and Brooklyn, is also a popular talking head, frequently fielding calls after the latest mass murder. In 2018, one such outburst hit close to home when a naked and mentally unstable white man, Travis Reinking, fired his AR-15 into a Nashville Waffle House populated by Black customers — he killed four and wounded two others before a customer, James Shaw Jr., heroically wrestled the gun away from him.
That tragedy provides the framework for “What We’ve Become,” which explores not only the attitudes surrounding gun ownership and violence, but also where public health policy proponents like himself may have fallen short, especially as any progress has been undone in the years since the pandemic.
Metzl’s research found that Reinking, whose mental health had been unraveling for years, had encounters with the police near his home in Illinois and even at the White House with federal agents. Officials tried to take away his collection of guns, but ultimately backed down — not once, but twice — when Reinking’s father said he’d hold onto the guns for his son. (Jeff Reinking was sentenced to 18 months in prison for giving his son the guns.)
“Here’s a white man, who’s clearly psychotic with bad intentions, walking around with a gun,” Metzl said by video from his Nashville home. “In our society, particularly in red states — but also in conservative parts of Illinois where he lived — he was seen as a white man with a gun whose rights were to be protected. This wasn’t an isolated incident; it’s the values of a lot of people in this part of the country who mistrust the government more than they mistrust their crazy son.”
He is glad Jeff Reinking was found culpable and he is quick to point out that Travis Reinking could have easily bought new guns in Tennessee due to its lax laws. He believes the local police were also culpable for their willingness to allow Reinking’s guns to stay put.
“All the red flag laws and background checks in the world aren’t going to work because of the larger frameworks we have around carrying a gun in this country,” he says, adding that the framework only applies to white people. In the book, he argues that if Reinking were Black, he would have been treated very differently at every encounter with law enforcement. “Armed white people are seen as protectors and as people whose liberties are to be protected. Conservative gun owners interpret their guns as power, as protection, as symbolism.”
Gun debates obviously tie into larger questions about America and the belief in rugged individualism versus livable communities. In the book, Metzl argues that Nashville’s lack of quality public transit or bike lanes, compared to Brooklyn’s, is linked to the differences in gun laws in red states that have a “murder problem” that dwarfs blue states; red states, he writes, also tend to have worse health care and worse health outcomes.
Liberals are not guilt-free, Metzl adds, noting that for years many suburban voters and policymakers failed to care about Black-on-Black shooting crimes. “If you’re Black in America, you’re probably not going to use a red flag law and invite the police into your home to do a check on your crazy relative,” he says.
Still, the real blame for America’s gun violence rests with the right, all the way up to the “pernicious racism” of Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court opinion in New York State Rifle & Pistol Assn. Inc. vs. Bruen that further loosened gun laws, where he imagined, Metzl says “the Black mugger who’s around every corner, so everybody has to be guarded by them.”
That case will just be the starting point if Donald Trump regains the presidency, Metzl says, adding that conservative judges’ overturning of the will of the voters on gun safety issues is already “incredibly antidemocratic.”
“It’s going to get a lot worse,” he continues. “The question won’t be how can we make red states safer from shootings, it’ll be how can we make society safer when everybody is armed? And how do we define a safe gun owner versus a nonsafe gun owner?”
“The goal, for me, is not convincing red-state people. It’s about protecting places like New York and Los Angeles. This story has clues as to why changes in gun laws are creeping into those cities and not the other way around. And so it’s hopefully a wake-up call to blue-state people.”
Metzl doesn’t propose specific answers, but wants readers to think about ways to change gun safety conversations, to think about making schools safer from gunfire or to use algorithms to determine economic policies tied to gun safety the way health insurers do. “That might be more effective,” he says. “I don’t think that somebody like me is going to convince somebody with an AR-15 to put their name in a government database for background checks.”
But, ultimately, he says liberals need to stop making the public health argument for reform and regulation and focus on gaining political control, a concept he says applies not just to the gun debate but to liberal ideals in general.
“Our liberal ideas and methods are based on the common good and assumptions about shared morality and the faith in institutions,” he says. The other side, however, doesn’t share those assumptions, he says, describing a “Southern war of aggression,” in which the confederacy is actively trying to dismantle the civil society that Democrats built after the Civil War, during the New Deal and in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. That makes 2024 a pivotal election, but also cries out for a new approach.
“Democrats are great at protesting, but we’re terrible at playing the power game that Republicans play,” he says. “We were protesting a moral and a medical argument against an opposition that was taking control of every institution. We misread the power game. We need a version of the Federalist Society where every issue is linked to a slate of judges who were going to do this thing.”
Metzl does see some hope in people such as David Hogg, the former Parkland student turned activist, who last summer founded the Leaders We Deserve PAC to help elect young progressive candidates to both national and state office. “This is what the NRA did 40 years ago, by creating a grassroots movement,” he says. “I think people are starting to take the right approach now.”