Mass shootings, particularly school shootings like the ones at Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Uvalde, and many others, are horrific tragedies for the families and communities traumatized by senseless violence and loss, and for the nation as a whole. Yet, what has resulted from each one of these terrible events is not a turn away from guns, but just the opposite: an immediate spike in gun sales, often with some states enacting more pro-gun rights legislation making it yet easier to purchase and own guns. The sole ideas floated by gun enthusiasts in the wake of school shootings are to arm teachers and staff, hire more police, and “harden” schools, creating a prison-like setting. In contrast, gun control advocates—who represent the majority in nationwide polls—point to the proliferation of firearms, with nearly four hundred million in circulation, more than the population of the United States itself.
Congress passed some minor gun control measures in the wake of two mass shootings in May 2022—one by a young, self-described white nationalist who targeted the Black community in Buffalo, New York, and the other by a young man who did not appear to have an ideology, massacring nineteen fourth graders at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Yet, despite the fact that both shooters were barely 18 years old, the Republican cosponsors of a bipartisan bill refused to require that the age for acquiring an AR-15 style rifle be raised to 21 years. Around the same time, the Supreme Court struck down a New York state law that required a prospective gun buyer to document cause in order to be licensed for a concealed weapon; the decision applied to five other states that have similar restrictions.
The national grief and soul-searching that ensue after these massacres look for an answer to the question of: Why is this happening? But some very basic, painful truths are consistently avoided in these discussions, and it may be exactly in what is not being talked about that the key to an understanding, if not an actual solution, can be found. The U.S. crisis of mass shootings, the phenomenon of gun hoarding, and the commercial popularity of military-style firearms with unlimited magazine capacity are not incomprehensible. What is required is an understanding of the actual origins and meaning of the Second Amendment and the role that firearms have played in the forming of the U.S. nation-state and white national identity. In my book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, I traced that history.
Now we have a new book, Bloodbath Nation, that transcends all previous handwringing on the matter of guns in the United States, where a third of all gun suicides in the world take place. The 147-page book contains a passionate narrative by celebrated poet and novelist Paul Auster. The text is accompanied by stark and somber black-and-white photographs of sites of mass shootings taken during a two-year period by Spencer Ostrander. The photographer shared the images with his friend Auster, who offered to write captions for the photographs and compile a book. These captions turned into five deeply felt essays. Auster brilliantly interprets the photographs, calling them “gravestones of our collective grief” and “photographs of silence.”
There are no people or cars in the photos, all taken at dusk and dark, listing only the sites, the locations, the dates of the shooting, and the number of people killed and injured: a Safeway in Tucson, Arizona; a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs; a Macy’s department store in Washington state; the City Hall of Kirkwood, Missouri; a Lockheed Martin plant in Mississippi; three photos of the Walmart in El Paso; and the school shootings in Parkland, Florida; Roseburg, Oregon; Isla Vista, California; an Amish school house in Pennsylvania. Then there are the houses of worship: the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek; the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh; and the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. We see social sites like the packed Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida; another nightclub in Columbus, Ohio; a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado; bars in Dayton, Ohio, and Thousand Oaks, California; and, to date, the location with the largest number of people killed, sixty-one, in Paradise, Nevada, a suburb of Las Vegas, where the gunman rented the top floor in a high-rise hotel and, with a scoped automatic rifle, fired into an outdoor crowd enjoying a live country music concert. The shooter shot himself as police approached the source of the slaughter, leaving no clues or explanations, his only motive apparently being to use some of the more than fifty high-powered rifles and sidearms that he had stored in a number of houses he owned. Every one of the firearms had been purchased legally at a number of different gun stores in several states.
The number of deaths in these frequent mass shootings pale in comparison with the number of gun deaths—nearly forty thousand each year, more than half of them by suicide. Among the nations of the world, these numbers, and the nearly four hundred million guns in circulation, are unique to the United States, with its ignored, echoed gunshots, every man a soldier in the taking of the continent and the control of enslaved people.
In addition, guns and the ease of obtaining them also signal a severe mental and physical health crisis in the present. Auster interviewed Frank Huyler, an emergency room doctor at the University of New Mexico Hospital, who describes in hideous detail what a bullet does to the body and the gross numbers of torn up and bloody bodies that are brought to the ER. Huyler details the nature of different kinds of bullet wounds, something we rarely see photographs of, except in B-movies that glorify gun play with blood and gore. As psychoanalyst and medical doctor Ravi Chandra wrote in the wake of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in Parkland: “The steel of a gun is the coldest thing in the world. Even when silent it shouts a threat. But it has never been silent, never in the history of the United States But there are other voices. There are the screams of millions dead. More have died by gunshot than in all our country’s wars combined.”1
What is different about Auster’s slim book that makes it so compelling? Although Auster has published other nonfiction books and articles, he is primarily a poet and best-selling novelist with an eye for cultural and psychological aspects and the depths of tragedy, violent history, and paranoia. Mainly, though, it is the first literary work on U.S. gun violence and gun proliferation reflecting the power of words, as Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote:
Between my finger and my thumb
the squat pen rests, smug as a gun.
Somehow, Auster’s words and Ostrander’s bleak photographs capture that power of words.
The text of Bloodbath Nation begins with Auster’s own relationship with guns, writing, “I have never owned a gun,” explaining that no one in his immediate family had any interest in guns. But, like most boys in the mid-twentieth century, he soaked up movies and television shows—he wore a cowboy hat and a cheap toy pistol, mimicking his heroes Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, and other heroes in Western B-movies—writing that “Everyone carried a gun in those stories, both heroes and villains alike, but only the hero’s gun was an instrument of righteousness and justice, and because I did not imagine myself to be a villain but a hero, the toy six-shooter strapped to my waist was a sign of my own goodness and virtue, tangible proof of my idealistic, make-believe manhood. Without the gun, I wouldn’t have been a hero but a no one, a mere kid.” This suggests that part of growing up is to put away childish things, but for those millions of owners of multiple guns, such as the Las Vegas shooter, gun hoarding is arrested development.
As an example, a boys’ summer camp that Auster attended in the New Hampshire woods featured swimming, baseball, canoeing, tennis, archery, horseback riding—and also target practice. Auster writes that the boys learned to handle and shoot a .22 caliber rifle at paper targets, an aim at which he excelled. But, for Auster, that was it, as the next year his parents sent him to a camp closer to home that did not have target shooting. However, to this day, he marvels that he vividly remembers how good he felt shooting, and as with baseball, it created a sense of connection between himself and something a great distance away—with firing a bullet and hitting the target comes a feeling of satisfaction and achievement. Auster tells of one other experience with a gun when, at fifteen, he was invited by a schoolmate for a weekend of skeet shooting with the friend’s father. Now, he had a more powerful weapon cradled in his arm, a double-barreled shotgun. He was a natural, the first shot hitting the clay disc, but he never had the desire for a repeat performance.
Why, with those positive experiences of great satisfaction, did Auster have no interest in guns as he became an adult? He guesses that because, as part of extended urban family, he had no past experience with gun culture, through neither anyone in his family nor in his Brooklyn community. He writes that “even though stories about gangland murders filled the newspapers of the 1950s, I don’t recall a single instance when a person in my town brought up the subject of guns.” In the era of societal concern about so-called juvenile delinquency in urban areas across the country, the chosen weapon was a knife or fists, not guns. However, an event haunted his family—mysterious to him growing up—that involved a shooting. Only when he was older did he learn from a relative that his paternal grandmother had shot and killed his grandfather, making gun violence personal.
With Auster’s narrative of his own rather intense (but not lasting) relationship with guns, he captures what is not much discussed in arguments and writing about guns: Culture is a key factor. I know this, having grown up in rural Oklahoma where everyone had at least a .22 rifle and/or shotgun; some, like my father, also had a deer rifle with a scope. I have a pleasant scent memory of gun oil and, visually, of my father and my two brothers oiling and cleaning the rifles. I was ultra-aware of the guns, because my mother—unlike other women in our rural community, who took firearms for granted and, in some cases, even used them—hated guns and was terrified of them. She would not touch a gun, nor would she allow my older sister and myself to touch the family guns. She insisted they be hung high on the wall, out of the reach of children.
Auster sees two U.S. cultures in pro-gun and anti-gun circles, which reflect deep divides, historical and current, in the broader culture. He writes, “Germans have faced up to the barbarism and inhumanity of the Nazi regime, but Americans still hoist Confederate battle flags throughout the south and elsewhere and commemorate the Lost Cause with hundreds of statues glorifying the traitorous generals and politicians who ripped the Union apart and turned the United States into two countries.” Having grown up rural and living my adult life in cities, I know the difference, and guns are a deadly symbol of the country’s divide. Unlike me, most of the friends and relatives I had who moved to cities to work maintain the rural mindset. Then there are those, many of them politicians, who pretend to be good ol’ country boys, borrowing from the church of the Second Amendment, the National Rifle Association, who pretend that guns do not kill people; rather, people kill people. To that, Auster responds: “To say that guns do not cause gun violence is no less ludicrous than saying that cars do not cause car crashes or that cigarettes do not cause lung cancer.”
Auster observes that the
toll of gun violence goes far beyond the pierced and bloodied bodies of the victims themselves, spilling out into the devastations visited upon their immediate families, their extended families, their friends, their fellow workers, the people of their neighborhoods, their schools, their churches, their softball teams, and communities at large—the vast brigade of lives touched by the presence of a single person who lives or has lived among them—meaning that the number of Americans directly or indirectly marked by gun violence every year must be tallied in the millions.
Obviously, widespread gun violence constitutes a serious health crisis, both physical and mental; ask any emergency room doctor, as Auster did, or listen to families of survivors of gun violence, including suicide. Even still, state or federally funded health studies related to gun violence are opposed by the gun rights industry and the politicians aligned with it.
In the final essay, Auster argues that nothing will change until there is a general understanding of the source: the history of violence in the founding of the colonies and of the United States, drenched in blood and deep divisions, including a horrific civil war over the enslavement of Black people followed by a century of codified segregation. “Peace will break out,” he writes, “only when both sides want it, and in order for that to happen, we would first have to conduct an honest, gut-wrenching examination of who we are and who we want to be as a people going forward into the future, which necessarily would have to begin with an honest gut-wrenching examination of who we have been in the past.”
Like Auster, I find it disturbing that most social justice activists avoid the issue of guns. From my own experience as an activist in the 1960s, I understand the romanticization of firearms, recalling the valiant armed struggles for freedom in Vietnam and in Africa and Latin America, our heroes Che Guevara, the Black Panthers for Self-Defense, the Red Army faction, Palestinians, and the AK-47 as a symbol of freedom. All of this creates a kind of gun fetishism at worst, and a sincere defense of gun rights as a tool of liberation at best. It was not until I was invited to write a short book on the Second Amendment that I grasped the horrors of gun proliferation, the lack of gun restrictions, and especially the history of the Second Amendment as a tool of white settler control over enslaved Africans and of the genocide of Native American nations and communities. Had Auster’s book been available when I decided to write Loaded, I would have felt no need to take it on. Auster tells it all and more.
- ↩ Ravi Chandra, Guns Are Not Our God! The NRA Is Not Our Church! (San Francisco: Pacific Heart, 2018).