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Picking up a Black Pencil at D&AD Awards 2022, Leo Burnett Chicago’s The Lost Class, for client Change the Ref, staged a graduation ceremony for the 3,044 students who would have graduated that year if they hadn’t been killed by a gun. Two well-known gun rights advocates then gave the commencement address to the 3,044 empty chairs representing these lost students, ultimately turning pro-gun advocates into anti-gun spokespeople. In the same week that it was revealed this work had won a Black Pencil, 19 students and two teachers were fatally shot at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, once again prompting cries from the public and politicians alike to address America's gun problem. 

Providing contemporary context to the issue, and some unpacking of the ways campaigning helps to galvanise movements against guns, Caroline Light, Harvard Scholar and author of Stand Your Ground: A History of America's Love Affair With Lethal Self-Defense, writes for the D&AD Annual.

The summer’s devastating SCOTUS decisions, January 6th Committee hearings, and relentless episodes of firearm violence sent me reaching for an 1857 speech by Frederick Douglass, where he reflected on the thirty year anniversary of West Indian emancipation by underscoring the vital role of the subjugated in the fight for liberty. He opened with the now-canonised words, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.” For those of us longing for an end to the carnage, for a more peaceful, equitable, and sustainable society, the path ahead may appear insurmountably steep. But Douglass, who suffered twenty years of slavery before escaping to freedom, was well-acquainted with struggle, and we should take him at his word.

American gun violence takes shape against a social landscape scaffolded by systemic injustices that feed a fear-based economy of firearm accumulation, making the problem especially difficult to eradicate. Our unique “gun culture” draws from twinned mythologies that are based in historic appeals to self-defensive violence: (1) a belief that self-defensive gun use is sacrosanct and ubiquitous and (2) confidence that “good guys with guns” are necessary to protect us from violent strangers. These twinned orthodoxies of contemporary “gun rights” presume that “Armed Citizenship” is the only antidote to widespread crime and precarity and that guns are used defensively, rather than offensively.

“American gun violence takes shape against a social landscape scaffolded by systemic injustices that feed a fear-based economy of firearm accumulation , making the problem especially difficult to eradicate.”

As I’ve written in my book on the history of “Stand Your Ground” laws, the belief in heroic “good guys with guns” depends on the existence of easily-identifiable “bad guys,” or dangerous strangers against whom all good citizens must be prepared to fight for our very lives. This heroic fallacy has a long legacy in a nation that fostered armed aggression against Indigenous, Black, and Brown people under the guise of self and community protection. The mythological “bad guys” of our past were imagined as non-white men, and their ideological progeny – “criminal thugs,” “bad hombres,” “gang-bangers,” and “looters” – continue to haunt prevailing perceptions of security and freedom today. In spite of decreasing violent crime rates, widespread suspicion about dangerous criminals helps drive a lucrative business, from which gun manufacturers are literally making a killing.

In just a matter of decades, we’ve witnessed an extreme shift in thinking about the primary purpose of guns: where most twentieth century gun owners viewed them as tools for hunting and recreation, contemporary Americans are more likely to see them as vital instruments of protection or self-defence. The Supreme Court has promoted this attitude in its history-distorting interpretations of the Second Amendment. In 2008, District of Columbia v. Heller established “an individual right to possess firearms independent of service in a state militia and to use firearms for traditionally lawful purposes, including self-defence within the home.” The recent New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen decision stretched this spatial logic even further, beyond the boundaries of home. Writing for the majority, Justice Thomas maintained that New York’s regulations “violate the Fourteenth Amendment by preventing law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defence needs from exercising their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms in public for self-defence.”

“to remove protections for reproductive health and justice in the name of a “pro-life” agenda sits starkly at odds with the decision to undermine state regulation of firearms”

This and other recent SCOTUS decisions are out of touch with a majority of citizens and smack of extremist hypocrisy: to remove protections for reproductive health and justice in the name of a “pro-life” agenda sits starkly at odds with the decision to undermine state regulation of firearms, in spite of compelling empirical data showing that such regulations save lives. We’re left with a legal landscape that empowers select individuals to possess and use lethal weapons, while others may not control their most intimate and personal life choices, let alone find safety from the relentless onslaught of gun violence.

As I have argued before, exclusionary identity politics – a vicious tangle of white supremacy, misogyny, and class warfare – underwrite these decisions, and the distortion of our nation’s history ensures their selective impact on the citizenry. As Black feminist scholars Dorothy Roberts and Michele Goodwin have shown, there is nothing new about government controlling the most vulnerable, especially non-white and low-income women, while empowering already privileged individuals to use violence against (and to extract labor and resources from) socially marginalized people. But on the level of policy, few of our elected leaders have an appetite for nuance and complexity when it comes to identifying and addressing our most urgent crises.

The bipartisan Safer Communities Act, signed into law on June 25th, may provide some mitigation, but it is only a start. As the body count continues to spike upwards, as the machinery of governance consolidates around profit-centred death-dealing and “free market” absolutism rather than evidence-based risk mitigation, I take hope in a rising tide of resistance, led not only by researchers and seasoned activists, but especially from communities, artists, and above all from young people who recognize that their futures hang in the balance.

“These efforts mobilise the power of art to heal and to educate, to raise awareness and empower communities to resist their subjugation”

Over just the past few years, the organisations that provide space and resources for creative resistance have multiplied, including non-profit art organisations like #UNLOAD in Connecticut, which support community healing and education through visual arts. The nonprofit #ENOUGH connects experienced playwrights with school-aged writers to create original theatrical works addressing gun violence. We’ve witnessed the blossoming of public art installations, like the hand-painted benches students created in New York City following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde, Texas and the Gun Violence Memorial in Sue Bierman Park In San Francisco. Protest art by young artists, like Chanelle Librada Reyes and Rachelle Duazo, captures public attention and channels empathy into collective action in ways that political debates and policy appeals have not been able to accomplish. These efforts mobilise the power of art to heal and to educate, to raise awareness and empower communities to resist their subjugation.

As Frederick Douglass said four years before our nation became embroiled in Civil War, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Today this demand comes increasingly from ordinary citizens fed up with the carnage and lack of accountability, and perhaps most crucially, from young people who have taken Douglass’s lessons to heart, that “the limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”