Yesterday came another barbaric American moment of a kind we are too used to: a school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee, that left six dead, including three children.
As the country grieves once again, and while some who elevate the interests of gun companies over kids issue phony "thoughts and prayers," I wanted to share below excerpts from my past conversations with two legislators who are among our most thoughtful voices on the fight to liberate Americans from the tyranny of guns.
Maxwell Frost, a House Democrat from Florida, the first member of Gen Z elected to Congress, got involved in politics because of a mass shooting like yesterday's. And Senator Chris Murphy literally wrote the book on America's history of violence.
How did your journey into politics begin?
My journey started ten years ago. I'm an artist and went to an art school for middle and high school here in Orlando. I was a drummer, and before every jazz band concert, my best friends and I would go to this Fridays across the street to load up on a bunch of junk food.
I remember that night specifically because we were sitting and eating when this silence fell across the entire restaurant. Everyone simultaneously looked up at the television screens and saw that somebody had walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and murdered 20 children and six teachers. Seeing that on the screen had a big impact on me. I couldn't play right at the show that night. I kept thinking about it in school.
I felt like I needed to go to the vigil that was going on in Washington, D.C., a few weeks later. It was there that I had my call to action. The night of the vigil, I sat with some of the victims' families at a hotel pool in Virginia. We were just wading our feet in the water, and across from me was a guy named Matthew Soto. His sister, Vicky, was a teacher at Sandy Hook. When she heard the gunshots, she hid her class in the closet and around the classroom. She saved their lives, but she was murdered.
I remember hearing Matthew talk about his sister. He was 16 at the time. Seeing a teenager cry with the demeanor of a 60-year-old over his sister who was murdered for just going to school changed my whole life. I thought about my little sister and decided that, for the rest of my life, I wanted to fight for a world where no one has to feel the way I saw Matthew feel that night. That's what got me into politics.
I started working straight out of high school on campaigns across the state. I worked for the ACLU at both the state and national level, then as the national organizing director at March for Our Lives.
It's been ten years of these predictable, foreseeable tragedies. It's also been ten years of consistent polling that the vast majority of people want to do something about it, and we basically can't. I wonder what that tells you about the larger state of our democracy. Are we already living in a society in which when most of us want something, we generally can't get it?
One hundred percent. When we talk about these issues about our democracy, all of these issues are connected. The opposition wants us to view these issues as siloed. When we look at healthcare, gun violence, and affordable housing as separate issues and struggles, you know what also gets divided? Our efforts and our organizing. That's when our opposition is at its greatest.
When you take a step back and look at how gun violence intersects with people having money in their pocket and how, if everyone had healthcare in this country, gun violence and crime would go down, you begin to see the bigger picture. There are so many things that the majority of Americans are for.
Most people in this country believe that we deserve safe streets by virtue of being human. That should be enough, but it isn't, and we know why. There is the issue of money in politics. There is the issue of corporate and special interests -- not the people -- deciding things. What it has done is create an environment where faith in our democracy is eroding.
The Harvard Institute of Politics recently found that more than a third of young people truly believe there will be a violent civil war in their lifetime in this country. That's not entirely out of this world to believe. A lot of that has to do with the state of our democracy, and so many people -- especially young people -- coming into this saying, "Why, when the majority of Americans are for something, does nothing get done?"
You've referred to Gen Z as "the mass shooting generation." Generations are tricky because they are diverse. Yet many political observers expect Gen Z to shake things up quite a bit. There's a sense that Gen Z has a different political style, a different relationship to establishment power. As a young Gen Z leader, what do you think is the particular fingerprint of your generation as it has emerged so far politically?
A lot of it has to do with the righteous anger our generation has. I think about my own timeline, which is very much the timeline of Gen Z. In elementary school, I remember turning on the TV and seeing a bunch of people sleeping outside Wall Street protesting wealth inequality. I remember hearing that Trayvon Martin, a kid who looked just like me, was shot dead because of the color of his skin, just 30 minutes away from where I lived in Orlando. I remember having these constant school shooting drills. For many of us, one day, it stops being a drill and becomes real life.
We're thrown into all of this turmoil and civil unrest. With the help of social media, we've realized quickly that things aren't okay here and that typically, in many other places, childhood consists of a simple life with your parents and community. Now, kids are seeing everything happening around the world, and they're seeing that people who look just like them in different communities have it differently.
They see these shootings and are asking, "Why do we live in this world? Why did those before us not prevent this? What am I going to do to make sure that we create the better world we deserve?" It really is righteous anger that I believe we're morphing into a love of the most vulnerable people.
When I was working at March for Our Lives, I was working with young people across the country. I was on a national call with hundreds of students. We were talking about an event, and I asked, "Does anyone have any questions?" Then someone unmuted and asked, "How will people with disabilities be able to access this? How are we working to make sure we're accommodating them?" I believe she was 12 or 13 years old.
There's a natural sense in my generation of seeing the world through the eyes of the most vulnerable. As more Gen Z-ers get into positions of leadership -- whether it's in politics or roles like a store manager, a clergy member, or a teacher -- I think we'll see more people interpret the world through the eyes of the most vulnerable and work to ensure that things are easier for everybody. That's really what gives me hope about Gen Z. We've been through all of this, and we recognize that, to stop it, we've got to take care of one another.
You write in the book that humans are the most violent of mammals, and Americans are the most violent of humans among comparable rich countries.
You offer a provocative and, I think, correct assessment of one of the main reasons why: anti-Black racism. Can you explain why that has given America a special propensity toward violence?
I think it's interesting that, as violent as America is around the revolution, we don't start to become a global outlier of violence until the slave population explodes. There's a ton of violence in America in the 1600s and 1700s, but from the data we can glean, it looks like America's homicide rate doesn't start to go into the stratosphere until we have so many enslaved Americans that violence is the defining feature of the American economy.
To me, violence explains a lot about how America has ordered itself from the very beginning. But, for many of our formative years after the Constitution's signing until the eradication of slavery, it took just massive, mind-numbing amounts of violence to keep America's economy running. It stands to reason that we became anesthetized to that violence during that period. I don't think that we've ever got our sense of feeling back.
In that sense, violence was not a bug in the operating system. It was a feature if that was the kind of economy you wanted.
We decided to take a shortcut to economic prominence. We decided to use epidemic levels of violence to enslave an entire race of people to create cheap goods that we could send worldwide. It was a choice we made, but the choice required us to brutally subjugate millions of people in this country. It ended up making violence an acceptable mechanism to maintain economic and social order.
It's no coincidence that, during the 1800s, white-on-white violence was dramatically elevated, especially in the South, because it just became a much more normal course of behavior once you were using it so regularly against slaves.
As more and more Americans are taught a more honest version of American history, it in a way becomes harder for people like you who run for office to tell a true story, and to tell a story that inspires people and lifts people up. I wonder how you think about this twin obligation - to tell a true and dark and blood-at-the-root story of America, and yet not be a Debbie Downer whom no one wants to vote for.
This reckoning we're having with our past is necessary, but it also comes with real consequences for one of the few threads of fabric that unites the country. As we all retreat to our corners, as we all get our information from different sources with different spins, our founding ideals and founding mythology are among the few things that we have left in common. Now, we're not even sure what that mythology is.
Here's how I think about it. Notwithstanding the fact that there was an enormous amount of violence necessary to stand up the American economy in the late 1700s, and notwithstanding the fact that most of our founding fathers were part of that slave economy, their ideas were nonetheless revolutionary. The developing idea of America, as we brought in people from all sorts of different places in the world, is no less revolutionary.
I think we can acknowledge the unconscionable flaws at America's founding while still recognizing that these two ideas - a government based upon the self-determination of a people, and a multicultural society in which everybody gets to be an American but also retain part of their heritage — those are off-the-wall ideas. We should accept that we are always in the process of getting better and getting closer to actually realizing them.
In the book, you link the special propensity for violence in America to our heterogeneity and how it intersects with in-built human tribalism. As America becomes a majority-minority country in the ensuing decades, if we don't do some of the big course-changing things that you advocate for in the book, would you expect us to become more rather than less violent?
The data show that violence tends to increase when you have large numbers of new entrants to America competing for scarce economic space. That makes sense, given that overall violence does tend to track poverty. As this one man told me on the streets of Baltimore, "Hunger, it hardens your heart."
To the extent that white Americans are still the dominant power class in this country, as there become more non-whites and more threats to the white hierarchy, it stands to reason that there will likely be more chances for violent outbreaks. That means it's incumbent upon us to reduce the number of firearms and reduce the chances of police brutality so that there are fewer mechanisms by which to allow in-groups to perpetuate violence against out-groups.
It also means that we’ve got to be serious about creating less economic scarcity. If our history tells us that economic scarcity can lead to violence, then let's create a system in which more people can access economic success.