A searing reflection on the broken promise of safety in America.
When a naked, mentally ill white man with an AR-15 killed four young adults of color at a Waffle House, Nashville-based physician and gun policy scholar Dr. Jonathan M. Metzl once again advocated for commonsense gun reform. But as he peeled back evidence surrounding the racially charged mass shooting, a shocking question emerged: Did the public health approach he had championed for years have it all wrong?
Long at the forefront of a movement advocating for gun reform as a matter of public health, Metzl has been on constant media call in the aftermath of fatal shootings. But the 2018 Nashville killings led him on a path toward recognizing the limitations of biomedical frameworks for fully diagnosing or treating the impassioned complexities of American gun politics. As he came to understand it, public health is a harder sell in a nation that fundamentally disagrees about what it means to be safe, healthy, or free.
In What We’ve Become, Metzl reckons both with the long history of distrust of public health and the larger forces—social, ideological, historical, racial, and political—that allow mass shootings to occur on a near daily basis in America. Looking closely at the cycle in which mass shootings lead to shock, horror, calls for action, and, ultimately, political gridlock, he explores what happens to the soul of a nation—and the meanings of safety and community—when we normalize violence as an acceptable trade-off for freedom. Mass shootings and our inability to stop them have become more than horrific crimes: they are an American national autobiography.
This brilliant, piercing analysis points to mass shootings as a symptom of our most unresolved national conflicts. What We’ve Become ultimately sets us on the path of alliance forging, racial reckoning, and political power brokering we must take to put things right.
About the Author
Jonathan M. Metzl is the Frederick B. Rentschler II professor of sociology and psychiatry and the director of the Department of Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University. The award-winning author of Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland and other books, he hails from Kansas City, Missouri, and lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
We’ve arrived at this critical moment, when we seem willingly to bear the lost lives of many thousands so that a minority of our citizens may buy, carry, sell, trade, exhibit, gift and shoot lethal weaponry... [Metzl] acknowledges the crosshatch of laws that keep guns flowing across state borders. He casts a wide net.
— Rachel Louise Snyder - New York Times Book Review
What We’ve Become paints a dark picture of the hole we have dug for ourselves but also offers a set of tools for how to climb out of it.
— Sean Kinch - Chapter 16
I know of few other thinkers who so consistently diagnose what ails America. This is the clarion call to everyone who professes concern about the state of guns in this country. If we stand a chance in hell of fighting back and remaking American in the image of gun safety, we need this book now!
— Michael Eric Dyson, New York Times best-selling author of Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
Jonathan M. Metzl has done it again. The implications of this vital work are immense, far reaching, and necessarily disruptive.
— Aletha Maybank, MD, MPH
This extraordinary book takes a deep dive into an act of racialized aggression in Nashville to show how our collective failure to stop mass shootings betrays the democracy envisaged by the framers of our Constitution: a democracy where people with differing viewpoints solve common problems by peaceful means.
— Callie Kouri, Academy Award–winning creator of Nashville
What We’ve Become is a must-read material for policymakers, changemakers, and advocates who are asking not just how do we protect our families, but how do we save our country?
— Representative John Ray Clemmons, chairman of the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus
Jonathan M. Metzl has his finger on the pulse of another critical blind spot in American culture. This book will change the way we think about guns in America.
— Brittney Cooper, author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower
Jonathan M. Metzl probes the question many of us ask each time another mass shooting occurs: How can lawmakers allow the slaughter to continue unabated despite its obvious toll on human lives? An essential contribution to the raging national debate.
— Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty
A revelation. Jonathan M. Metzl puts forth an unflinching diagnosis of the origins of rampant gun violence. A brave book from a visionary thinker that will save lives.
— Alondra Nelson, Institute for Advanced Study
[An] essential study of how mass shootings in the U.S. have become commonplace.
— Laura Chanoux - Booklist (starred review)