Writer Patrick Blanchfield gives lecture on gun violence and new book Gunpower at Barrett Honors College in downtown Phoenix

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October 30, 2019

Freelance writer Patrick Blanchfield visited Barrett Downtown on Oct. 24 to give a lecture on gun violence in America, sharing some of what he found in his research on the subject for his new book Gunpower, set to be released by Verso Books in January 2020.

Hosted by Dr. Alex Trimble Young, Barrett Honors Faculty Fellow, the lecture was open to the public and featured an introduction by Young followed by Blanchfield’s lecture and a brief question and answer session.

Young selected Blanchfield as a guest in the Barrett lecture series knowing the relevance of the gun violence issue to the majors and programs available on the Arizona State University Downtown Phoenix campus—especially in the fields of health studies, journalism, and public policy—as well as the relevance of gun control debate in current politics.

“I think every American in 2019 needs to have this crisis of gun violence on their radar in one way or the other, and I think Patrick Blanchfield’s work does so much to open up those conversations which tend to be articulated in unproductive ways that just cause clash,” Young said. “He kind of changes our view on it and broadens our view, brings us back to history and thinking about this problem in ways that could be really productive for Barrett students as citizens in imagining a solution to this long-standing problem.” 

In his lecture, Blanchfield explained the concept of “gunpower” by comparing two instances of gun violence in America: the 1989 shooting at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, CA, and the 1846 massacre of around 1,000 Native Americans near the Sacramento River by John C. Fremont and his men. 

Blanchfield used the two events to exemplify gunpower, saying that though both led to legislation surrounding guns, or what we now call gun control, this legislation was part of a cycle of violence that largely added to the problem. 

In the case of the Stockton shooting, this was the creation of the first SWAT team and the first bills proposing assault weapon bans, and for the Sacramento River massacre, it was a huge drop in the Native American population in California as well as the criminalization of guns as property of Native Americans. These types of legislation contribute to what Blanchfield calls gunpower.

“The system that I'm calling gunpower is basically not even about responding to violence…it's ensuring that violence keeps happening in particular ways,” Blanchfield said.

Another idea Blanchfield introduced in his lecture was that the gun control debate excludes many types of gun violence from its narrative. Because of the connections between different types of gun violence—domestic, public, military, police—and the different groups impacted by each. Blanchfield believes that all types of gun violence should be considered in conversations about the issue.

He considered a phrase he hears frequently in gun control debate: “Weapons of war don’t belong on our streets.” To this he countered, “Well, where do they belong?”

Further examining the issue of sanctioned versus unsanctioned violence, Blanchfield addressed the problematic nature in responding to private gun violence with more police activity, often resulting in more gun violence. 

“The long trajectory of American history on this is that when there's a mass shooting the answer is always more cops. And it's always more cops in more places with predictable results in terms of how they generate violence. And there is some way in which… when something terrible happens, people want to do something that's going to make us feel better,” Blanchfield said.

“So the answer becomes instead of like actually trying to deal with root causes, or make systematic change, it becomes a desire for moral vindication in the sense of, ‘I'm feeling all this grief and outrage, now I want to feel like I've done something.’”

In the search for solutions to problems stemming from gun violence, Blanchfield suggests first looking for answers that don’t fall under the ideas of what Americans currently label “gun control.” This could manifest as investing more in communities and changing the stakes of social and spatial control that are dominated by powerful forces.

“I get the sense that the sheer unsustainability of the system is so undeniable at this point that people are looking for alternatives and I don't necessarily know what those alternatives are going to look like, but I feel like we've hit an exhaustion point,” Blanchfield said. 

One of Blanchfield’s main frustrations about the debate surrounding gun violence is the polarizing and repetitive nature of suggested solutions.

“Why I like talking to college students specifically and what I hope to get from here is you encounter people who are not necessarily as committed to the status quo, just because they haven't been brutalized into accepting it yet,” Blanchfield said.

Young hopes that students can take relevant and important messages from speakers like Blanchfield and apply them to their discussions in classes like the Human Event, the signature honors seminar course taken by Barrett freshmen. 

“When you're in the Human Event or other upper division honors classes, sometimes when you're buried in the details of the text you’re reading and the work you're engaging, it can be hard to imagine that connection of work in the humanities and liberal arts to a broader world,” Young said. “I think the honors lecture series is a great opportunity to understand how the ideas we talk about in honors classes are vital to these bigger conversations.”


Story by Greta Forslund, a Barrett student majoring in journalism.