Gun rampages do more than kill and injure. They also damage Americans’ communal life. Yale sociologist Vida Bajc analyzes the aftershocks.
This article is published in partnership with The Trace.
A four-decade old food festival in California’s wine country, which has brought people from across the country together to taste the harvest of famously productive local soil.
An annual block party that for more than half a century has been a beloved reunion of longtime residents of a Brooklyn neighborhood.
A Saturday morning rush of shopping at the local Walmart in the famously safe Texas border city of El Paso, where scores were fulfilling the everyday commercial necessities of life.
A Saturday night on the town with music and drinks in the historic, brick-lined streets of Dayton, Ohio’s Oregon District, a beloved bastion of social life and culture in the city.
All four settings were cornerstones of communal life in a country that celebrates the freedom to gather, even (or especially) in this fractious era. But over the span of eight days, mass shooters marauded through each of those spaces, transforming them into scenes of unrelenting cruelty and primal fear. In all, 110 people were shot, and 33 died of their wounds.
The gunmen not only destroyed the victims’ bodies and forever altered survivors’ lives. In as little as a minute, they also tore new holes in the sense of safety and community that makes public life possible.
Nothing endangers American public space in 2019 as much as mass shootings, says Yale sociologist Vida Bajc, who studies public space and security. In each of the four shootings, fundamental modes of our shared existence—eating, socializing, shopping, partying—gave way to blood, death, panic, and necessitated the response of a militarized police force.
In the aftermath of attacks like the four in the past week—difficult to prevent, unpredictable, and yet seemingly inevitable in a country with so many poorly controlled guns—authorities and businesses are forced to rethink how people congregate. Security begins to take priority over other values. The killings traumatize countless Americans, distorting how we engage with the world outside our own homes.
Bajc spoke with The Trace about the way attacks like these can lead to security crackdowns on the use of public space, and what that means for both our personal well-being and our democracy at large. (The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)
Alex Yablon: What does the public get out of public space, and what do they lose when it is under attack?
Vida Bajc: Outdoor public spaces in particular are crucial to human well-being. It’s soothing to be out in nature or under the sky. It adds to the feeling of well-being and physical health. Public space also allows people to freely interact across class boundaries—it socializes us. How do you learn to interact with other people in public? By doing it over and over.
Especially when shootings take place at community events or in the heart of a neighborhood, it’s an invasion of this sense of home.
It’s not just about loss of life. Shootings also steal from people the sense that they inhabit a place, that it’s their space.
And what do mass shootings do to the way authorities charged with keeping public space safe approach that responsibility?
Every such instance of disruption is studied in detail. With the garlic festival, someone cut through a fence. There was a breach of security. There is an expectation that next time, this will be prevented. If something similar happens again, there will be a huge outcry. But of course you can’t prevent everything. It’s an endless game that just leads to highly, highly controlled spaces.
When you have someone who unleashes anger on the public by shooting whoever happens to come in front of a gun, that speeds up the drive to perfect control over public space.
Increasingly, what we see are built spaces that are designed or restructured to be surveillance-friendly. They’re more directly managed by central, unelected authorities like the police. The question becomes how will surveillance practice—CCTV [closed-circuit television], drones, constant police presence—affect interpersonal interactions in public spaces?
What does all this mean for democracy?
Our democratic values are being eroded by our expectation that large events can be disrupted. What kind of society are we becoming without spontaneous social interaction and bonding with strangers? Without democratic access to space? Security doesn’t lend itself to these values.
Students I have don’t even long for this kind of freedom. They grow up in highly protected environments and that’s the space in which they feel comfortable.
The pressure is especially acute if you’re working class, and have small living spaces. Security pressure can lead to the privatization of public space since someone has to pay for safety measures. And if you can’t pay, you can’t go out.
In other countries, or in immigrant communities, it’s common for house parties and other informal gatherings to spill out into the street. There’s a very different notion of public order and public space, even though people everywhere argue and get into fights with strangers at big gatherings. But in America, that happens less, because you don’t know who might be carrying a gun.
How does American gun culture specifically put these pressures on public life?
It’s a serious paradox: The right to bear arms is at its heart about a lack of trust in those same institutions that we demand protect us. The presence of guns necessitates exactly what people who carry guns say they want to be free from: state interference and control.
Because of all these shootings, the state claims the right to step in and multiply itself, expand its control. It starts training more police, buying more surveillance cameras, flying more drones over cities. That’s where our collective resources are going. Guns lead us to invest money in things that don’t actually contribute to our collective or individual well-being.
And yet shootings will keep happening, because guns are concealable, accessible, and many can fire 30 or 40 rounds before reloading.
Attempts to reason are interpreted as an infringement on the freedom to protect oneself. People feel very strongly about this. It’s a particularly American situation.
In the past week, we’ve seen mass shootings strike public spaces in states with strict gun control, like New York and California, and states that encourage concealed carry, like Texas and Ohio. We saw swift responses by armed police. But nothing seemed to deter these shooters, or prevent them from quickly killing or wounding dozens of people before they were stopped.
Lots of people will have doubts about attending public events or going out at night when we see there’s not really any way to be sure you’ll be safe from a shooting. There’s no way to protect public or private space so that these kinds of shootings will never take place. We will have fewer and fewer ways for people to relate to one another in public space. It’s tragic.
I don’t see any obvious way out, really—the direction that things are going now is more hesitant to participate in public events. We’re losing public spaces to people who will walk in and shoot. That increases the pressure to privatize or militarize every public setting.
American society is flooded with weapons. We need to have a conversation about the militarization of our society. It’s a social bind out of which there isn’t an easy solution. It would need to be a very radical intervention to solve this problem.