John Frizzle was a Navy veteran from Michigan who had a psychotic episode and shot his mother. He remembered every detail of the shooting and the aftermath, but maintained he did not know why he shot her. Brittany Aden was a teenager when she shot her father: She knew she was going to shoot him over his alleged abuse, she recalled, but doesn't remember the moment she pulled the trigger or even hearing the gun go off. Alphonsus O'Connor was a police officer who intended to shoot his weapon in hopes of saving another police officer's life in the line of duty.
Given the epidemic of mass shootings and smaller but equally gut-wrenching episodes of gun violence, it's not exactly breaking news that tens of thousands of people in America have shot someone with a gun. But in the forthcoming book, The Trigger: Narratives of the American Shooter, author Daniel J. Patinkin deals with the complex morality of shooting someone by looking at the gray areas between intent, accident, and on-the-spot interactions that can result in tragedy. VICE talked to him about the divergent politics of people who resort to gun violence, the role American gun culture plays in these shootings, and what it all means in the post-Parkland moment.
VICE: In this era of mass shootings, it might seem odd to some that you decided to write a book from the shooter's perspective. What was your thinking there?
Daniel J. Patinkin: I have a very strong interest in the issues of gun control and gun violence in the United States. It's something that I'm generally disturbed by. Obviously, I'm disturbed by the number of gun deaths and gun injuries in this country. But I'm also disturbed and confused by the debate. I come from Chicago, where there's a lot of gun violence. I wanted to write something provocative, but also something that has an appeal. You'll be hard pressed to find someone in the United States who doesn't have an interest in or a position on issues of gun violence and gun control.
You have people on either side [of the debate] who are shouting loudly about one position or another, but may or may not have a well-formulated position—like a well-researched and thoroughly thought-through argument on the issue. I decided to write a book that doesn't really take a position, but looks deeply, and kind of precisely, at what causes incidents of gun violence. We mostly hear about mass shootings. But mass shootings only make up 1 percent of the gun deaths in the United States. So 99 percent of them are small-scale shootings like the ones in my book.
My goal was to present the complex, emotional life stories of individuals who have shot someone, and compel my reader to kind of wrestle with the social and cultural issues that underlie those instances. What led to the moment in that person's life that he felt the need to pull the trigger? What were the economic, social, racial, and psychological circumstances of that shooting? I want readers to make their own interpretation and analyze the circumstances. I don't want to dictate what my reader should think, or what position they want to take. I want them to have a thoughtful reaction to the book before coming to their own conclusion.
One of the main tenets of the book is that environmental circumstances can overcome traditional conceptions of morality and spur gun violence. Was there a particular episode that revealed that to you for the first time?
When you think about shooters, in most cases, we have a tendency to label them as monsters. I came into the project with that preconception. I expected them to be sociopaths, or terrible people, or rotten through and through. And they're not. These are somewhat regular people who, for a variety of reasons, made the decision to use a gun, and paid the price for it.
The first person I interviewed was Lester Young, Jr., who was a crack dealer in the 90s, and shot a customer, and went to jail for a long time. I googled the phrase, "murderer turned motivational speaker." And that's how I found Lester. I found him on Facebook. I was really nervous [and thought], “Oh my God, this is a murderer. I'm gonna interview him. We might develop some sort of relationship." I had these crazy notions like, "What if he wants to kill me?" Unless you’re having a major psychiatric crisis or something like that, to shoot someone is a decision along the spectrum of decisions that you make in your life.
These are people who were put in a particular situation and made a decision to shoot someone. In most the vast majority of cases, it's a horrible decision. But I realized that these are just regular people who, because of environment or social circumstances or relationships decided to pull the trigger. When they pulled the trigger, I don't think that they fully grasped the significance of that act. Because obviously, it's horribly traumatic for the victim. But for all of these individuals that pulled the trigger, it was horrible and traumatic too.
It's a truism of gun politics in America that white people can get away with things people of color cannot. How did you approach discrepancies along the lines of race, or social class, in your research—and how central were those questions to your characters' narratives about themselves? How were they handled differently by law enforcement?
None of them complained about how they were treated by law enforcement. The police officer was not arrested, but the others more or less accepted the fact that they did something wrong and deserved to be arrested. Their treatment by law enforcement wasn’t a main theme of the book. But their treatment in the prison system was, and that's disconcerting.
There's Brandon Clancy, a kind of straight-edge white boy who went to prison in Chino, California and had to deal with not only the racial dynamics, but also treatment by the correctional officers who wield a lot of power in disturbing ways. There’s Brittany Aden, who went to a women's prison in Tennessee. There's Marvin Gomez, who went to prison in Albuquerque. They all had negative prison experiences, different in their own ways.
People tend to think that mass gun violence is a relatively modern phenomenon, at least at these levels. But as you point out, it peaked, in some cities at least, decades ago.
The number of gun violence injuries and deaths has probably declined. But people don't realize that because the mass shootings are becoming more horrific, those things are so visible, that people think, "Oh wow, it's out of control." But it's not necessarily worse than it was ten or 20 years ago. Chicago is in the news all the time, but the gun violence peaked in Chicago in 2016. Not peaked overall, but a recent peak.
Looking back at statistics and gun violence, in terms of gun deaths and shootings in Chicago, it was much worse in the mid 90s. And there wasn't this public outcry. I think part of it is a lot of the gun violence in Chicago was kind of constrained to the projects. And more recently, it's become more widespread throughout the city. Gun violence has been very bad and [on top of that] we’ve had the mass shootings.
The mass shooting that kind of started it off was Columbine, which was 20 years ago. But there's been bad gun violence and mass shootings in the country for decades. It's just that the mass shootings that are occurring now are so inhuman and so extreme that it's becoming sensationalized in the media. People don't realize what the actual statistics are.
What role does American gun culture—a favorite topic of liberals and conservatives alike—actually play in these shootings?
A major thread that kind of runs through all of the stories in the book is gun availability. And gun availability is not the same as whether guns are legal. It's how easy can you access a gun. Virtually everyone in the book had zero problem accessing a gun, especially at the moment when they shouldn't have accessed it. They were able to access a gun at a moment when they were susceptible to commit a violent crime.
Lester Young was in South Carolina where people were trading guns for drugs all the time. Brandon Clancy got a gun from his grandfather. Brittany Aden got the gun off the wall in her father's home. Gun availability is a major contributor to gun violence. I don't have a lot of faith in the ability of the federal government to have a major impact on gun availability, but there are things that can be done.
You can educate people on how to store, secure, and lock up their weapons. You can crack down on black markets for weapons. Local law enforcement can do things to reduce weapon theft. You can close the loophole for gun shows that allow anyone to buy a gun without a full background check. But the option to resolve problems with a gun is uniquely American, right? People think, "Oh, I'll get a gun. I’m gonna shoot him."
All of the people who committed crimes here saw guns as a reasonable method to resolve their problems. Brandon Clancy lived in San Bernardino, California. He was concerned about the gangster activity in town. He saw people who pulled guns and his reaction was, "I'm gonna get my grandfather's gun. That's how I'm gonna resolve the situation." His immediate instinct was, "I'm going to use a gun to defend myself." I think that's at the heart of gun culture.
Marvin Gomez got in a bar fight in Albuquerque. The guy approached him afterwards and his first instinct was to pull out his shotgun. He felt like he didn't have many options. But potentially, he could have run screaming into the night or locked himself in his car. But pulling out that gun was one of his first instincts. That's central to American gun culture.
Having dug into gun culture and its antecedents and related factors so deeply, how encouraged are you by post-Parkland gun-control activism?
Sadly, I think the massacre in Parkland, Florida has taught us very little that we did not already learn from the many previous school shootings. The shooter had no problem acquiring a firearm despite evidence of mental health problems. To be frank, had he been prohibited from purchasing the gun at a sporting goods store, he may have just as easily obtained one from a friend, family member, classified ad, or on the black market. What makes Parkland unique, however, is the mass mobilization of citizen groups who want federal gun control, especially teen voters. However, we have not seen a meaningful federal gun regulation in a generation and I remain skeptical that the US Congress will pass any law that significantly reduces gun violence. The more attainable remedies are elsewhere: state and local regulations, police and community initiatives, and gradual cultural and economic shift.
How much of the current gun problem can be attributed to President Trump and Jeff Sessions and their approach to the ATF and refusal to make gun violence part of the mass-shooting discussion?
I don't know specifically how President Trump has impacted gun dealers, but I do know that he rolled back an Obama-era regulation that would have added more mentally-ill Americans to the federal background check database. So, although Trump has publicly blamed mental illness for our gun violence epidemic, he has actually taken action that makes it easier for the mentally ill to acquire weapons. In a broader sense, President Trump, through his rhetoric and pro-NRA positioning, discourages individuals from considering the most important factor in the American gun violence problem: the over 300 million guns in this country. According to Trump and his allies in this discussion, just about the only thing that does not cause gun violence is the availability of firearms—a position that is contradicted by notable studies and that, on its face, is patently absurd.
Learn more about Patinkin's new book, out June 19, here.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.