By Haley Riemer
In the middle of Central City, once one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in New Orleans, a peer support group meets every week at the headquarters of CeaseFire NOLA. Seated in a circle, men of “all ages and all walks of life” share their experiences and trials with gun violence on New Orleans streets. They work to interrupt violence before it escalates and mediate conflicts peacefully, disrupting the epidemic that they have seen cost friends and loved ones their lives and futures. Six miles away, in a sprawling steel warehouse in Aribi, neat rows of ear-muffed gunmen take aim at silhouette-shaped bullseyes. Above them on the wall is a slogan, “Providing Personal Protection Methods For Law Abiding Americans.” Just two miles away from some of the most violent urban areas in New Orleans, short spikes of gunfire ring out from the NOLATAC indoor shooting range, penetrating the silent suburban soundscape.
One of the deadliest cities in the country, New Orleans ranks above both Chicago and Baltimore in gun violence, with some of the highest murder rates in the United States. CeaseFire NOLA, an initiative started in 2012, aims to reduce gun violence on New Orleans streets, through both conflict interruption and “risk reduction.” They target risk factors according to research on what causes such high levels of violence, including “involvement in gangs, deficits in social cognitive or information-processing abilities, and gun ownership.”
Since 1989 Louisiana has held the highest murder rate per capita in the United States. It also boasts some of the most lax gun laws in the country. With gun ownership at 44% of the population, it ranks as the country’s tenth most heavily armed state. According to political scientist and professor Dr. Geoffrey Dancy, these numbers show not just a risk for violence but an undeniable causation. “The most heavily armed communities in the United States have the most gun violence,” he says simply. “Everybody’s packing, and everybody’s shooting each other.”
“As far back as I can remember, we had guns in the house.” For Brannon LeBouef, founder and CEO of NOLATAC, guns were an integral part of growing up. “My father had a gun rack next to his bed,” he says. “Some of my fondest childhood memories was us going and target shooting.” A veteran of the Marine Corps and local law enforcement, Brannon’s proximity to firearms continued over the course of his career and inspired him to start NOLATAC, a “firearms and defensive training organization” that emphasizes personal safety through the knowledge and use of firearms. NOLATAC’s philosophy – that violence is inevitable, and must be retaliated against with violence – is a core belief of many Americans who advocate for the importance of Second Amendment rights. “The ugly truth is that we live in a society that is becoming more violent,” their website reads. “We are inundated with news reports of robberies and murders, often mere blocks from our home. Most people have either been victims of a crime or know someone close to them that has.”
Geoffrey Dancy grew up in Shreveport, LA. He got his first gun, “an antique rifle that they used to shoot at the fair,” from his grandmother when he was a kid, and he kept a handgun for personal protection into adulthood. This changed when he started to look closely at the numbers, and considered the issue through his current field of study: human rights. “If the data says that guns basically produce death wherever they are,” he says, “then you’d have to do a lot of ignoring to not see that, which is what people do.” This ignorance contributes to a culture that sees gun rights as natural rights and emphasizes firearms as tools of protection and defense instead of weapons of destruction. Despite the reality of violence, the conclusion that more guns will solve the problem of gun violence doesn’t hold up against numerous studies that show direct correlation between an increase in firearms and increased levels of violent crime.“The narrative that guns equal safety,” he says, “is disproved in our day to day life.”
Brannon disagrees fundamentally with the idea that guns cause violence. “Whether you’re using an ink pen or using a shotgun, you’re using violence,” he says. People will always be violent, no matter the tool. “The issue is not the gun. The issue is not the knife. The issue is not the car. The issue is the people. That’s the problem that needs to be attacked.” The problem is, people are being attacked, and they are being attacked with guns.
To Dr. Dancy, the argument that “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people,” is an invalid one. “That’s an argument that guns are passive that the tool is passive,” he says, “That’s simply not true.” He stands by the simple principle that guns have a particular effect on human interaction. “When people say that crime would still exist without guns, that’s absolutely true,” Dancy says, “Crime exists because of poverty, and not because of guns. But what guns do is change the way that we interact with each other.” They have a particular power for threat and destruction that cannot be ignored.
“There is nothing unhealthy about conflict,” says Greg Rattler, program director at CeaseFire NOLA, “It becomes unhealthy in the way that we respond to the conflict.” Greg has lost several people close to him to gun violence, an experience that led him to intervention rather than retaliation. A New Orleans native, he is thankful to have people in his life who had experienced the harsh realities of gun violence and steered him away. “I had individuals that may have been a part of the street life who told me ‘we’re gonna go left, but we’re gonna make sure that you go right. Don’t come with us’,” he says. “Those individuals were able to share their experience to keep me from making the same choices that they made.” He sees CeaseFire as a similar guiding force for people, primarily young men, who may be at risk for becoming perpetrators or victims of gun violence.
CeaseFire’s intervention work has led to significant decreases in violence among their target populations. Their website features personal success stories from young men who have gone through the program and are now in college, pursuing a new career, or engaged in motivational speaking about their experiences. Several of them, Greg says, come back to work for the program as staff members.
“Every intervention and mediation that CeaseFire has conducted has been one hundred percent successful,” Greg says proudly. Still, he sees the wider scope of what he calls a multifaceted problem. “Gun violence is a symptom of culture,” he says, “Unfortunately, I think we spend a lot of our time and energy dealing with that violence, and we never really get back to dealing with the circumstances and the factors that give rise to it.”
Brannon got his first gun when he was less than ten years old. He believes in the importance of firearm exposure at a young age, a belief that he supports through NOLATAC. “Our youngest member here is five years old,” he says proudly. There is an identity aspect to gun ownership that is particularly hard to pierce when fighting for gun regulation and reform policy, says Dr. Dancy. Growing up around guns, he experienced it first-hand. The importance of guns is central to many people’s notions of livelihood and recreation. “People like to go hunting with their families,” he says, “guns are a central part of that social group.” The cultural institutionalization of guns makes legislative action to limit gun access particularly difficult to pass in Louisiana, whose legislature recently struck down a proposed ban to keep automatic guns off limits to children under twelve.
“YOU need to be prepared to take care of yourself until help arrives,” NOLATAC’s philosophy says, “YOU will ALWAYS be the first responder. You have the IMMEDIATE responsibility for your safety and the safety of those you love.” At face value, this belief about personal protection for oneself and one’s family is not necessarily a harmful one. But it draws on what Dr. Dancy calls a “common myth” – the ‘good guy with a gun.’ For Brannon and NOLATAC, some kinds of violence are more acceptable than others. There is “just violence” and “unjust violence,” he says. The difference is a matter of moral judgement, judgement that a “good guy with a gun” will be able to make.
This familiar persona of the good guy with the gun is rooted in masculine ideals of protection and honor that contribute to the notion that some forms of violence are worse than others. “Masculinity,” Dancy says, “has a good and a bad side.” We might idealize paternalistic notions of protecting oneself and one’s family, “but that protection comes with violence.” The violence is the common factor. “The very same people that think they need to use violence to protect are going to use violence to control,” says Dr. Dancy. This violence is expressed in many ways, and it is difficult to condone some and condemn others. “Relying on men of violence to protect you also opens you up to the normal everyday violence that they choose to exact upon you.”
At CeaseFire, there are no good guys with guns. There is violence and violent retaliation, and Greg Rattler and his staff recognize the two as equally deadly. “If we had our preference, we’d focus much more of our energy on the prevention side than the treatment side,” says Greg, “If you put an ounce of energy into prevention, you save a ton of energy on the cure.” And when prevention means changing gun culture, Dr. Dancy admits it is a difficult feat. “It takes human work to change people’s minds,” he says, and it requires gaining perspective and using different tactics to talk about the same problem.
“The ‘good guy with the gun’ and the ‘bad guy with the gun’ are the same person,” Dancy says, “One person is not always good or always bad.” Though most gun owners are law-abiding citizens, he says, there is no way of characterizing people definitively as “good” or “bad” when circumstances can change in a second. He mentions the perpetrator in the recent Las Vegas shooting, a gun enthusiast with no criminal record. “He was a good guy with a gun,” he shrugs, “Until he wasn’t.”
Haley Riemer is a senior at Tulane University from Mobile, AL studying English, Theatre Performance, and Gender Studies.