Innovation Ecosystem

To halt the vicious circle of border violence, stop the flow of guns

A new book, “Exit Wounds,” by Ieva Jusionyte, disrupts the political narrative around gun violence, drug addiction, migration, and border security

Photo by Tony Rinaldo, courtesy of Ieva Jusionyte

Ieva Jusionyte, Ph.D., author of the newly released "Exit Wounds: How America's guns fuel violence across the border," is a Watson Family University Associate Professor of International Security and Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at Brown University.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/8/24
In an interview in ConvergenceRI, anthropologist Ieva Jusionyte unravels the narrative around gun violence, drug addiction, migration, and border security – showing how we have created this vicious circle of violence.
When will the brilliant women writers in Rhode Island – Rebecca Altman and Ieva Jusionyte – earn the recognition they deserve for their insights in redefining the political narratives of our conflicted world? How have the aggressive legal enforcement strategies by Attorney General Peter Neronha been able to control the flow of illegal guns in Rhode Island? Would the Rhode Island Foundation be willing to invest in purchasing books such as “Exit Wounds” by Ieva Jusionyte for distribution to high school students in Rhode Island to help to change the narrative around borders and refugees?
The leading group of migrants entering Rhode Island during the last few months is Haitians, said to be fleeing the gang-led political violence, according to leaders from a number of community agencies in Providence. What is surprising is the apparent lack of printed service materials available to Haitian refugees that have been translated into Haitian Creole or “Kreol.”
The R.I. Department of Human Services apparently does not recognize Haitian Creole or Kreol as an “official language,” per se, so it doesn’t fall into a category offered for translation services, one community agency leader told ConvergenceRI. Which is strange, given that most health insurance notices include multi-language interpreter services for some 16 different languages – including “French Creole” as well as Russian, Japanese, Tagalog, Korean, Vietnamese and Hindi.

PROVIDENCE – When Ieva Jusionyte reports on the exit wounds caused by gun violence, her knowledge and expertise is not merely an academic exercise. Jusionyte knows the subject first hand, intimately, having worked as an EMT and paramedic, volunteering at the migrant aid clinics along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Her new book, published by the University of California Press, features a cover sleeve designed with actual holes in it, lending a graphic quality to the conversation.

And, in addition to her experience in treating actual gunshot wounds that were a result of the daily carnage of border violence, Jusionyte brings her own lived experience as a resident of Vilnius in Lithuania – a small Baltic republic that borders on Russia, with a convoluted history of disputed political boundaries. Her lived history, Jusionyte explained, “made me realize that not all borders are the same. Some are built like prisons to contain people inside; others are built like forts to stop people who want to enter.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Ieva Jusionyte, now in the midst of a national book tour. She will be talking about her book at the Watson Institute at Brown University on Tuesday afternoon, April 23.

ConvergenceRI:  Your book, Exit Wounds, covers/explores/redefines the shape-shifting narrative around borders, guns, violence and women. Is that an accurate description of your work?  
JUSIONYTE: The book provides a narrative that links some of the most critical, urgent issues in the United States today – gun violence, drug addiction, migration, and border security – showing how we have created this vicious circle of violence, in which we have been stuck. Our guns are going south to Mexico and Central America and beyond into the hands of organized crime groups that smuggle the drugs that fuel the addiction epidemic in our communities.

Because of the violence of these groups, we are also seeing thousands of migrants and refugees arriving each month desperately seeking safety on this side of the border. It is all linked and the guns are a key element in this chain.

ConvergenceRI: When we talk about borders, what is the best way to talk about boundaries that always appear to be in flux?    JUSIONYTE: Borders are political constructions, so they shift historically depending on who has the power to set them. The U.S.-Mexico border came to be after the United States invaded Mexico and, with US forces occupying the Mexican capital, demanded large territories that previously belonged to Mexico to be handed over to U.S. control.

It was part of our frontier settlement, justified by the idea of manifest destiny. But this boundary, established by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and later corrected through the Gadsden Purchase, is between Mexico and the United States.

It completely ignores the fact that other sovereign nations, like the Tohono O’odham, don’t recognize these borders imposed on their ancestral lands by two relatively new nation-states.

So, whenever we talk about borders, we must understand this arbitrariness, this historical and political nature of them, and not take them for granted.

On the other hand, the borders are also very real – they are enforced with walls made of steel and concrete that kill and injure people who are trying to cross them. But these types of borders tend to reinforce the inequalities on both sides that give rise to them in the first place.

ConvergenceRI: How has your personal history – as a resident of Lithuania and of Vilnius – influenced your sense of borders and boundaries?  
JUSIONYTE: Growing up in Lithuania, I learned just how impermanent borders are in the long run.

I was born on the other side of the Iron Curtain and watched the Berlin Wall fall and Lithuania become independent from the Soviet Union.

But almost as soon as the newly independent country marked its own borders, they dissolved because Lithuania joined the European Union.

Borders in Europe in general and in the part of Europe that was my home shifted so much over the centuries. Knowing that history made me not take any borders for granted, but to see them as products of a particular historical period, as temporary projections of power during certain configurations of international order.

It also made me realize that not all borders are the same. Some are built like prisons to contain people inside; others are built like forts to stop people who want to enter.

But either way, fortified borders are, as political theorist Wendy Brown said, symptoms of waning state sovereignty. They only seem to control the movement of people or goods, but, in reality, they don’t work for that.

ConvergenceRI: Having worked as an EMT with refugees as patients along the Mexican-U.S. border, can you talk about the way that your own personal safety and calculations about risk influenced your writings?  
JUSIONYTE: Working as an EMT and paramedic and volunteering at the migrant aid clinic on the border was what initially led me to do this research – to follow the guns from Arizona and Texas to various parts of Mexico.

Seeing people fleeing violence and insecurity in their communities, I wanted to go in the opposite direction, to understand the role of our guns in the making of this violence.

I had seen gunshot wounds before. I had seen people die from them before we could rush them to the hospital, and I was at first quite concerned that hanging out around people with guns would put me at risk of being shot, most likely accidentally.

So, I tried to learn as much about handling guns safely as I could: how to make sure they are unloaded, for example. But the book itself looks at gun wounds more expansively.

They not only injure and kill individuals; the social effects of gun violence extend to the community and to the region. These effects are passed from generation to generation. I use the language of medical forensics to talk about much broader societal issues.

ConvergenceRI: You recently wrote a provocative essay about buying a gun for the first time. What did you learn about yourself as part of that process?  
JUSIONYTE: I bought a gun because I needed to become familiar with it as a thing, an object, as a tool.

Before I started this project and before I owned a gun, I was appalled by them and afraid of them. It was difficult for me to spend years of my life studying something that I felt so uncomfortable with.

I also thought that owning a gun would be the best way for me to understand my relationship to this thing that has become so politicized in the contemporary United States.

I think what the process taught me is that it is quite easy to get used to something I feared. But it also taught me that owning a gun did not provide me with the answers I was seeking. It did not make me more comfortable being a member of this society where guns have such a prominent place, where they outnumber people.

ConvergenceRI: Have you had the opportunity to engage with Dr. Megan Ranney, M.D., [now the dean of the Yale School of Public Health] and talk with her about her ongoing research on gun violence?    
JUSIONYTE: Yes, I had the pleasure of talking to Megan when I just started teaching at Brown, in the spring of 2021. She taught me a lot about gun violence in Rhode Island.

ConvergenceRI: Have you had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Rebecca Altman, Ph.D., about her writing and research about plastics?  
JUSIONYTE: Yes, I have met Rebecca and I have read some of her brilliant magazine stories. I really look forward to her book [The Song of Styrene: An Intimate History of Plastics.]

ConvergenceRI: I have been intrigued by the choices you have made in your narrative style of writing. Could you talk about how you have approached your descriptive prose?  
JUSIONYTE: It was very important to me to write this book in a narrative style that readers would find engaging.

Let’s be honest: how many people go to the bookstore and leave with a book about guns and violence because they are so eager to delve into the story? These are very difficult subjects.

Usually, only those people who are working on these issues, as scholars or activists or policymakers, care enough to spend their time reading such books. I wanted to write a book about these troubling issues that would not underestimate how heavy the subject is, but do so in a prose that is easy to follow, in a style that makes you want to turn the pages.

The book has a braided narrative, so we follow the lives of several people [a member of an organized crime group, an entrepreneur who is a gun buff, a crime journalist, two federal agents chasing gun traffickers], but there are also sections that provide historical background to guns in the U.S. and in Mexico and their movement across the border.

Ieva Jusionyte, Ph.D., is the Watson Family University Associate Professor of International Security and Anthropology, Director of Graduate Admissions, Department of Anthropology, Brown University.

[Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, April 23, from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., Jusionyte will be talking about her new book, “Exit Wounds: How America’s Guns Fuel Violence across the Border,” at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, 111 Thayer St. in Providence.]

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