The “Last Day” podcast tackles the explosive subject of gun violence with a disarming approach

Stephanie Wittels Wachs was on a video call with Karl Rosston, the suicide prevention coordinator for the state of Montana. Rosston told the story of a local girl who committed suicide in a house where her father kept 33 handguns, all loaded and unlocked.

“My face was disgusted and horrified,” Wachs said. “He was like, ‘You’re going to have to work on your poker face if you’re going to come to Montana – because nobody’s going to talk to you with that face.'”

She worked on her poker face throughout the third season of “Last Day,” the Wachs podcast hosts for Lemonada Media. The 10-part season, which kicks off Wednesday, tackles gun violence in America and, true to the title, traces the final days of some of its countless victims.

But in addition to learning to disguise her emotions, Wachs tried to leave some of her biases and judgments at the door. She had never touched a gun in her life, and as a self-proclaimed “coastal elite,” she always believed that American guns should be confiscated and melted into an art sculpture.

She knew, however, that walking into the Montanans’ house with that attitude wouldn’t fly, and the podcast is an attempt to stop shouting indignant Twitter-sized talking points and really start engaging with the other side and the nuances of a deeply complex problem. Along with his team, Wachs spent 10 days in cold Montana, bringing cookies to Trump-loving gun-nuts and actually finding kinship.

The first episode audibly captures his dread — and then his thrill — of shooting a gun for the first time.

“It was wild,” Wachs said. “I like these people. We had so much fun together. I loved shooting guns. It’s super exciting trying to hit that little iron thing and then hearing the “ding”. I think to myself: I could do this all day.

That same night, his team traveled to a small rural town and interviewed a couple whose son had committed suicide with a shotgun.

“We shoot in the morning, we have a good time, and then at night we cry in someone’s living room,” Wachs said. “So it’s like: Guns are fun… and they kill you.’

This kind of tension is the theme of “Last Day” and Lemonada as a whole. Wachs and co-founder Jessica Cordova Kramer reunited thanks to the overdose deaths of their little brothers and launched the podcast company in 2019. The first season of their flagship series focused on the opioid epidemic in the United States. Season 2, reported virtually during the pandemic, focused on suicide. Each stigma-defying series naturally led to the next, and they gradually realized that Gun Season really did come to the same basic conclusion: it’s about harm reduction.

“Very similar to drugs,” Kramer said. “We live in a world of drugs, sometimes you need it, sometimes you take it for fun, sometimes it ends really badly for you. You don’t have to die.

In a country with 400 million guns, the national conversation about them is almost exclusively about mass shootings, but as Wachs points out in the podcast: in 2019, 465 people died in mass shootings, while more than 14,000 died by homicide and almost 24,000 by suicide. She traveled to Montana to investigate the latter, where 63% of citizens own a gun and, in the past 10 years, 86% of all gun deaths were by suicide.

In Atlanta, she spoke with families of gunshot victims and delved into the roots of communal and gang-related violence. She came to the conclusion that the drug and gun violence epidemics, while very different, are born out of fear and trauma and that the two gun communities – Montana and Atlanta – operate with a similar Wild West. , “kill or be killed”. ” ethos.

Wachs also made a recent visit to Los Angeles, where she stood in a corner of Watts while “community violence interrupters” handed out free breakfast to neighborhood children on their way to school. She interviewed Fernando Rejón, executive director of the Urban Peace Institute – a local organization that responds to gun violence by training “peacemakers,” guiding the LAPD toward less belligerent policing and other community tactics.

Rejón cited a statistic from the mayor’s office: When law enforcement responds alone to a gang-related homicide, the likelihood of retaliation is 24 percent. When LAPD more a violence switch responds, this number drops below 1%.

“When you incorporate a community-based approach that is focused on public safety, which understands the functions and realities of this underworld,” Rejón said, “what happens is you see the likelihood of violence go down significantly. “.

Wachs also interviewed a peacemaker named Andre Christian (aka “Lowdown”) who runs an auto club that unites lowriders through gangs and another volunteer who washes clothes for homeless neighbors. A man she spoke to broke down in tears while talking about his love for Watts.

Tears are a key ingredient in the podcast recipe. Wachs prides herself on bringing tough fathers to tears — which has happened many times in Montana — and she often breaks down.

“I think I may have broken a world record for crying in interviews this season,” she said with a laugh.

It’s vulnerable and cathartic — and, combined with lots of humor and four-letter words, that’s part of what makes the podcast so effective. It is a disarming approach to an explosive problem.

Gun violence is a huge, thorny topic to deal with in just over 10 episodes – with deep roots in culture, fear, and the American Constitution. But Wachs and Kramer felt increasingly emboldened to delve into muddy gray areas, using compassion and intimate, emotional storytelling devices to try to humanize the many faces within.

“Last Day” is an antidote to the country’s obsession with true crime podcasts – it also deals with haunting crime scenes and tales of often gruesome deaths, but the focus is on the three dimensions of the dead and of their grieving loved ones, and the mystery to be solved is how to regain hope and prevent further suffering.

To that end, Wachs and Kramer have partnered with several organizations on the front lines of gun violence prevention. In addition to the Urban Peace Institute, this season’s sponsors and consultants include the Pritzker Pucker Family Foundation in Chicago, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Jed Foundation, Levi Strauss & Co., and Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund.

Another, the Kendeda Fund, is a grant-funding organization started by Atlanta philanthropist Diana Blank 30 years ago. Its concerns run the gamut of social issues, but one of its tenets is raising awareness through storytelling.

Philanthropic foundations have historically been slow to embrace new media technologies, said David Brotherton of Kendeda, and gun politics buffs often maintain a buttoned-up institutional voice, “so that we can fund a project where the narrator n am not afraid of her. own full-throated experience, and is comfortable using profanity where warranted, and crying at ease – not the normal stock of most foundations. And death by gun violence couldn’t be more visceral, real, human, and tragic, so a narrative approach that delves into all of those things is truly compelling.

Promising solutions abound, such as governments treating gun violence as a public health crisis, training community violence switches on better mental health resources, and community engagement that empowers children, gang members, people leaving prison and people with mental health issues some of the positive and life-saving tools that will reduce the temptation of gun violence.

After making this trip, Wachs still isn’t sure that we wouldn’t be better off just destroying all of America’s weapons – but she knows that’s not a realistic solution, and she’s come to understand and even love people who love their guns. She gradually realized that, in many cases, their primary motivation is simply to protect their families.

“I completely understand,” she said. “I understand the fear. I’m paralyzed with anxiety – it’s like my main defining characteristic.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

Jessica C. Bell