Ten years ago, when I first conceived of a project on concealed handgun license holders in Texas, I dove into the literature to better understand the state of gun scholarship. Having come to the project through an interest in whiteness and masculinity, I knew very little about how academics understood firearms. Research in law and political science was extremely useful in explaining the significance of the gun lobby and the Second Amendment, but much of the existing social science work was relatively narrow in scope.1For two excellent exceptions see James William Gibson, Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America (New York: Hill & Wang, 1994) and Scott Melzer, Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War (New York: New York University Press, 2009).
What did exist focused on analyzing specific social outcomes that correlated with gun ownership and was divided into two distinct disciplines: criminologists, largely concerned with the relationship between gun ownership and crime, and public health scholars, focused on gun ownership, injury, and mortality. At a basic level, these disciplines’ studies were offering various responses to a fundamental question: Are guns good or bad for society? Yet they were also offering different responses to a question that was rarely asked but always loomed in the background of this work: Is gun ownership rational? In reading these studies, it is easy to come away with an argument either for or against firearms, but they provide little insight into how people actually think about and use their guns. Indeed, until just a half-dozen or so years ago, we knew a great deal more about the methodological challenges of surveying gun owners and their practices than about the actual people themselves.
In recent years, a spate of qualitative studies have helped to shed light on the social forces that motivate gun ownership and use, and have added complexity to the “pro-gun versus anti-gun” framing embedded in the early scholarship. Jennifer Carlson’s work has been particularly instructive in explaining the relationship between deindustrialization, economic decline, and concealed carry,2New York: Oxford University Press, 2015More Info → and my own work looks at how whiteness, masculinity, and social class shape the social construction of self-described “good guys” who carry guns in public.3Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2016More Info → David Yamane traces various elements of gun culture and offers a plea that more sociological attention be turned toward this topic, suggesting that “ignorance of and bias against guns”4David Yamane, “The Sociology of US Gun Culture,” Sociology Compass 11, no. 7 (2017): 7. likely accounts for the relative dearth of work in this area.“It is time for firm disciplinary boundaries to come down and for new forms of inquiry built upon a strong foundation of existing scholarship to emerge.”
I agree with Yamane that there is a great need for theorizing across studies and an opportunity to deepen the field, but I would argue that we need to go beyond a “sociology of gun culture.” The complexity of guns and their impact on society calls for the development of an interdisciplinary subfield that centers guns and gun culture as objects of study.5Last year I was invited to an interdisciplinary conference on guns hosted by the University of Rochester’s anthropology department and was struck by how much more stimulating and intellectually productive those two days were than a meeting of only sociologists would have been. Yet, too often scholarship is structured along strict disciplinary lines that make interdisciplinary work difficult. (A forthcoming collection, Gun Studies, edited by Jennifer Carlson, Harel Shapira, and Kristin Goss, offers a promising start in this endeavor.6 New York: Routledge, 2018More Info →) It is time for firm disciplinary boundaries to come down and for new forms of inquiry built upon a strong foundation of existing scholarship to emerge. Perhaps even more importantly, it is long past time that we work to develop new models for disseminating our findings to the public. Caroline Light and Lindsay Livingston’s “Gun Studies Syllabus” provides an excellent example.
Clarifying definitions and concepts
Clear evidence exists that the development of a gun subfield is needed, particularly when one discovers the lack of consistency that exists even with respect to very basic concepts. This limits our ability to develop deeper analyses and to coherently contribute to the public’s understanding of firearms. Indeed, gun scholarship risks creating more confusion than clarity if we do not sort out foundational conceptual, theoretical, and methodological concerns. To unpack this problem and to understand why it is so important, let us consider one of the most attention-grabbing forms of gun violence: the mass public shooting.
One need not know how the term “mass public shooting” is operationalized to understand that Sandy Hook, Pulse, or the Mandalay Bay shooting in Las Vegas would count as such an event. Given how fresh these incidents are in the public imagination, and how often new massacres are added to the list of gun violence tragedies, we might believe that they are happening more often; indeed, some news reports even suggest that they occur daily.
While journalists can be forgiven for crafting attention-grabbing headlines, social scientists seem all too willing to join in the chorus of voices declaring mass shootings on the rise, despite also acknowledging that the term has no precise or agreed-upon definition. For example, Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober write that while some databases count an event with four victims and some with three, “What is significant is that we can definitively say that mass shootings in the U.S. are on the rise, however they are defined.”
As Bridges and Tober well know, it is anathema in the social sciences to accept fuzzy definitions of something one is trying to count and measure over time, and particularly so when making claims about alarming levels of growth. However, they are correct to point out that there is no consistent definition of what constitutes a mass shooting, something they elaborate on in a follow up piece on this topic. Some count any event in which three or more people are shot while others require that the victims be dead; some include and others exclude the shooter or shootings that happen in the commission of other crimes. Critically, given how often family violence appears in the larger gun violence tally, some distinguish shootings that occur in homes versus ones that occur in public but others do not. When care is taken, this latter category is referred to as “mass public shootings.”“These are qualitatively different episodes; they have different root causes, different social and cultural implications, and, for those committed to reducing gun violence, different solutions”
It might seem that distinguishing public shootings from private ones or drawing a line at three versus four victims “is arbitrary,” as Bridges and Tober note; however, when it comes to gun violence, clear distinctions prove very important. An incident that is the result of domestic violence, in which a man kills his family and then himself, should not be lumped in with one in which a person chooses a public target at random and aims for mass casualties. These are qualitatively different episodes; they have different root causes, different social and cultural implications, and, for those committed to reducing gun violence, different solutions. And yet, cases are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shooting is believed to have been motivated by a domestic violence revenge killing that resulted in the deaths of 26 people, all but one of whom was unrelated to the perpetrator’s ex-wife.
Fuzzy concepts have consequences
Taking issue with the problem of a poorly defined concept might sound like the kind of thing that only a statistician would be concerned with. Why would I, a qualitative researcher focused on the social meanings of guns, be so hung up on how a variable is operationalized? Because the problem does not rest with the contradictory claims that result when inconsistent measures are used. It is also a matter of the consequences that can occur when the least representative and arguably most terrifying form of gun violence is inflated and made to seem worse than it actually is, and when it is given disproportionate attention. Not only is our focus drawn away from the everyday gun violence that terrorizes many more people, and in some cases, entire communities, but our perceptions of vulnerability are distorted.
This is particularly important because in this political climate, wherein almost nothing is happening to reduce gun violence and instead guns are becoming easier to obtain, even a person who is personally opposed to owning a gun might decide that, if mass public shootings are happening daily, obtaining one and carrying it for protection might be the only truly safe option. And yet the research is clear that a woman is at much greater risk of becoming a victim of homicide at the hands of her male partner than a mass shooter; a white man is increasingly likely to turn his gun on his family and himself; and meanwhile, young black men continue to die by gun violence at rates that are wildly disproportionate to their percentage in the population.7For a fuller explanation see Stroud, Good Guys with Guns.
These points are not offered as arguments against gun ownership. In my research I explore the many reasons a person might want to own firearms, including for self-defense, despite the reality that they are among the most lethal objects available on the market. Instead, I offer points on the risks associated with firearm ownership as factual counterbalances in a society that, focused largely on mass public shootings, increasingly believes that more guns will make us safer.
Gun culture and violence
Clear, consistent, and most importantly, theoretically informed concepts have yet to be universally adopted by all researchers. And, to the detriment of scholarly and public understanding, we have too often, and without much critical reflection, imported into our own work terms the media and government officials have defined. This is not an argument for scholarly territorialism; indeed, it is quite the opposite. Because our research should be used to help the public understand a phenomenon that harms many and terrifies more, it is long past time that we get our intellectual house in order. It is time to develop a robust, interdisciplinary, and theoretically rich subfield that can truly transform what we know about the social and cultural significance of guns. To do this well would require developing new research and new models of scholarship dissemination that might actually advance public conversation on this topic.
When done right and when paired with effective strategies for dissemination, sound research could be the difference between believing that mass public shootings occur every day and knowing that they instead happen an average of four to five times per year. Even more importantly, it could be the difference between acting intelligently to reduce gun violence and giving in to the gun lobby’s claim that the only way to be safe is to buy more guns.
Banner photo credit: Office of the Governor for the State of Connecticut/Flickr