As noted previously, for the final assignment of the semester in my Sociology of Guns Seminar in Spring 2019, students were asked to write a 1,000 to 2,000 word essay in which they would:
revisit your previous personal experience with and understanding of guns in the U.S. (as expressed, e.g., in the field trip reflection essay) in light of your consideration of the role guns actually do play in American society. Reflecting on what you learned from completing your major writing assignment, as well as the class more generally, discuss how your mind has (and/or has not) changed. Conclude this paper by considering what more you need to know in order to make informed choices about your own participation with and the place of guns in the communities in which you live and will live in the future.
By Lily Walter
At the beginning of the semester, I wrote that our time at Pro Shots had challenged my assumptions about guns and “showed me my lack of knowledge regarding the actual processes surrounding gun purchases, ownership, and culture.” Four months later, I still lack knowledge in a lot of these areas, but I’m making strides towards addressing my biases and misconceptions regarding guns and gun culture.
Coming into this class, I believed that people who owned guns for reasons other than hunting, recreation, or work (i.e. police) were all the enemy. They belonged in the same category as Charlton Heston brandishing his gun over his head in the wake of Columbine, shouting “from my cold dead hands!” And although I still don’t believe I will ever own a gun, I’ve seen how inaccurate my perceptions are, and how detrimental they are to producing the (universally) desired results of decreasing gun violence. I’ve come to see the nuance of the gun debate, and the diverse spectrum of people beneath the “gun rights” umbrella. I’m beginning to understand the complexity of devising gun control legislation that is stomachable, feasible, and actually effective. Finally, my concept of gun violence has radically changed and expanded, as I have tried to comprehend the breadth of the suicide issue for the gun community.
Understanding the motivations of gun owners in America today marked the beginning of a turning point for me. Initially our readings posited that the majority of gun owners are exactly how coastal elitist liberals might perceive them to be-rural, lower class white dudes. But as we read more and heard from guest speakers, we saw a wider range of gun owners. And began to understand that a desire to protect and a sense of individualism and self-reliance tend to drive people to purchase guns, instead of an alliance with the Republican party. I’ve always felt wary of gun owners, but learned this semester that the vast majority of legal gun owners never use their weapon for illegal purposes. In fact, although the data remains somewhat murky, most legal gun owners never use their weapon against another person at all. It was interesting to hear someone like Randy Miyan [representing the Liberal Gun Owners] speak about his journey that began with self-defense to protect others, and culminated in guns.
There are certainly still radicals whose gun ownership should cause concern for all of us. Some mass shooters or members of extremist militant groups like the ones I studied for my paper, should not be armed and are threats to all of us. Be that as it may, researching my final paper demonstrated to me the small proportion of gun owners that are actually motivated to use their weapons for harm. Even amongst militia members, actual violence remains low, and extremists do not make up the bulk of the gun owning population. Additionally, law abiding gun owners are equally afraid of armed attackers. The difference is in their response to the same crisis; gun owners believe arming citizens makes us safer from violence, while gun control supporters feel that removing guns from the equation completely would solve our problem. Realistically, getting rid of all guns just isn’t an option in the United States.
Guns are here to stay. Too many of them exist in America already to remove them, and the risk of most of these (legal) guns being used to harm people is actually low. Some policies, like creating a national database of legal gun owners, would be impossible to retroactively enact. Too many individuals already own guns, and would have no incentive to register. Many of these gun control policies could also have unforeseen consequences, like pushing more gun owners to purchase guns on the black market, contributing to an unregulated industry that makes us all less safe.
In the field trip reflection paper at the beginning of the semester I talked a lot about gun purchasing, and the queasiness I experienced when I learned how easy it was for most people to purchase a gun. In my head, gun violence like the mass shooting that just happened at UNC Charlotte was preventable with stricter restrictions on gun purchases. Adding some new regulations like withholding purchases until red flags are officially cleared would likely prevent some gun deaths or hinder efforts to commit atrocities, but are not the only solution to the issue of gun violence. Purchasing restrictions, if implemented with specific results in mind, could make a dent in the number of gun deaths, but the solution needs to get closer to the root at why gun deaths are happening, and how they happen.
Before this class I was convinced, like many others, that the bulk of gun deaths are concentrated in regular mass shootings and homicide. I had no idea that 60% of all gun deaths are suicide, because this truth does not fit into either side’s depiction of the gun debate. Unfortunately, both sides have yet to come together over this pressing issue because everyone is too deeply entrenched in their own viewpoint. The guest speakers in this class, particularly Rob Pincus [Executive Vice President of the Second Amendment Organization], were really helpful in illuminating some of the tensions within the gun community. While Pincus’s mission should be a bridge that both sides of the gun debate support, groups like his are still widely ignored by both sides. Learning about gun suicide in this course illuminated for me how deeply entrenched everyone is with their own side, and how far we are from achieving instrumental change in our society. Truthfully, grassroots organizing and small scale programs are likely the only effective methods to address gun violence, especially suicide. Ultimately, the problem of gun violence can only be solved by changing the social factors that make people want to own or use guns. Simply cutting off access to guns isn’t necessarily a correct or productive solution, especially given the thriving black market that exists for guns today.
Whether I like it or not, guns are a part of this nation. Instead of trying to ban access to them, the solution may be to surround gun owners in protective packages like better training and education, and child safety initiatives. I still need to learn more about specific gun policies on a state by state basis, and learn about programs or laws or initiatives that are actually effectively working towards making the general populous (which includes gun owners) safer. In addition, I want to seek out gun owners and talk to them about why they carry or why they believe what they do. The guest speakers in class provided such valuable insight because I had never spoken with a gun owner before or heard a thoughtful, well-reasoned explanation for why guns matter. I realized not everyone on the gun rights side of the debate fundamentally disagrees with me about everything, and many are working thoughtfully to build bridges in this contentious debate. I want to continue the process of educating myself that started in this class, so ultimately I can contribute to the solution instead of the problem.
Clinging to my personal beliefs without flexibility is ultimately more harmful to everyone involved. The narrow sightedness of everyone participating in the gun debate has contributed to us collectively ignoring the realities of gun suicide. By remaining entrenched in our own viewpoints, we lose the opportunity to cooperate and compromise and discover feasible solutions that would benefit everyone involved. Instead of arguing over the fundamental nature of gun ownership or fighting for their removal from society, both sides need to understand the other’s motivation and find common ground.