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 Peyton Tarry
In revisiting the reflection that I wrote after our initial field trip to ProShots, I realized that my views about guns within the context of the United States have evolved a great deal since the beginning of the semester. In my first reflection paper I noted that over the course of the field trip “my feeling that an accident could happen at any moment quickly faded away.” When we went to the range, I knew very little about shooting handguns, as I had only ever seen long guns (which my father and brother use for hunting) in my past, and I was clearly under the impression that handguns and accidental firings are highly associated with one another. Before taking this class, most of what I knew about handguns had to do with school shootings and accidental firings that kill children, their parents, etc. However, over the course of the semester, I have come to realize that countless people carry firearms in their everyday lives (some even have them on their person when they do things like exercise), and that when handled safely and treated with respect, handguns and tragic mishaps do not necessarily go hand in hand with one another.
With that, I also noted in my initial reflection essay that “I only felt nervous or uncomfortable when we were inside the shooting range with people that we didn’t know, and who hadn’t just taken the safety course that we had.” However, a few weeks later, we learned in class that upwards of 8% of North Carolinians have concealed carry permits. Thus, for my entire life, I have been surrounded by more firearms than I was ever aware of, and now I know that gun ranges are not the only places where we must have confidence in the ability of others to handle their firearms safely. Public places like grocery stores, coffee shops, and city streets are also home to gun carrying; I just wasn’t aware of how prevalent it was until we examined the numbers and statistics in class.
A third comment that I made in my initial essay was that “it is far too easy for anyone in the United States to put their hands on a gun.” Before I took this course, I felt strongly that America should employ stricter gun control laws. However, I realize now that I didn’t know what I meant when I said this, and that I was definitely unaware of how incredibly complicated the debate that surrounds gun control is today. As Cook and Goss describe in Chapter 11 of The Gun Debate, the gun control movement is highly convoluted for a number of reasons. One is that it is much easier for opponents of gun control to agree upon the fact that they do not want stricter laws than it is for proponents of gun control to agree upon what exactly such laws should look like. Aside from expanding background checks to the vast majority of gun sales, there is not an overwhelmingly popular proposal for improvement among gun control supporters. Thus, they find themselves disagreeing on details, while anti-gun folks need only agree on one thing: that they do not want stricter gun laws to be put in place. Moreover, it is incredibly difficult for pro-gun control groups to gain traction at the national level, and mass shootings do not hold the media’s (or policy makers’) attention for long. In combination, all of these factors are part of what has made it possible for so many Americans to say things like “it is far too easy for anyone in the United States to put their hands on a gun,” but for policy changes to seem so incredibly stagnant—something that I never understood before taking this course.
Aside from the specific comments that I made in my initial reflection paper about our class trip to ProShots, Sociology of Guns has made me much more acutely aware of what gun culture actually looks like in the United States today. Before taking this course, if I had been asked to define or describe our nation’s gun culture, I would have likely commented on two different categories of firearm use: one that involves hunting and sport shooting, and one that involves violence, death, and events such as school shootings. However, as I learned in class, and as I learned by reading “The Sociology of U.S. Gun Culture,” America’s gun culture is much more than what I have seen in my personal life, or what I see on the news. America has seen a shift towards self-defense gun ownership: a booming business that does not deserve the stigma that I believe many gun owners receive today (the stigma that I probably employed before taking this course, when I imagined guns as either tools for sport or tools for violence). In reality, there are countless concealed carry permit holders who exercise their right to own and carry firearms in a safe and cautious way—one that does not feature the accidents that I mentioned previously. Gun owners like John Johnston carry because they “refuse to enter into a social contract where someone else decides whether [they] live or die,” and now that I have actually interacted with a number of gun owners and concealed carry holders in class, I have a much deeper understanding of why many people feel that carrying is necessary, and why they should not be judged or stigmatized for doing so.
With that, I want to comment on how incredibly valuable I found each of the guest speakers that came to class (including Richard Talbert from ProShots) and the last article that we read as a group. To me, Kahan and Braman’s work served as an excellent tool for understanding how the guest speakers who came to our class, some of whom were vastly different from one another, all valued their ability to protect themselves using firearms. When I read that the cultural orientation variables were far more significant predictors of gun control attitudes than any other variable, it struck me that the reason that people like Randy Miyan and Craig Douglas, who seemed to be vastly different in their preferences, can promote the same thing (the use of firearms for protection) is that their world views, or cultural orientations, must overlap somewhere. While Mr. Miyan has a clear opposition to violence (as we learned from both his description of his childhood and his inclination towards becoming a monk), Mr. Douglas placed himself in potentially dangerous and violent situations quite frequently during his time as an undercover narcotics agent. Their occupations, inclinations, and even their personalities in class seemed wildly different to me, and it wasn’t until I read this article that I understood how people who are so different might lie on the same side of an issue as contentious as gun control. Our cultural orientations come far before political party (or other forms of belief categorization), and that is something that I plan to remember whenever I find myself in a frustrating conversation about policy or social issues—you can’t always make people see your side, and having an open mind to the views of others is the best way to facilitate productive conversation.
Lastly, I want to comment on how very hopeful I am that the rhetoric shift that was discussed in the “Enough” panel about gun violence prevention will take place. It seemed to me that uniting people around gun violence prevention, a cause that gun owners, non-gun owners, gun control advocates, and non-gun control advocates alike should all support, would be the best way to make progress. In order to make change and eventually see less gun violence within our nation, gun owners must be included in the conversation about gun violence prevention, and there must be a shift away from rhetoric such as gun control—because no one likes to hear that something that is important to them is being “controlled.” In other words, as Kyleanne Hunter mentioned during the panel, Americans must “take action, not sides.” And as Jake Charles mentioned, we should be “reaching across the aisle” in an effort to come up with solutions that will make us safer. To me, the ideas that they presented, combined with those of Kahan and Braman, seem like important starting points for gun violence prevention advocates, government officials, and policy makers who wish to begin addressing this incredibly complex, contentious issue in a more efficient and effective way.
I am also hopeful that gun violence prevention efforts will eventually reach the marginalized populations within our nation, and not only focus on groups such as students in lower schools and universities. As I learned while researching my final project topic, firearm violence within gangs has become an extremely prevalent issue—one that has made gang activity highly lethal for those who have been socialized into it. Moreover, like gun violence prevention in general, gun violence prevention within gangs is an extremely complex issue—one that will continue to require both thoughtful and strategic consideration. Again, before taking this course and conducting my research, I had no idea how convoluted the debates about gun control and gun violence prevention were, and I certainly did not have an appreciation for the number of communities that those issues will eventually need to be addressed within.
Finally, I will conclude by mentioning a few things that I want to learn in order to better inform my participation with guns in the future.
First, I would like to know more about experts’ recommendations for the safe storage of firearms. This is particularly interesting to me because I am curious about how my family might be able to improve upon its practices for safe gun storage.
Also, if I were to eventually live with a roommate or spouse who was a gun owner, I would definitely want to feel educated about how they should be storing those firearms. I would also like to know more about the relationship between handguns and suicide among teenagers. When I have a family of my own, I want to make sure that I am making the best choices possible about what is safe and what is unsafe to have in my household—particularly if I were to live with a child or family member who suffered from mental illness.
Finally, in every state that I live in from now on, I would like to be aware of how strict the present concealed carry laws are. For example, right now I am glad to live in a state that does not exercise unrestricted, or “constitutional carry” laws. Although North Carolina is a “shall issue” state, and it is not highly difficult for people to obtain a concealed carry permit, I find it somewhat comforting to know that the legal concealed carriers in our state have at least jumped through a few hoops in obtaining their permits.
In sum, I feel extremely thankful to be leaving campus this semester with a much broader vocabulary for the issues that we discussed in class. I feel like I have a much better grasp on the different roles that firearms actually play within society, and I am certainly much more aware of some of the reasons why policy implementation and change have previously been so hard to come by. Lastly, having taken this course, I feel significantly more prepared to enter into educated conversations about gun culture in America, and I feel highly equipped to make informed decisions about my own participation with firearms in the future.