As noted earlier, the final assignment of the semester in my Sociology of Guns seminar is for the students to write an essay reflecting on their personal experience with and understanding of guns in light of what they learned in the course.
Here is the fifth of several such essays, written by a student whose initial reflections on our field trip to the gun range can be found here. (Link to the first, second, third, and fourth reflection essays.)
By Claire Doe*
I did not grow up with guns but rather in fear of them. Raised in a family that was uninterested in guns and in a community that was predominantly liberal, my first understanding of guns came from media accounts of Sandy Hook and the conversations surrounding code red, school shooting drills in elementary school. I still remember the first code red drill of my educational career in third grade, my classmates and I were huddled together away from all the windows and doors confused as to why we would ever become a target of violence. There was simply nothing more terrifying than going from everyday, energetic classroom activities to the jolting static of the intercom and hearing the stomach dropping words “code red.” In school I always had a plan in my mind: where I would hide, how I would escape, if I would be willing to jump out the second story window, what I would do if I was in the hallway or bathroom, and if I had hugged my parents goodbye that morning. Everyone always said it won’t happen here or stop worrying about what you can’t control, but the stories of students who never made it home after leaving for school were inerasable from my mind. How could I be expected to sit and do nothing when even my high school teacher told our entire class our school was listed as high risk for a shooting because of the high academic expectations?
Growing up in the generation of school shootings has predominantly shaped my perspective of guns in America. In high school I even became heavily involved in organizing my school’s walkout after Parkland. After hours planning and making signs, administration forced us to stay within school gates and sent away all the local media outlets we had hoped would further carry our messages. I understood that guns were a complex, hot political topic but my growing frustrations overshadowed any interest I had in considering other perspectives that did not validate fears. To many this perspective may be flawed and problematic but I feel it properly reflected the breaking point I, as well as many of my peers, were at after twelve years of feeling failed.
With time and growth however, I realized how unhelpful my limited mindset was and thus I was excited for the opportunity to participate in a class that I hoped would finally be a space of engaging and productive conversations about guns.
At the start of this semester I told all of my friends and peers about how I would be going to the gun range as a part of this course. I was excited to have a hands-on experience but also nervous considering my lack of gun knowledge and previously discussed fear of guns. I firmly believe that the gun range experience was a critical first step towards engaging in meaningful and productive conversations about guns. It certainly was a worthwhile and educational experience. Not only did I leave the range feeling slightly more confident in my knowledge of gun safety but could better understand the sport aspect of target shooting.
At the same time however, having had the experience of pulling the trigger, hearing the shot fire, and feeling the kickback I realized how much more powerful guns were then I had previously realized and how much skill it takes to shoot. Moving forward into the course, the gun range established three main things for me: a gun safety briefing is essential and made me more comfortable around guns, target shooting is a challenging sport, and guns are really, really powerful.
Class discussions and course readings further expanded my knowledge about research on guns in America as well as the gun culture of America. I valued the reliability of the information we were discussing as I feel it can be difficult to receive unbiased information on the issue of guns and gun control. Reading about research methods and statistics I began to realize the ways in which data on guns can be miscommunicated, completely blown out of proportion, or simply undermined in the media. In order to gain a whole, unbiased perspective on guns it is important to not limit gun research to only criminals or long time gun owners but to individuals across society.
The idea of gun culture 2.0 supports the idea that gun owners in America are shifting with societal changes. Prior to this class I would have had no idea that new gun owners in America [are often] liberal women wanting to protect their family. As an individual who once fully supported the idea of the government buying back all guns, I now understand both the legal complications but also the cultural complications of eliminating guns from the equation.
Engaging in readings and class discussions introduced me to a new understanding of gun culture in America, but hearing the perspective of experienced guest speakers really grew my viewpoint on guns. Rob Pincus and Craig Douglas were both incredible speakers from which I felt I learned a tremendous amount. I appreciated that both Pincus and Douglas not only addressed the social perceptions of guns but how we should address guns being used in negative, unnecessary capacities.
Pincus’s work with Walk the Talk America highlighted how impactful the gun community can be in gun safety and mental health awareness. Additionally, I felt his emphasis on gun owners’ responsibility in ensuring their firearms do not get into the hands of unauthorized users is something that is not discussed enough.
Douglas’s discussion of police use of force and the current state of police training was also particularly fascinating. Understanding how guns can be misused as a first method of action by police, points to how issues of power and authority also impact gun culture. The interactive experience that Douglas presented was incredibly eye opening to the intensity of police work and something I believe many people would benefit from experiencing.
After listening to Rob Pincus and Craig Douglas, my mindset of gun reform shifted from legislative to more conversational, where healthy conversations about mental health and encouraging proper gun training could be a more realistic answer to America’s gun woes.
In my own research I explored how guns have become such symbols of masculinity and power within America and in doing so learned a tremendous amount about the history of guns as well. There is no denial that guns are a major part of American history and that their inclusion in the Constitution will keep them around for years to come, there is an opportunity to shift the narrative of guns. Young boys should not be socialized to see guns as a predominate entity in which they are expected to display masculinity nor should they feel the pressure to exhibit such masculinity in the first place.
I hope that future generations do not have to experience the fear of school shootings and the misuse of guns but this class has taught me there is a lot of groundwork ahead for these narratives to change. I am not entirely sure the most effective way to shift the narrative of guns to include conversations of mental health and decreasing the emphasis on masculinity, however this class has highlighted the importance of diligent research and engaging in critical conversations.
Guns are undoubtedly embedded in American culture and I believe they can have a place in society if and only if difficult conversations about mental health, toxic masculinity, and the responsibility involved in owning a gun are had and actionable plans are made to combat current gun violence.