Back in 2017 a group of gun researchers got together at the University of Arizona and held a symposium for what they referred to as an “open, interdisciplinary debate surrounding the social life of guns.” Following the get-together, three of the participants – Jennifer Carlson, Kristin Goss and Harel Shapira – edited the papers and published them last year in a volume, Gun Studies – Interdisciplinary Approaches to Politics, Policy and Practice.
I suspect that I am the only person who is going to review this collection, and for that matter, I may also be the only person who actually bought and read the book in printed form, as the paperback edition costs nearly $50, with the e-book running $45. But how many times do you find articles in the same collection written by opposing scholars like Gary Kleck and David Kopel on the one hand, versus Frank Zimring and Phil Cook on the other? So what the hell, in the interests of academic diversity, why not blow a few bucks?
The editors state that the purpose of this effort “promote empirical and theoretical understandings of how people live with, experience, and think about guns in their day-to-day lives.” To that end, the volume contains 18 scholarly contributions covering “the evolution of American gun culture from recreation to self-protection; the changing dynamics of the pro-gun and pro-regulation movements; the deeply personal role of guns as sources of both injury and security; and the relationship between gun-wielding individuals, the state, and social order in the United States and abroad.”
What is culture? We usually define it as a set of beliefs held in common by a group of individuals which shape how these individuals think and behave about certain kinds of things. It is also a set of mental perceptions that are consciously transmitted from older to newer members of the group. So how did these scholars go about trying to figure this out?
There’s an article about what kind of gun advertising appears in gun magazines; another two articles about how the gun industry develops marketing narratives to sell assault rifles and handguns; another article about marketing research techniques; several articles about advocacy groups both pro and con; several articles about gun culture in other countries which I didn’t bother to read; and various other research efforts on police shootings, gun injuries and guns used in suicide events.
The editors state that together, these articles examine “difficult and timely questions through the lens of social practice, marketing and commerce, critical theory, political conflict, public policy and criminology. That’s quite a list.
Unfortunately, there’s only one thing entirely missing from these articles, and its absence makes me wonder how this collection can be described as a contribution to ‘gun culture’ at all. What’s missing is any research which uses as its source or sources contact with individuals who actually own guns.
I own a little gun shop in Massachusetts. Between 2001 and 2014 I sold guns to more than 7,000 people who came into my shop. I also sold ammunition, optics, and other crap to maybe another several thousand individuals who owned guns. I didn’t need to read a single one of those 18 articles to tell me how, what, and why individuals own and use guns.
Of the millions of guns that were sold between January and August of this year, at least 75% of them were bought in small, independent retail shops just like mine. You’ll find a gun shop like my shop in just about every small town outside the big, urban metropolitan centers throughout the United States.
Take a 300-mile drive on old U.S. Route 20, which was the major east-west road connecting Boston to Portland until I-90 was built. Once you get 50 miles away from Boston, there’s a small, slightly decaying urban center about every 20 miles, and there’s a gun shop in just about every one of those towns.
Want to learn about gun culture? Spend a day in some of those gun shops and just listen to what the customers say. Don’t conduct any interviews, don’t ask them why they are buying another gun, don’t ask what they think about their 2nd-Amendment ‘rights.’ Just listen to how they talk to each other about their guns.