When a Sociologist Brings More Heat Than Light

In reading some of the many things that have been written in the wake of the recent mass murder in Connecticut, I was interested to come across a blog post written by a fellow sociology professor, Sarah Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin-Madison – “You Are Killing Our Kids.” I welcome the contribution of sociologists I know (of) and trust into these debates. For example, Duke University sociologist Kieran Healy has done some very interesting work on assault deaths in the United States. James Alan Fox of Northeastern University always bring interesting insights, most recently on trends in mass shootings. Unfortunately, Goldrick-Rab’s passion got the best of her. Her blog post raised so many red flags for me that I felt compelled to comment on her site. I’m “re-printing” her blog entry below and my comments on it follow that.

It’s impossible to tuck our kids in tonight, seeing the complete and utter excitement in their eyes about their futures (my daughter, age 2, said “I need to eat more foods so I can get tall and be allowed to go on the bus with my brother to school!”), without understanding that it is our responsibility as the adults to DO something to make them safer.  Enough already with the childish fear of the NRA!  The tobacco lobby was once all-powerful too.  Then we woke up and realized cigarettes were killing us all, and we put a stop to it.  Smoking is way down, including among teens.  The tide can turn. It’s on us to make it happen.

Wherever there’s a powerful lobby there are powerful wealthy backers. The strength of the NRA lies not in the many average fools who think that having guns in their homes makes them safer (tell that to the gun-toting mama whose boy killed her before shooting those 20 children in Connecticut), but in the obscene wealth possessed by the gun manufacturers. Who are these people, and how have they managed to twist the 2nd amendment into some rationale for the right for regular people to bear assault rifles?

I’m far from an expert on this topic, but what I do know is that social movements require individuals that get informed enough to be smart, inspired actors. And since I can’t stomach sending my kids off to school even one more day without knowing that I DID SOMETHING to try and make them even a little bit safer, well, I’ll take this one on.  And I hope you will too.

The tiniest bit of research tonight led me to learn a few things I had no idea about:

(1) Gun stocks are on the rise.  Smith & Wesson, among other gun manufacturers, is more profitable than ever.  At a growth rate of 10% per year on average, and much higher for the top sellers, business is booming.

(2) The industry is promoting gun use successfully among women and children.  Just like cigarette manufacturers, this mature industry is constantly seeking to expand its market and thus has encouraged an explosion of so-called shooting shows, including for audiences at the History Channel and the Discovery Channel.  The number of “shotgun” and “rifle” badges given to the Boy Scouts of America is up nearly 30 percent in the last decade, and the participation of women in shooting shows has experienced similar growth.

(3) Manufacturers of “high-capacity clips” — which should remind you of extra-nicotine added cigarettes times 10 — are major donors to the NRA and hold two board seats.  Why these high volume clips are considered requisite for self-defense is beyond me. What I do know is that each of the 20 six and seven-year-old children in Connecticut was riddled by between 3 and 10 bullets.

Guns and cigarettes go hand in hand.  It took America nearly a century to stand up to tobacco, but it happened.  The time is now for guns. Call it what it is– profitting on the backs of dead children.   And put a stop to it.  Join us.


Interesting comments, but I fear that your passion for this issue is trumping your scholarly sensibilities. It would seem as a scholar you would want to begin with questions then seek data that can answer your questions, rather than starting with an answer and then mining data you think supports it.

Here are some points that caught my eye as problematic in particular:

1. You mention “the many average fools who think that having guns in their homes makes them safer.” The inappropriate characterization of your fellow citizens as “average fools” aside, what is the empirical basis for the claim that it is foolish to think that having guns in their homes makes them safer? Do you know whether having guns in the home makes a person safer or less safe (or neither)? I bet you do not.

2. You mention “the obscene wealth possessed by the gun manufacturers.” What is your definition of “obscene wealth.” Relative to businesses in other manufacturing sectors, are gun manufacturers particularly wealthy? What is the market capitalization, profit, cash held, etc. by Smith & Wesson and how does that compare to other publicly traded firms? Or is any wealth generated by a gun manufacturer by definition obscene?

3a. “The industry is promoting gun use successfully among women and children.”  You imply this is a problem, but why? Is the desire of women to use guns irrational and/or illegitimate? Are women who enjoy shooting guns “fools”? Do you know how many women use guns annually in self-defense? Do you wish that those victims of crime not have the means of defending themselves?

3b. With respect to children, does it matter whether the earning of shotgun and rifle badges makes Boy Scouts more responsible users of guns? Or is any gun use by children by definition a problem? Do you know whether Boy Scouts who earn shotgun and rifle badges have higher or lower rates of deviant/criminal activity than other children? I would bet lower.

4. You say that the shooting industry “has encouraged an explosion of so-called [why ‘so-called’] shooting shows.” This seems a bit like a simplistic base-superstructure understanding of the relationship between industry and media content. Perhaps what has most encouraged the explosion of gun-related television shows is audience interest in such shows. Advertisers don’t pay for and networks don’t broadcast shows that don’t draw an audience. So, it seems the pertinent question is who watches these programs and why? Any data on that?

5. I am most sympathetic to your third point regarding the need for high-capacity magazines (not “clips”) for self-defense purposes, perhaps because it is the one point on which you admit to your lack of understanding. But even here you should be more careful in what you write publicly, to help maintain your credibility as a commentator on the issue. Brownell’s is a supplier not a manufacturer of high capacity magazines. Also, Brownell’s sells a lot of stuff, so the business would do fine even if all high capacity magazines were banned. Thus, you might consider treating Pete Brownell’s views on them as his sincere views rather than merely a politically and/or profit driven position. Looking at it that way might get your further in an attempt to understand why some people see these as requisite for self-defense. It is a question I would like to know the answer to as well. Why, for example, did the mother of the murderer in Connecticut own a rifle with high cap magazines?

6. Part of the problem, I think, is that by beginning with an answer you end up with a blanket indictment of all guns and gun owners. Is that what you really intend to do? It is hard to know because you don’t say what, in particular, you are rallying against. Possession of military style rifles? Possession of high capacity magazines? Possession of any gun at all? These are quite different goals and will garner quite different levels of support.

None of this is to defend the NRA or oppose gun control, but to suggest that scholars — of all people, scholars — ought to be bringing light rather than heat to important issues such as this. If “social movements require individuals that get informed enough to be smart, inspired actors,” you might want to get a bit more informed about this very important issue lest your inspiration outrun your smarts.


4 thoughts on “When a Sociologist Brings More Heat Than Light

  1. Pingback: We All Want to DO SOMETHING About Gun Violence – But What? « Gun Culture 2.0

  2. I’m all for spirited debate, but I really think you missed my point in that blog. I was NOT writing as a scholar. I was writing as a PARENT. My blog is both of those things and it’s imperative to faculty that we be allowed to wear multiple hats and take them on and off. If we can’t, then we must forgo our personal selves entirely in order to be public intellectuals. That seems far-fetched.

    Of course, any topic I research I approach openly, and when provided with additional evidence, I adjust. This isn’t one of those topics– I do not do research on it, nor will I ever. Why? Because my having little kids, having a kid in kindergarten the morning of Newton, seems to prohibit me from any sort of dispassionate view of this topic. I didn’t ask to be read as a scholar or expert on this issue– you’ve imposed that on me. The question is, why?

    (And the other question is who are you? Where is your bio? Your name?)


  3. Pingback: My New Research on America’s Gun Cultures – From Tragedy to Understanding | David Yamane

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