We All Want to DO SOMETHING About Gun Violence – But What?

I was pleased that my fellow sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab took time to respond to my comment on her post, “You Are Killing Our Kids.”  We are all pretty busy, so I appreciate the time taken to engage in a dialogue about this important issue. Below is her response to my original comments and following her response is a follow-up I wrote to her today.

Dear gunculture–

I believe I was careful to point out that this post is NOT part of my scholarly work. This blog is part professional, part personal. And this issue, as a mom to an almost 6-year-old, is incredibly personal. I agree that I need to get better informed– but I can also guarantee that my overall stance will not shift on this one. I want to be as effective as I can be at getting guns off the streets, and given some time to learn more, I will improve. Then, watch out world– we effectively “armed” parents will conquer this mountain.


ps. I did actually spend 3 years working on criminal justice policy about 15 years ago, and the studies then were quite clear that the deterrence effects of guns and the death penalty were quite lacking. I’d be shocked if anyone had yet proven the “effectiveness” of keeping a gun under the pillow. If you disagree they are selfish, I think my fellow citizens who do so are indisputably selfish. They protect one or but a few at the expense of far many more.


Thanks for taking the time to follow up. I am interested to see that you distinguish between view you put forward as a professional and those that are personal. I was led to believe you were writing as a sociologist/scholar in reading your original post because you said you did some “research” (albeit the “tiniest bit”). I also believe that I cannot bifurcate my personal views from my training and worldview as a sociologist. And I wonder if you fully accept the consequence of such a bifurcation yourself. It is interesting to consider your use of DIFFERENT standards (professional vs. personal) for forming opinions about education policy (being a scholar, objectively analyzing data to help inform such decisions) and criminal justice policy (being personally interested, having a conclusion formed in advance and simply seeking to validate that conclusion). I would bet you do not look so fondly at those who would seek to influence education policy based on their personal opinions without respect to solid empirical research and scholarly reflection.

In terms of the substance of your response, I note that the specific policy goals you have in mind are not altogether clear. You want to be effective at “getting guns off the streets.” Does that mean you would like a wholesale ban on all civilian gun ownership? Or are you trying to eliminate the criminal use of guns? Or are you trying to eliminate certain types of guns?

The former I think is going to be a political and legal non-starter. GSS and Gallup polls shows that some 35%-45% of the American adult population own firearms (handguns, rifles, shotguns) – that is roughly 70 million adults. They own upwards of 300 million guns. The overwhelming – truly overwhelming – majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens and the vast majority of guns are used only for legal purposes.

No one other than criminals opposes eliminating the criminal use of guns. But it is not clear that gun control measures will eliminate the criminal use of guns, because criminals do not care what the laws are (by definition). You should listen to the NPR Fresh Air interview with David Kennedy, author of “Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner City America” (St. Martin’s Press, 2011) and director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. When Dave Davies notes there is nothing about gun laws in his book and asks him whether restrictions on access to guns would help address the problem, Kennedy answers emphatically no. Actually he says, laughing because it is ludicrous, “How’s that working for you?”  Kennedy actually began his work with the idea that eliminating illegal gun markets was the key solution, but changed his mind.

What about banning certain types of guns or accessories (“assault rifles,” high capacity magazines)? Well, we had an assault weapons ban from 1994 to 2004. The gun homicide rate was dropping prior to the ban, and it has continued to drop since the ban expired. The gun accidental death rate was dropping before the ban, and it has continued to drop since the ban expired. Why did the assault weapons ban not have any discernible effect? Because the vast majority of people who own and use these weapons are law-abiding citizens who use them for legal purposes. Criminals who wanted to get and use assault weapons could do so without regard to the ban. Why has the ban on handguns in Chicago not gotten guns off the streets? Again, because the people who have guns on the streets are criminals – and David Kennedy also notes that it is a “fantastically small” number of people who cause the majority of inner city street crimes.

It may make us feel good to DO SOMETHING in the wake of a tragedy like Newtown. But if what we do isn’t going to be effective, then we are just fooling ourselves. I think this is especially true when we consider mass murders. If a small number of people are responsible for the everyday violence we see in inner cities, an even smaller number of people are responsible for mass murders (with guns, bombs, knives, box cutters, airplanes).  Every decent person abhors mass murder, by whatever means. But to think we can eliminate these extraordinarily rare acts by restricting a particular type of gun or gun accessory is again fooling ourselves. Just today, Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox has posted online his top 10 myths about mass shootings. Among the myths he address are that mass shootings are on the rise, that enhanced background checks will keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of these madmen, and that restoring the federal ban on assault weapons will prevent these horrible crimes.

The p.s. concerning keeping guns under ones pillow is hard to take seriously as it is once again dismissive of other people’s realities. If someone broke into your home while you and your two kids were there, would you be content to throw issues of Soc of Ed or books at them? To try to reason with them? Your social class probably allows you to live in a community in which this is unlikely to happen – though I have met a medical doctor whose home was broken by armed intruders while she was home with her kids — but this happens to other people whose realities you dismiss. I know the young mother in Oklahoma whose home was broken into in January 2012 was happy she kept a gun under her pillow.

In the end, like you, my first response to recent events was to hug my kids and think about how to make them safer. (Not “safe,” mind you, as the reality is there is no pure safety in this world.) My second response was to want to do something. But as I started looking at the data on gun crimes and gun control — and I admit that I have not looked at it all – I concluded that I didn’t know well enough what should be done. I see that President Obama just today has announced a working group to study ways of reducing gun violence. This seems to be a better approach than to rush into policies that are just designed to make us feel better without regard to their likely effects. I just hope that the working group doesn’t take the same approach to this issue as you have when you write, “I agree that I need to get better informed– but I can also guarantee that my overall stance will not shift on this one.” I would hope that any professional sociologist or regular person would change their stance on an issue if the information they gathered conflicted with their previously established stance.

Thank you for engaging in this dialogue with me, in the interest of safer children and a safer world.




  1. We have a fundamental disagreement over one’s right to write a blog that has some posts that are personal (have you read mine on breast-feeding, for example) and some that are political (like mine on Scott Walker), and some that are based on one’s scholarship and teaching (like all of mine on financial aid, politics of higher ed, etc).

    I think you mistake my efforts as a mother and an activist from someone who actually seeks to engage in the policy debate and change the discourse based on any level of expertise in the area. In fact, I explicitly do NOT claim that expertise. Most people who critique educational policy and seek to influence it DO make that claim. Everyone thinks they are an expert because they went to a school. In contrast, I am saying “yes, I want guns gone (and yes, I do mean GONE)” but not as an expert, or because I’ve held one, but because I’m a mom.”

    It doesn’t have to be rationale, or sociological, or anything else. If you choose to engage in critiquing me on sociological or academic grounds then you’ve chosen a foil that’s essentially false–you’re arguing with a mom’s perspective, not a scholar’s. And no, you won’t shame me into reconsidering by insinuating it’s a class-based perspective. I don’t live in the kind of neighborhood you think I do now, and I lived in neighborhoods full of guns for many years. I still oppose those who claim that have a right to have them to protect themselves. We’d all be safer if they simply vanished.

    As for realistic? Who cares about such limitations? Why bother? If we’re constantly forced to be pragmatic on these things, we’ll never envision a new world for our kids that’s worth achieving. The NRA will make certain of that.


  2. Thanks for this comment. Nothing in what I wrote challenged your or anyone’s RIGHT to write about the personal, political, and scholarly in the same blog. I simply questioned the wisdom of doing it. We can have a fair and honest disagreement about this.

    You are making a call for purposive social action on a policy issue on the basis of being a mom. You have a right to do that as well. I just do not think that declaring “I oppose guns because I am a mother” is any better than people declaring they “oppose [insert whatever educational policy] because they went to a school.” Or “I oppose abortion because I was born.” Or “I support guns because I am a father.” None of these lines of argumentation are persuasive, to me at least. But I think we can fairly and honestly differ on the wisdom of arguing this way.

    Certainly you do not have to be an expert on any issue in order to speak to it from your personal perspective. People do it all the time. But you made a point in your first blog about being INFORMED about the issue, and of using that information to engage in purposive social action. I quote, “social movements require individuals that get informed enough to be smart, inspired actors.” I believe this is your sociological sensibility not just your personal position as a mother. I share that sensibility, which is why I even bothered to comment in the first place. People say things all the time that I would like to respond to but do not because I don’t find it worthwhile. But when a fellow sociologist speaks, I listen.

    I I hear you saying that your mind is already made up, so in fact your initial call to be informed is irrelevant. By virtue of being a mother you are already “informed enough to be a smart, inspired actor.” That part truly surprised me, from the perspective of a parent, sociologist, and citizen.

    It particularly surprised me because you characterized those who think that having guns in their homes makes them safer as “average fools.” But if you can form your beliefs without respect to information, why can’t the average fool? In my view neither side should form their views without regard to information, hence my desire to know whether or not having gun in one’s home actually makes them safer or not.

    On further reflection, it is perhaps my own sociological hubris that makes me foolish enough to think that people’s views are/should be influenced by empirical reality. I recall an article published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review by two Yale scholars, Dan Kahan and Donald Braman, called “More Statistics, Less Persuasion: A Cultural Theory of Gun-Risk Perceptions” (V151,N4, April 2003). They argue that support of or opposition to legal regulation of guns is based on individuals’ cultural worldviews, not empirical data.

    Last, I appreciate your sentiment that “if we’re constantly forced to be pragmatic on these things, we’ll never envision a new world for our kids that’s worth achieving.” But at some point, we need to figure out how to make our visions into realities. You know this because you are calling for a social movement and a successful social movement will require people not just to be inspired but also informed and smart — which to me means pragmatic.

    p.s., I apologize for the social class comment. That was my not altogether fair response to your “average fools” comment, which seemed to me quite elitist.


  3. Dear David,
    Enjoying your blog (just tripped over it a few days ago). This (oh-so-painfully typical) discussion reminded me of my friend (and web client) who (with his usual beautifully reasoned and graceful presentation) answered a guestbook comment from his own personal ({wince}) I’d say lack-of-)knowledge and viewpoint about gun control. I, a committed gunnie, emailed him in dismay, and provided him with a (link to a) great piece of thoughtful knowledge — and to his credit, he read it, considered it, and answered again… His discomfort (as a father and pacifist and disliker-of-guns) did NOT get in the way of him considering facts and reality, and writing so. (I applaud him, as I often do!)

    Please take a look: http://www.psandman.com/gst2013.htm#guns , entitled “Using the Sandy Hook shootings to promote gun control.” I’d be very interested in your opinion.


  4. Elenor – First of all, thanks for your comments. Second, on risk communication, wow! I didn’t even know that existed. The back and forth between you two is at a much higher level than we usually see in these debates. Sandman cites the work of Kahan and Braman, who I think are very close to the truth: that people’s views of guns are very much influenced by cultural understandings of risk (perceptions). This makes the debates difficult to move forward because the differences are about more than guns. Always about more than just guns!


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