Walking through my department over the winter break earlier this year, I was startled to see a flier with an image of a bleeding bulls-eye target and two guns on it. Looking more closely, I saw it was advertising an exhibit at Inter_Section, a local art gallery. The image (below) was of a painting by the wife of a colleague of mine, Cindy Taplin.
The exhibit description read: “‘Under the Gun’ was originally conceived as a response to the July 2012 shootings in Aurora, Colorado. This senseless killing saddened and outraged three Winston-Salem artists, who decided to invite a group of creative friends to make art that would provoke a conversation about the persistent fascination with guns and violence in the United States. Unfortunately, the latest massacre [at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut], this time of innocent children and teachers, has made the show more relevant than ever.”
During the exhibit, a panel discussion and symposium occasioned by the events that led to the artwork was held at the gallery.
Panelists included sociologist Jon Epstein (also the spouse of one of the artists and gallery owner, Kate Magruder), Winston-Salem City Councilman Dan Besse, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board member Elisabeth Motsinger, Salem College professor Kimya Davis, and another of my colleagues, Wake Forest University professor Steven Gunkel.
As befit a good sociologist, Epstein began by attempting to counter some of the “hysteria” that arises in the wake of a horrific mass murder like at Newtown, CT. He noted that the violent crime rate in Winston-Salem, including the murder rate, is going down. That the crime rate is not related to the availability of guns. Something else/more is going on that just gun availability.
Also a sociologist, Kimya Dennis later added that most people do not base their views on actual data on violence but on how they feel. I would also bring to mind the cultural cognition work previously mentioned that suggests people’s positions on guns are formed by their broader worldview, not facts.
School board member Elisabeth Motsinger was self-consciously aware of this in her comments. She noted that she had been thinking a lot about Sandy Hook and arming teachers in response. She felt what was necessary was “moral courage” – not arming people with guns, but arming them with an idea of what a good society is. Arming people in school teaches kids that the world is a dangerous place, she held, which is the opposite of an open learning environment.
I found this line of argument very interesting because I believe that one’s attitude toward guns is heavily influenced by one’s assessment of how dangerous the world is, and related to broader conceptions of what society should be like.
Epstein agreed with Motsinger, saying “you can’t build a safe, caring community at the end of a gun. Reasonableness stops there.” And Dennis agreed with Epstein, maintaining that you have to fit the solution to the problem. Armed guards in schools will not prevent mass murders. The NRA, she argued, pushes this proposal because it represents the interests of gun manufacturers.
The brief discussion session after the panelists spoke was dominated by the question, What can we do? The issue of the media came up and Dennis debunked the idea that media desensitization played a major role in criminal violence. Esptein offered that rather than desensitizing us the media makes us scared.
City councilman Besse focused attention on the “availability of the tools of destruction.” You can’t kill someone with a gun without a gun. He maintained that there is no legitimate civilian use for military style assault rifles and high capacity magazines. No one on the panel or in the audience disputed this idea, suggesting again that it is a matter of cultural worldviews rather than facts that drives gun debates in America.