The Problem with Seeing Guns as a Social Problem

As I have been delving into survey research on American gun ownership recently, I was surprised to find studies back into the 1970s criticizing the dominant approach to firearms ownership as being a subject for the sociology of deviance or criminology.

The first two articles I read, from 1975 and 1978, were both published in the academic journal Social Problems. And yet, there is a problem with seeing gun ownership in and of itself as a social problem. And the authors recognized it even at the time.

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According to James Wright and Linda Marston, “There can be little doubt that the death and violence associated with privately-owned weapons is a social problem of enormous importance. . . . On the other hand, these data also suggest that the vast, overwhelming majority of the 90,000,000 or so privately owned weapons are not involved in accidental shootings or intentional deaths. Most gun owners studied in this paper are probably responsible persons who use their weapons for legitimate recreational activities. In this respect, the data presented here may contribute more to the sociology of leisure than to that of social problems” (1975: “The Ownership of the Means of Destruction: Weapons in the United States.” Social Problems 23 (1), p. 106).


Similarly, James O’Connor and Alan Lizotte observe, “Hunting, gun collecting, and sport shooting are activities which involve large numbers of people for whom guns occupy a central but routine and legitimate place. These activities have been generally ignored by researchers interested in gun ownership and violence; but involvement in these activities surely accounts for most gun ownership in the country.” The more things change . . .

This observation raises some questions for O’Connor and Lizotte: “First, do the relevant cultural differences between the South [where gun ownership is more common] and the rest of the country revolve around such legitimate activities as hunting and gun collecting? . . . Second, how are legitimate uses of guns related to illegitimate uses of guns? . . . [H]unting, sport shooting, and gun collecting are socially ordered activities which place a strong emphasis on the safe and legitimate use of firearms. Are hunters and sport shooters involved in a socially organized activity also likely to use firearms in illegitimate ways? . . . Are there any links between legitimate, socially ordered, activities in which guns are central, and illegitimate, though probably socially ordered, activities in which guns are used?” (1978: “The ‘Southern Subculture of Violence’ Thesis and Patterns of Gun Ownership.” Social Problems 25 (4), 428).

Certainly more effort needs to be made to distinguish between the positive and negative uses of guns, and perhaps to focus some more attention on the “routine and legitimate” use of guns, including for leisure.


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