This is the seventh and final end of class student reflection paper from my Sociology of Guns seminar from Fall 2015. You can also read the first reflection (with background information on the actual assignment), second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth reflections.
This author’s initial reflection is available is available as well.
By Lee Mendenhall
Ignorance is bliss. Life certainly seemed a lot simpler when my view of guns came almost exclusively from my exposure to the culture around me in West Virginia. Although it made me quite experienced with firearm usage, it also left me uneducated as to current role that guns were actually playing in society. So what happens when you are uneducated? Well it makes it incredibly easy for a lobbying agency to construct your opinions for you. That’s what happened for me. My ideas about guns were almost verbatim out of the NRA’s handbook, and the confidence with which I defended them was almost laughable. It was humorous not in the sense that they are completely wrong but in the sense that I was willing to defend my stance so readily without ever looking at a hint of research. However, this is where I do give myself some credit; I recognized my fallacy. I knew that I needed to learn more about gun culture in America, so when this sociology class became available to take, I jumped right in (regardless of being a Chem. Major).
Right off the bat I was asked to deliver on my current view of guns. In the first installment of this trilogy of papers, I described my West Virginia upbringing. Guns were everywhere—my state has one of the highest gun ownership per capita rates in the country. I discussed how our Democratic state senator, Joe Manchin, shot a bolt action rifle into a piece of legislation for his campaign commercial. Then I continued forward to mention just how clear I thought the role of guns should be, “Guns will always serve in my life as tools for hunting, recreational target shooting, and for the purposes of self-defense.” Looking back now, I realize how self-centered I visualized guns as a part of life. I was so concerned about legislation infringing on my personal rights within these three categories that I failed to even consider the role that they might be playing in the country as a whole. This isn’t to say that overbearing legislation is no longer a concern, but I now know that I cannot be so one sided in my approach.
As the class progressed, I grew to learn just how dynamic the gun issue truly is. At first, things started from the most basic level: unveiling the legislative framework surrounding guns in America. This was an important step as we couldn’t have logical arguments about where to progress with gun laws if we didn’t know where we currently were. After setting the stage with legalities, we then looked at the subtopics of gun culture including: crime rates, concealed carrying, citizen protectors, mental health, mass shootings, gang violence, suicide, and many others. Each of these brought their own unique conversations and discoveries along the way.
Towards the end, we were asked to look at one of these aspects of gun culture and highlight how guns are currently playing a role in today’s society. We were pushed to extensively research these roles and educate our fellow classmates on our findings. When deciding on what I wanted to research, I knew I wanted to focus a little on my state. After thinking about it for a while, I came up with one simple question I wanted to answer: “Do the severity of handgun laws play a role in the presence of gun violence across different states?” To be able to approach this, I had to hone my focus on three states with varying handgun laws. Choosing West Virginia was convenient as it was given an F ranking for its gun laws by “Gun Law Scorecard” (a website that ranks states’ gun laws on an A,B,C,D,F scale). Colorado was next selected for its ranking of C- and because I think it is a hybrid of rural and urban areas. New York was finally selected for its A- ranking and its high presence of urban life.
So what were the results? Well I wasn’t lying earlier when I said ignorance is bliss. By looking more in depth into the positive and negative outcomes of handguns within these states of differing policies, it makes defining appropriate laws to be incredibly difficult. New York had both the strictest laws yet the highest gun homicide rate. On the flip side, West Virginia had both the most liberal laws yet the highest ratio of Gun Deaths (including suicide and restricting the ages to those who would knowingly use a firearm). In looking into handguns for self-defense, the data shows that they are barely used for this purpose. So making any sort of conclusions could only be based loosely from this data presented.
So when asked again, “What role should guns play in society,” my answer is not nearly as simple as before. In terms of hunting and target shooting, I suppose my opinion has not changed too much. If anything, seeing that certain weapons like the AR-15 aren’t used as violently as portrayed by politics and media only furthered my confidence that their sale is perfectly acceptable for hunting and target shooting. In terms of protection, I do still believe handguns are valuable self-defense tools. Evidence may suggest they can be catalysts to make criminal altercations more violent, but that should be an understood risk if the weapon is to be drawn for use. The main discovery I have made when it comes to guns is that you cannot paint America with a single legal brush stroke. Each respective area needs to have their own laws that would coordinate with the issues they need to address. What’s more, I think that targeting guns legislatively might be less effective than attacking the underlying issues that lead to guns being used for inappropriate reasons. We need to give more attention to helping the mentally ill. We need to give more attention to usurping violent crime. We need to give more attention to training individuals on proper gun use and storage away from adolescents. Guns aren’t going away any time soon, so we might as well try to knock out the reasons people might use them negatively fashion. This direction might be overly optimistic, but in the age where politicians want to make nationally sweeping laws, focusing on people rather than guns will likely have a much greater impact. Regardless of the approach, I am glad to know I can now have intelligent conversations about the presence of guns in America. Maybe one day in the future classes such as these might find educational homes across the US. It would certainly help make Gun Sense possible.