I was pleased to host University of Texas sociologist Harel Shapira at Wake Forest recently. Shapira led discussion in my Sociology of Guns class and gave a public lecture on his ongoing research on gun training schools. His public lecture was called “Civilized Violence: Lessons from Gun Schools.”
His current research is in a sense an extension of his earlier work. Shapira’s first book, Waiting for Jose: The Minutemen’s Pursuit of America, was based on 300+ hours he spent living and patrolling for undocumented migrants (“illegal aliens”) on the Southern Arizona border with the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps. He observed that sightings of “Jose” were rare, and apprehensions even rarer, so determined that there had to be more to the patrols than the instrumental task of sealing off the border. Instead of finding “Jose,” what the Minutemen hoped to find in the desert was their own sense of purpose in life and, indeed, their own country. Hence, “the Minutemen’s pursuit of America.”
Most of the Minutemen, Shapira found, were ex-military and so guns and other tactical equipment were common in the camps and on patrol. So when he was ready to embark on a new research project, Shapira decided to put guns at the center of his analysis.
The research Shapira presented during his visit was admittedly preliminary, and so the ideas attributed to him here should be taken as such.
Based largely on observations at a gun training school in central Texas near Austin, Shapira finds that “learning how to operate a gun is a very small part of what one learns at gun schools.” Instead, students Learn:
- to be afraid of being victimized;
- to feel comfortable around guns;
- to think about killing someone as a question of tactics rather than morality.
With respect to the third point in particular, Shapira observes that gun schools teach a particular “etiquette” or “manners” for killing others and thereby define acts of defensive violence as “civilized” rather than barbaric. This “civilized violence” is logical and legal.
In this line of argumentation, Shapira is drawing on the work of Norbert Elias in his 1939 book, The Civilizing Process. This is notable because Steven Pinker also draws on Elias in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. As I have very briefly noted elsewhere, Pinker has argued that, in part due to the civilizing process Elias describes, “violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”
Shapira takes a slightly different view than Pinker, though. Rather than seeing violence simply as declining, Shapira is more inclined to see violence as being transformed by the civilizing process into “civilized violence.”
Again, Shapira is early in his research and this talk was an early opportunity to think out loud about this developing perspective. For my part, I think this line of thinking has potential because those in the self-defense gun training community I have met definitely have a particular view of morally acceptable violence that is enacted according to a particular etiquette. That is, they try to promote a civilized violence.