Civilized Violence: Lessons from Gun Schools

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:

  1. to be afraid of being victimized;
  2. to feel comfortable around guns;
  3. 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.


  1. I’m a little worried about 1 and 3 without elaboration. One can be selective about where one is likely to be victimized and as some have said, don’t do stupid things and avoid stupid places and your risks plummet. As Andrew Papachristos has shown in his research, violence is not generalized, even in some high violence places, but is localized in small subcultures.

    Mas Ayoob, as you have discussed, reminds us that using violence in self defense may be necessary, must be mentally trained for complete with tactics, but always has a moral element. Again, what exactly does the school say?

    Liked by 1 person

    • His was a short (40 minute) talk about his ongoing research, so there’s not much to elaborate at this point. More food for thought.

      I think there are significant tensions in the gun training community between saying violence is not generalized and saying that no one is safe from violence. So I don’t think rational risk assessment and fear stoking are mutually exclusive in reality.

      On point 3, Ayoob absolutely puts the morality at the center. (

      I find him exceptional in that regard. Exceptional in the sense of being very good, and exceptional in the sense of not being the norm. Of course, there are many gun trainers out there that I have not taken class with, so how exceptional I can’t really say.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. “violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”
    Yes, as a whole, it has. The world is a safer place now, with fewer brush wars and conflicts, than it was in my youth.
    Two things are working against this reality.
    1. If a young girl is kidnapped in Podunk, Arkansas, I stand a decent chance of hearing about it because one of my friends on social media who lives in North Podunk sends out a message to all their friends to watch out. While the numbers might be declining, our awareness of the what’s going on in the world is increasing, making it SEEM like there’s more violence in the world.
    2. The pockets that remain are very violent indeed. You could not PAY me enough to live in the South Side of Chicago right now. It doesn’t affect me here in SWFL, but that can change as quickly as a summer’s breeze.

    Liked by 2 people

    • 1. Good point on social media power to make us hyper-aware. I see the same thing in the bicycling subculture, where every crash is a shot around the world, hence “bicycling is too dangerous”

      2. How would that change “… as quickly as a summer’s breeze”?

      S. Chicago became what it is over a prolonged period for very identifiable reasons, of which our social and political institutions chose to ignore or use the wrong medicine for the job. . Usually we have plenty of warning over which way the wind will blow.


      • I was in St. Louis the night of the Ferguson riots. I had no idea that 20 minutes away from where my family and I were enjoying the riverbank and the Arch, there was looting and rioting going on.
        The violence of S. Chicago is a storm that has been building for a while and is unrelated (and yet, related) to the BLM movement. The riots we have seen in Dallas, Charlotte Baltimore and elsewhere is what I was referring to. All they need is one incident, and tempers (and violence) will flare.


  3. As I recall, James Bowman’s “Honor: A History” offers a good narrative of the civilizing of violence, in the West, by the sublimation of using violence to avenge personal, familial, or tribal honor to defending the weak via the development of the Chivalric codes and mindset (driven in large part by the Church, and by rulers attempting keep their vassals from fighting amongst themselves, without the necessity of constantly using external wars to keep them busy).

    As Glenn Reynolds notes, Chivalry was a system and our culture has been steadily eroding one side while seemingly unaware the other side falls with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the lead on this book. I haven’t read or seen it. In his book, Pinker has to explain the reversal in violence in the United States that took place from the 1960s through the 1980s which he calls “decivilization.” He attributes it in part to the decline in “manners” that was associated with the rise of the counterculture (as well as to the breakdown of effective centralized government control over certain areas of the country). I am grossly simplifying — the book is 700 pages long — but many interesting ideas in it.


      • I’ll have to add it to the stack. Maybe if I spent less time spouting off on other people’s blogs. 😉


  4. I also take issue with his first point. Not having heard him speak, it reads like the too-common category error many people unfamiliar with self-defense theory and philosophy make by conflating awareness and appreciation of actual risks, however uncommon, with fear of those risks.

    The pacifistic “false-civilized” instinct (which can only exist in the protective shadow of actual civilized violence), seeks to somehow eliminate violence by denying its reality, often even in the presence of it (DeBecker’s “Gift of Fear” covers this well).

    Defending that less-than-objectively rational worldview, and thus the holder’s personal identity, requires them to equate recognition of real risks, and taking reasonable steps to mitigate those risks, with “fear” of that risk. After all, if we can be dismissed as irrationally afraid/racist/paranoid/insecure, it makes them the sane and rational ones. If we are correct in our assessment and actions, then they are the ones living in delusion.


    • Thanks for the comment, and it is interesting that I also mentioned DeBecker’s gift of fear in my response to “Missouri Mule” on this post. Apparently fear is a bogeyman of those who promote self-defense — i.e., you can’t say that you are playing on people’s fears — but I see it all the time. One of the biggest promoters of armed self-defense in the United States is also one of the biggest fear-mongers: Wayne LaPierre. And I read DeBecker as saying “hell, yeah, fear is real and fear is important” — he calls it a “gift” after all.

      I had to go back and look at what I wrote about Shapira’s talk because people responded so much to his point about fear. I wrote that his point was: “to be afraid of being victimized.” I didn’t say anything about this being an irrational fear of victimization. But the narrative arc of many of the gun classes I have been in is: “The world is a dangerous place. . . Equip accordingly.”

      Which now that I think of it, is an ad for Crimson Trace and, man, isn’t it hard sometimes to tell the difference between an instructional gun TV show and an ad for certain products? But I digress…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thinking about it more carefully, I am reacting to his (or your summarizing) use of “Learn: …”

        People who take the time and spend the money to buy a gun for self-defense, much less go to gun school, are usually -already- fearful of being a victim, if they weren’t, they wouldn’t have intellectually and emotionally invested in even thinking about self-defense in the first place.

        Thus, they go to gun school not to learn the fear, they have that, they go to learn how to -manage- that fear and turn it into productive action via growing comfortable with the tools and learning how to use them (his second point).

        Most of my formal gun school training has been on tactics and gun handling, as I think it should be. Which touches on his third point (and indirectly back onto his first), if you are going to gun school you have (and I assume any rational person has), already addressed the moral questions of taking a life / harming others in self-defense and examined to some degree your willingness to do so. In fact, I’d hope most people got their initial instruction in the fundamentals of the morality of violence from parents and/or clergy, or other role models of youth, and from our cultural stories on the subject (to include Tolkein, cowboy/soldier/police books and movies, etc in addition to the Western canon).

        Thus there’s no need for schools to really “teach” that morality (I’d say it is outside their wheelhouse unless they include philosophers and/or theologians on staff), but merely give the practical context of that morality insofar as it applies to using specific -weapons- against others.

        So there’s my quibble, which I think arises from Shapira approaching the subject as a more or less dispassionate observer rather than fully contextualized participant. Based on the description, I think by missing the student’s moral/intellectual/emotional prelude to ever going to gun school he thus sees an absence of something that is actually inherent to it.


      • Really interesting points. I am going to talk to him about the different kinds of classes he is observing. I think many “gun schools” teach a range of courses, so some of his observations could come from very basic courses ( #1) while others from more advanced courses (#3). Thanks for the insights

        Liked by 1 person

  5. This guys take seems like the typical shallow short sited view of the personal defense culture. first he misinterprets risk assessment with “to be afraid of being victimized”; then he confuses “to feel comfortable around guns” with competence with firearms; and finally he confuses “to think about killing someone as a question of tactics rather than morality” with the true morality of defending the lives of innocents and the self. Either the author is a very shallow person or he went to a crappy firearms school. Just sayin’.


    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, but I have to beg to differ with you thoughts here.

      First of all, I don’t think suggesting Shapira is possibly a “shallow PERSON” (based on my summary of his on-going research) is appropriate. Might his current understanding of what is taught in gun schools be developing still? Absolutely. He said and I said in my post: “The research Shapira presented during his visit was admittedly preliminary, and so the ideas attributed to him here should be taken as such.” It is not helpful to the end of understanding (which is my goal in running this blog, at least) to attack the person rather than to criticize the ideas. And to make definitive rebuttals to provisional thoughts is not very generous.

      Note: Because of confidentiality required in academic research (in contrast to journalism), he cannot say what gun school he has spent most of his time at. But based on his description, I have reason to believe that the head instructor is well-known and respected in the gun training industry. So, I don’t think his finding can be attributed to “crappy firearms school.”

      Second, do you allow the possibility that, as someone who comes from outside the personal defense culture, he might teach you something about it? You assert three facts about personal defense culture (risk assessment not fear, competence not comfort, and morality not tactics), but what is your basis for these claims? I have certainly seen rational risk assessment AND unreasonable fear AND reasonable fear taught in gun classes. Gavin de Becker writes about “the gift of fear.” Wayne LaPierre stokes unreasonable fear. The Tactical Professor promotes rational risk assessment. (

      Let’s not pretend that self-defense culture is uniformly about rational risk assessment as opposed to stoking fear of victimization. In fact, untested hypothesis: many people get into personal defense culture out of fear, which is stoked by personal defense culture to motivate people to get involved, and then in the course of training that initial fear of victimization is developed into rational risk assessment. In fact, as I think about it, this is the narrative arc of every episode of Michael Bane’s TV show “The Best Defense.”

      Even though I have studied gun culture longer than Shapira, I don’t approach his ideas with a sense that he has nothing to teach me. And I certainly don’t take the approach that if I think he has missed the mark or could develop his thinking more he has a shallow short sighted view or is a shallow person.


      • Your points are well taken. I miss spoke in referring to him as “shallow person,” what I should have said was limited investigation. My other mistake was to base my comments on my personal experience in training. The instructors I have studied with began threat analysis and designed instruction from that point. I did not perceive them as stoking paranoia. I believe you are right about LaPierre’s political marketing approach. His job is to grab attention and promote action in defense or promotion of the 2nd Amendment armed defense, I should have been more considerate of Shapira’s position because it does give insight into how persons outside the “gun culture” perceive it. Thank you for your very constructive criticism.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for taking my comments in the spirit in which they were given. I hope to work on a systematic analysis of the civilian gun training industry next year. Your thoughts will be very helpful as I move forward with that

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I am new to this site. So far I have found it very informative and thought provoking.

    While fear of being victimized is a common motivation, I have found in my experience and those of my students in concealed carry classes that another common motivation is having experienced or had a loved one experience violence. Their fear is not imagined or irrational.

    As for me, I became interested in self-defense after a man came to where I worked with a gun to shoot a person for reasons I never discovered. He was stopped by an armed citizen. About the same time I knew a guy who was shot to death at a party over some argument. I have had many other experiences that have shown me that violence is more common than many people think. And I am not a minority living in a drug-infested neighborhood. I have lived in mostly middle to upper middle class neighborhoods. One time I had a guy try to attack me while I was visiting the “peaceful” country of Holland with a knife in a town of less than 30,000 people. Violence in my experience can happen most anywhere. It is real, not imagined.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] I advise graduate students and untenured professors who ask me for advice about studying guns to avoid it, UNLESS their fundamental viewpoint is critical of guns. The new generation of scholars who have made a name for themselves studying guns recently are the ones who work within the accepted boundaries of orthodox academic thought. This is true even of the ones whose work on guns I really appreciate like Jennifer Carlson (ideologies of masculine protectionism drive gun ownership) and Harel Shapira (gun ownership as a form of “civilized violence”). […]


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