Here is the third of four student final reflection papers for my Sociology of Guns seminar. You can read about the background to this writing and the first reflection here, and read the second reflection paper here.
By Callie Cleckner
At the beginning of the semester, I was very anti-gun. In fact, I really only understood recreational purposes as someone who grew up in a hunter-friendly rural community. I am not sure if it was because of highly publicized mass shootings or from spending a semester in a country with strict gun laws, but I have never really grasped the necessity of gun ownership for self-defense or even for collections that many Americans will urgently defend. As liberal as I am, it almost pains me to now write that I feel far more ambivalent about the role guns should play in society and the role that the state should play in regulating that role. While I am not eager to get my concealed carry permit or start target shooting, I do now realize how ineffective gun control measures can be in a country this diverse, stratified, and media-driven.
Since I started following politics, I always saw gun control as an easy answer. Why would you possibly need a military-style weapon? Why is it so difficult to create a registration system with better background checks? Do people legitimately feel threatened enough by the government to stockpile guns? However, after learning that almost twenty years ago, there were nearly 200 million firearms already in circulation in the US, and reasonably far more today, the debate gets trickier.[i] There are about 30,000 deaths by firearm in the US every year. That is a big number. However, most (62%) of those are suicides.[ii] Guns are the most common way to commit suicide in the US, especially among men in states that are considered “high gun.”[iii] Suicide by firearm has the highest rate of fatality which is likely why it is the most common way to commit suicide.[iv] The reality of suicide in America was surprisingly one of the biggest turning points for my opinion on guns. Public mass shootings and the deaths of innocent children are given incessant media coverage during their occurrence, yet an average of 50 people die every day in this country by gun suicide—why is this not included in our conversations on guns?[v] We have become obsessed with these random, tragic acts of violence rather than focusing on far more pervasive issues.
Similar to many Americans who consider themselves liberal, my opinions were deluded by high profile incidents. While they are terrible, these mass public shootings in schools, movie theaters, and nightclubs are incredibly rare.[vi] I certainly knew these instances were rare, but the moral panic surrounding them made the threat feel legitimate. I always thought increasing both gun control measures and mental health services would be effective. However, Fox and DeLateur detail how mass murders are highly likely to resist psychological treatment, and researchers have not even been able to detect a relationship between psychiatric diagnoses and instances of mass murder.[vii] Additionally, Kleck details how gun control legislation passed after school shootings is overwhelmingly ineffective.[viii] It is nearly impossible to limit individuals’ access to firearms without simultaneously removing individual liberties and potentially constitutional rights. The debate over the second amendment has become incredibly polarized. Either we think gun violence is an epidemic, or we think it is a sad, inevitable reality. Therefore, considering the ineffective influences on gun control legislation after mass shootings and the inability to help individuals who are potential mass murders, should we not be focusing on mental health care for possibly suicidal individuals, or maybe focusing on other prominent sources of gun violence?
Another one of my biggest turning points this semester in the gun debate was focusing on how stratified views on guns are across populations. I still think most of the people Angela Stroud studied are disproportionately paranoid, particularly because they were overwhelmingly white people who live in relatively safe neighborhoods.[ix] I received the same vibe from Harel Shapira’s subjects. These are not people whose lives likely depend on their concealed weapon, although in some rare instance it might. However, if that is truly what makes them feel safe, how do you change their opinion? The state offers plenty of protections that make me personally feel safe, so how can I tell someone else my feelings of safety are more significant than theirs, especially when it’s protected by the constitution? Even worse, how do we take guns away from criminals whose lives literally depend on having an illegal firearm? There is no single answer for reducing gun violence because the questions are so wide and varied.
In a sense, I feel somewhat hopeless relaying this information. I think I was more optimistic about the future of gun violence prior to this course—though that may be partially due to the election. However, I do feel hopeful in knowing that gun violence is rare, and it is highly centralized to specific communities. Although this reflects the frightening levels of economic inequality and institutionalized racism in this country, it also makes intervention efforts more straightforward. I still would not say I am “pro-gun” or even a defender of the second amendment, but I am beginning to understand why so many Americans are, and for so many different reasons.
[i] Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig, “Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms,” National Institute of Justice: Research in Brief, (May 1997): 1.
[ii] Matthew Miller, Deborah Azrael, and David Hemenway, “Firearms and Violent Death in the United States,” in Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis, ed. Daniel W. Webster and Jon S. Vernick (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 3.
[iii] Ibid., 14.
[iv] Matthew Miller, Catherine Barber, Richard A. White, and Deborah Azrael, “Firearms and Suicide in the United States: Is Risk Independent of Underlying Suicidal Behavior?” American Journal of Epidemiology 178.6, (2013): 951.
[v] Ibid., 946.
[vi] James Alan Fox and Monica J. DeLateur, “Mass Shootings in America: Moving Beyond Newtown,” Homicide Studies XX(X) (2013): 5.
[vii] Ibid., 11.
[viii] Gary Kleck, “Mass Shootings in Schools: The Worst Possible Case of Gun Control,” American Behavioral Scientist 52.10 (2009): 1447-1464.
[ix] Angela Stroud, Good Guys with Guns (Chapel Hill, UNC Press, 2012).