Sociology of Guns Seminar Student Final Reflection Paper (4 of 4)

Here is the fourth 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 and third reflection papers as well.

As I noted before Christmas, I am teaching this course for the third time in the spring semester of 2017 (beginning January 10th), and hoping to do a better job of posting about the course as I go, though with a couple of major writing projects looming, no promises!


Revisiting the Question: The Role of Guns through an Updated Urban Lens

by Julia Rootenberg

The gun debate is one that I used to listen to from the outskirts. It is not because I didn’t care, I certainly did, but I figured that my voice would get lost in the deafening screams that are typical of such a polarized issue. What’s more, I have always been irked by people who are clearly uneducated about something but continue to contribute their uninformed commentary.

I have found this to be particularly endemic within liberally-leaning groups in the gun debate. There is a vicious cycle at play here: liberal people tend to know less about guns (due to less interaction with them, perhaps as a result of geographical location). The less exposure to guns a person has, the more difficult it is for him or her to see merit or value in its existence.

I admit that I am guilty of this myself. Because I never went out hunting or skeet shooting with my family or received a gun for Christmas (although in my case it would be Hannukah), my limited exposure to and, subsequently, limited knowledge of guns pushed me farther away from understanding them. The only context in which I heard about guns was violence: mass shootings and shootings by police. After one such event received inordinate amounts of press attention, I would engage in discussions with my family or friends about the tragedy and how “something” needed to be done about it. But, these discussions never imparted any new knowledge; they only reinforced how opposed to guns everyone around me was.

Here, it is important to note that I grew up surrounded predominantly by liberal and upper class families. The parents of my friends tended to be lawyers or psychiatrists or investment bankers – these people had no experience with rural, conservative America, and many of them refused to step down from their ivory towers to do so. Throughout this course, I have realized that this geographical divide is more significant than one might think. For example, gun ownership in New York City was unheard of amongst my family and friends. Growing up, the only people I could definitively say used guns were police officers, and this made sense.

However, through my research on justifiable homicides by police, the once clear-cut partnership of police officers and guns raised many questions. I was unaware of the systemic safeguards that are in place which allow for police officers to shoot at unarmed people with minimal repercussions. For example, local law enforcement agencies voluntarily submit reports to the FBI regarding justifiable homicides. Therefore, it is virtually impossible to determine an accurate number of how many people are killed by the police each year in America. This is concerning, to say the least, and contributes to a lack of accountability. Additionally, through my research I learned the impact that racial bias and stereotyping have on many shootings by police.

The intersection of race and crime has always been fascinating to me. Through my work at the Bronx Defenders, a public defenders office in the South Bronx, this summer, I saw firsthand how the NYPD disproportionately targets low income people of color. While meeting with clients, I heard countless stories of interactions with police officers that quickly turned from neutral to hostile. I met the family members of unarmed men who had been shot and killed by police. I listened to them tell stories of the pain and suffering that came as a result of a police officer firing their gun. Their pain was genuine and their angry words were justified. However, as a result of my research, I gained insight into how unconscious biases can affect a police officer’s split-second decision to shoot or not shoot at a suspect. Moreover, I learned that the rhetoric used the courtroom and at rallies and protests, which positioned the NYPD as brutes with badges, was not entirely accurate. Police officers are not all inherently bigoted or racist. They are tasked with an enormous burden: to bravely enter into sometimes violent and dangerous situations risk their own lives for others. This is no easy job, and it becomes even more complicated when weapons, specifically guns, are involved. Although my advocacy for accountability and control is unwavering, I am now more willing to acknowledge the difficult and often times instantaneous decisions that police officers have to make.

Fatal shootings by police, and guns in general, aren’t going anywhere. In response to this, a number of news publications, most notably the Washington Post, have started compiling their own nationwide data on the amount of shootings by police each year. With increasing recognition, the area of research regarding biases in policing is quickly expanding. I will keep up with newly published research on the topic in order to stay informed about findings and the policies and reforms that may follow. However, in the future, I want to take a more internationally comparative approach to how I view guns and police shootings. Although I will most likely eventually reside in New York City, or another city in the Northeast, I plan to spend some time in Europe shortly after I graduate from Wake Forest. There are massive disparities between Europe and America with regards to fatal shootings by police, and I am interested to see what role police accountability, training, and racial biases play in European countries.


  1. Did this student pay attention in class? All she wrote about in the above is about police shootings. I must imagine that your seminar covered a LOT more territory than that? She did not even address anything about the role of guns in society.

    Well-written, but I’d give her a D at best, as I don’t think she really followed the directions for think he assignment, choosing to write about what she wanted to write about rather than:

    “Better understand your personal beliefs about guns, including scrutinizing your own relationship to guns so as to make informed choices about your own participation with and the place of guns in the communities in which you live.”

    She talked about how police own/carry guns, but didn’t once mention the prevalence of illegal guns in the Bronx. Interesting.


      • I get that. But did she address the question the professor posed? Doesn’t look like it to me. She talked about police shooting people and not much else.

        I am a teacher and I get this a lot, students answering the question they want to rather than the one that is posed.


      • Hey, guys, thanks for the feedback. I should have made clearer that each student engaged a specific topic during the course of the semester, and in this case the student engaged the issue of police shootings. It was a more specific topic than most, but I allowed it because she had a particular interest in it.

        Liked by 2 people

      • If I was editing her paper prior to submission, I would have suggested to Julia that she make a more concrete connection between police shootings, the psychology of police response, and the widespread availability of guns in places like NYC and Chicago, thus pulling the strings together. But overall, the fact that she concentrated on a small range of topic rather than a wide one did not bother me as an external reader. I’d (obviously!) leave it to David to grade the paper in the context of the class. It seems to me that the student narrowed the topic of the final paper considerably but reading it in isolation, it hung together. The whole context of police shootings as these relate to race relations, armed bad guys, income inequality, lack of opportunity, and policing for profit is a topic of immense proportion.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. By the way, David. Thank you and thanks to your class for allowing you to post their papers and the results of this class. It is nice to see a calmly stated academic view of this often polarized topic.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David,

    Not sure what you covered in terms of the history of Policing in regards to the RKBA in the seminar, but if your student is looking for a more thorough grounding on European policing, particularly the history of private gun ownership, gun rights, and policing in the UK (thus the rest of the Anglo-sphere including the US), I’d recommend she read Joyce Malcolm’s “Guns and Violence: The English Experience.”

    As you know, Kopel has done decent work on cross-cultural studies which look at the relationship and tension between private and state force and access to the means thereof. “The Samurai, The Mountie, and the Cowboy” is a good overview of the potential issues in cross-cultural comparisons, although a bit dated on the stats, but he had more recent published articles which have more detail and updated numbers.

    Anyway, to try to compare late 20th/21stC policing and use of force issues across cultures is not going to be meaningful nor useful without the historical cultural context of both policing values and public views of the state monopoly on the use of force.

    Thanks as always and Happy Holidays,


    Liked by 2 people

    • Matthew – Thanks for this thoughtful comment and sorry for the slow response. I don’t address the issue of policing directly in the class. There’s just no time for it. It does come up some in our discussions of concealed carry, for the reason you suggest, as well as in talking about the focused deterrence approach to reducing crime. Always a tradeoff between depth and breadth. Great points, though.


  4. “… people who are clearly uneducated about something but continue to contribute their uninformed commentary.”

    I believe this is THE major problem with discussions about firearms. Many folks are ignorant, often willfully so, which does not bode well for bridging the divides on the subject. Thank you for addressing this point early in your piece, and for relating your personal environments where this was a major influence on folks’ positions on the subject.

    Very well-done overall.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for these comments. We know from scholars like Daniel Kahneman (“Thinking, Fast and Slow”) how heavily people’s understandings are biased by their personal experiences. So, I’ve been please with the structure of this assignment, beginning with the students’ personal views, looking at the research, then returning to the personal views. I don’t seek to “convert” anyone to any particular view, but to create a structure within which they can bring their personal views into a dialogue with research (which may challenge their views). Now that I think of it, the process mimics my own development. Interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.