Firearms / Risk

Understanding the Social Life of Guns

Last fall I was invited to contribute a short essay to the newsletter of the Medical Sociology section of the American Sociological Association. The editors asked me to write anything I wanted to about guns that would be helpful to medical sociologists studying the issue.

While some sociologists call for a shift in the national narrative surrounding guns from freedom to control, I continue my effort to shift the sociological narrative on guns from deviance to normality. It is an uphill battle, but I credit the editors of the newsletter for allowing me the opportunity to contribute.

A PDF of my page in the newsletter is here, and the full text is replicated below. The entire newsletter can be found under the Winter 2018 link on the section’s newsletter page.

Understanding the Social Life of Guns

In June 2017, the Pew Research Center reported that 70% of American adults have fired a gun at some point in their lives. That is nearly 180 million people. Looked at the other way around: A minority of American adults have never shot a gun. Like many sociologists, I was in that minority for most of my life. Consequently, until six years ago when I began studying guns, I had no idea how common and normal they are in the United States.

Seeing guns and gun ownership as normal contrasts sharply with the views of my fellow sociologists. When I tell colleagues I am studying “gun culture,” they frequently hear me saying “gun violence,” since their primary association with guns is with deviant behavior. Or they will respond, “Good, more people need to be studying gun control,” betraying the primacy of their political views over their desire for greater empirical understanding. It falls too far outside their experience with and understanding of guns to think of them in any way other than negatively. I understand this point of view, because for the first 20 years of my academic career, I shared this stance towards guns. But what can an approach to guns that recognizes their normality rather than their pathology do for medical sociologists?

Although it falls outside the scope of medical sociology proper, those considering studying guns in connection with health, illness, and injury do well to bear in mind that, on any given day in America, the vast majority of gun owners will not have any negative outcomes associated with their guns.

The best available estimates suggest that there are at least 300 million privately owned guns in some 50 million households in the U.S. today. According to the NCHS, in 2014 there were 11,008 homicides using firearms. Even using the faulty assumption that a person from a different household committed every homicide using a different gun, at most 0.022% of gun-owning households and 0.0037% of guns are “responsible” for firearms homicides. Looked at the other way around, at least 99.978% of gun owning households and 99.996% of guns are not involved in homicide in any given year. Even if we add non-fatal firearms injuries (73,505 in 2013) and suicides (21,386 in 2014), only 0.035% of guns and 0.21% of gun-owning households at most are “responsible.” Less than 99.965% of guns and 99.788% of gun-owning households are associated with any of these negative outcomes.

It is true that the firearms homicide, suicide, and injury rates in the U.S. are higher than some other countries that afford their citizens less freedom and responsibility in this area. But it is also true that the overwhelming majority of American citizens who exercise this freedom do so responsibly. Just like the vast majority who exercise the rights to free speech and religious practice do so responsibly. Gun ownership overall certainly compares favorably in terms of public health to alcohol consumption – more commonly experienced, better understood, and consequently less criticized by sociologists – even though the same principle that a small number of abusers are responsible for the vast majority of the problems applies.

Some compare the number of vehicular deaths annually to the number of firearms deaths, but this comparison is faulty. The 37,195 vehicular deaths reported by the NCHS in 2014 are in the “unintentional” category. Only 461 firearms deaths in 2014 are categorized as unintentional. The overwhelming majority of people who die from gunshot wounds are shot intentionally, by themselves or others. This intentionality shifts attention to understanding how other factors are necessary for guns to have a lethal or injurious effect. I actually wrote this essay with a 9mm Glock 43 auto-pistol sitting next to me just to verify that it is in fact an inanimate object with no capacity to act on its own.

One need not accept the NRA mantra that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” to recognize that as inanimate objects guns are not an independent risk factor for death or injury. Although we can control for other factors to artificially isolate guns in statistical models, ceteris paribus exists only in our computers. In the real world, all other things are not equal.

Like many health disparities, the reality is that certain people with guns kill or injure themselves or other people more often under certain circumstances. This is a lot harder to think about and study than a myopic focus on guns themselves, which necessarily implicates the vast majority of guns and gun owners who are in no way involved in firearms deaths or injuries and never will be.

The vast majority of sociologists I have met are not gun people and so, like the younger me, have no appreciation of the complex social reality of guns. My hope is that understanding the normality and innocuousness of the vast majority of guns and gun owners will make studies of the modest amount deviant behavior committed with guns more sensitive and sophisticated.

This gets at the truth highlighted by the old joke: How many sociologists does it take to change a lightbulb? Four. One to change the bulb and three to explain the root causes of darkness. Especially in a country of 300 million mostly innocuous guns and in 50 million mostly normal, law-abiding gun-owning households, we do well to focus on the root causes of injury and death rather than a tool that has no life of its own.

 

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21 thoughts on “Understanding the Social Life of Guns

  1. Pingback: Understanding the Social Life of Guns | 2nd Amendment, Shooting & Firearms Blog

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    When I was a cop, we were taught that your service revolver, was three times more likely to kill a member of your family, usually a suicide, and, your service revolver was twice as likely to kill yourself, usually a suicide, than it was likely that your service revolver would kill a criminal.

    Outside influences are involved, such as stress. It affects people differently. The conditions existing in a family unit. Alcoholism. Narcotics use. Prescription medication abuse. Foolishness. Horseplay. Anger issues. Mental issues. Numerous conditions.

    Of the many conditions involved with any misuse of firearms, my observations, in life, are that decades ago, in the twentieth century, people were prepared to go into the grownup world, before they graduated high school. Today, I see people incapable of reasonable thinking, in their forties. A lack of maturity, and a total resistance against responsibility. Devolution. Dumbing down. I grew up around guns. I dared not to violate any safety protocol. As I grew up, more responsibilities were added to my obligations. Old fashioned raised. It spans all ethnicities and all religions. It was an American heritage.

    When people misuse firearms, there will usually be some failure associated in the person’s character. They were never corrected early in life. As the late FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover said in substance, “Correcting behavior, does not start with the electric chair. It starts with the high chair.”

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Nicely done!

    This sort of discussion, led by folks like you and Andy Papachristos, would benefit the whole discussion of gun use vs. gun misuse and could foster a better understanding of gun use in America, i.e., the “normal” use of the vast majority of guns in the USA by the vast majority of gun owners. This could do two things. First, differentiate in the gun control discussion normalcy from abnormalcy. Two, explain how various suggestions for “gun control” would have costs and benefits. Right now, I see a lot of even reputable researchers being intellectually blind to how the various proposals they push forward would be a pain in the saddle to a lot of gun owners.

    Another issue I have is the comparison to auto mishaps and for different reasons than David. Sure, most auto mishaps are unintended where as most gun death and injury are intended. After all, one is a transportation tool and the other is a high velocity hole punching tool. But that said, many, if not most auto mishaps are the result of deliberate or oblivious misuse of the vehicle, i.e., Acts of Clod, not God. About a third of auto mishaps are due to impairment and the percent due to inattention are in double digits. My employer, which writes paychecks for over 10,000 people, made the mistake of appointing me the chair of our traffic safety committee. I compiled seven years of MV accident reports and over 70% were associated with at least one driver being cited for a moving violation. So to me, the question is now whether vehicle mishaps are “unintentional” but why the sociology of driving in America accepts carnage while the sociology of non-gun owners treat gun owners as aberrant and risky. As a cyclist in Santa Fe recently discovered, one can be greviously wounded by a motorist and that’s more likely than to be wounded by a gunman.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Very well written sir and to echo yourself I read this with my Beretta 92FS, round in the chamber, safety on, hammer down and in a holster with a strap across the hammer and the inanimate object did not jump out and go off on it’s own.

    Like

  5. And like that, this article is vaulted into a spot among my favorite articles all time on Gun Culture 2.0. Great article David!

    Like

  6. Pingback: Understanding The Real Gun Culture | 357 Magnum

  7. Sir you have a huge up hill battle as evidenced by the interview with Dr. Sandro Galea.
    I was raised in NYC when guns were pretty common and most colleges had rifle teams. My parents were raised in NYC when most High Schools had a rifle team. Fast forward to today and most people would not believe those facts to be true.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed. My piece did not fit well thematically with the rest of the issue but at least it is there.

      Coming from California, I was interested to learn that many NC high schools continue to have rifle teams.

      Like

  8. VERY WELL DONE! And cuts to the heart of the matter. Shortly after Paul Erhardt and I coined the phrase “Gun Culture 2.0”, we produced an informal paper that we circulated at NSSF and other outlets on, “The Normalization of Firearms in American Society.” The paper argued much of our necessary defense of 2A issues did not move us in the direction we needed to go on a social level. We argued that the ideal social positioning of firearms was “boring,” this is, the ownership, carrying and use both recreational and in self-defense of firearms should become unexceptional. Much of our industry initiatives — and ALL my work in media — has focused on that goal. I (and Erhardt) believe that we reached, with apologies to Malcom Gladwell, a “tipping point” somewhere around 2012, thanks largely to the spectacular success of the concealed carry movement and huge growth in both the shooting sports and the training community (we have reasons for that growth, but that is another paper). Guns are becoming unexceptional, so much so that even the liberal hysteria over the rare events of mass shootings can no longer overcome the “normality bias” in favor of the now expanded Gun Culture.

    Love to talk to you about this sometime!

    Michael B

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Gun Culture 2.0 Year in Review 2017 | Gun Culture 2.0

  10. I am a ‘gun guy’. I am a firearms instructor, a range safety officer, and a competitive shooter. I also run a pistol league at my gun club. And I have friends who are intelligent and thoughtful who do not have any desire to learn about firearms. Firearms scare them. I like to tell my anti-gun friends, who will listen, that guns are not dangerous if you learn and apply just a few safety rules. Rules that they surely are capable of learning and understanding. I tell them that there are many dangerous things that we come into contact with on a daily basis and that they are not concerned about these items because they are knowledgeable about how to safely handle them. For example, gasoline is very dangerous if not handled properly. But we learn at an early age to not breathe the fumes, or have an open flame nearby, or even spill it on the ground. A criminal can use gasoline to make a Molotov cocktail and firebomb and kill an entire family, or worse. Many of us have butcher blocks on our kitchen counter tops that hold several long and very sharp knives. Anyone nearby could pick one up and thrust it into the chest of the person standing next to them before the poor innocent soul had any idea what was happening. But we don’t expect evil behavior from our house guests and know that the knives will not harm anyone without some person with evil intent taking action. There are many other examples of dangerous items in our daily lives: cars, prescription drugs, poisons, insecticides, etc but we are familiar with these items and know how to be responsible with them. If you are not comfortable with firearms, get some training. Training will remove your fears and make you comfortable handling and using guns. And shooting is fun. It also has the other application of allowing you to protect yourself or someone you love it the need presents itself.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. You have to be careful how some people slice their data. Gun crime. Gun suicide. As opposed to all violent crime and all suicide.

    On the subject of Suicide – consider the case of Canada. They have fewer gun suicides, but a higher suicide rate. (Or they did the last time I checked. https://wheelgun.wordpress.com/2015/10/07/suicide-vs-gun-death-suicide/ ) They had similar rates of gun-suicide before their laws changed. The suicide rate didn’t change, the methods did. Should Canada institute rope control, or do away with transit trains because those are suicide methods?

    As for violent crime, the UK is often rated one of the most violent countries in Europe. They don’t have gun crime, but they did experience an increase of knife crime in 2017. (They don’t track crime on a calendar year, but the data is out there if you search.)

    Liked by 1 person

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