This is the fifth and final student end-of-class reflection paper from my Sociology of Guns seminar at Wake Forest University.
This is one of my brightest students this semester — I also posted her seminar paper on hunting recently — and she makes some interesting observations about the guest lecture in class by Rob Pincus. (Which reminds me, I need to post about that.)
For reference, the assignment was: In this final essay, you will revisit your previous personal experience with and understanding of guns in the U.S. (as expressed, e.g., in the field trip reflection essay) in light of your consideration of the role guns actually do play in American society. Reflecting on what you learned from completing your major writing assignment, as well as the class more generally, discuss how your mind has (and/or has not) changed. Conclude this paper by considering what more you need to know in order to make informed choices about your own participation with and the place of guns in the communities in which you live and will live in the future.
By Natalie Wilson
Guns were not a part of my upbringing, and none of my friends really shoot, so guns have always felt very foreign to me. Through this course, however, I’ve had the opportunity to encounter and shoot a handgun, read a variety of qualitative and quantitative studies on gun culture, be challenged by the many different ideas and insights of my classmates, and hear from a couple of guest lecturers who engage with guns and gun culture in different ways. I love that this course began with a trip to a gun shop and gun range, because I was able to gain a lot of background information, everyone in the class had a shared experience and starting point to contextualize and ground our theoretical discussions.
I found John Johnston’s visit to be really valuable, because it forced me to challenge some of my own stereotypes and preconceived notions about “gun nuttiness,” and there’s certainly something to be said for actually learning about gun attitudes straight from the source rather than simply research studies and for engaging with a firearms expert in person and having the opportunity to discuss issues and ask questions. As we talked about at the end of class, facts and statistics aren’t always enough to actually change people’s opinions or beliefs on gun control due to selective confirmation bias, but one of the ways our class pushed us a step further was through our engagement with these speakers.
Rob Pincus’s talk was also especially interesting to me in the way it tied a lot of the different concepts we discussed together, and because his “Protect What You Love” philosophy connected with my SOC 153 course with Professor Harnois, Sociology of the Family. It was also really exciting because I’ve actually been following Pincus on his social media channels for a while — one of his training videos went viral after Sandy Hook and I’d found his approach to classroom defense really unique, interesting, and empowering for students. For my SOC 153 course, I had an assignment to conduct a one-hour, in-person or Skype interview on a theory we discussed in class, so after his guest lecture, I actually reached out to Pincus and ended up having a really interesting discussion with him on firearms and fatherhood. In my class, one theory of fatherhood is that men are assessed on their success in it through four key facets — protection, provision, endowment of values, and emotional closeness — and when Pincus was talking about his training and the way that his wife has built a relationship with guns through him, I was immediately reminded of the protection facet. The conversation with Pincus, however, revealed that he could tie his relationship with his family and with firearms together through all four facets, and that really gave me an a-ha moment about the “culture” and symbolic meaning part of gun culture. I had a really interesting conversation with Pincus thanks to being connected to him through the class, and our discussions and readings also allowed me to better engage with and understand of what he was talking about.
Even though I feel as though I still am not sure of my stance on guns this conversation allowed me to utilize and synthesize many ideas I’d learned. Additionally, while our class isn’t meant to be centered around the gun control debate, that is an extremely relevant and salient motivator for wanting to better understand contemporary gun culture, and it often felt like our class could’ve been a thought force deployed to address it, especially at the end of the semester, which was a really cool experience.
When I entered this class in January, I was already having a lot of conversations with friends about firearms rights, safety, control and regulation, in response to the Vegas concert shooting in October 2017, the anniversary of the 2012 Newtown Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December, and the fear I and many of my other queer friends still felt as a result of the Orlando Pulse gay nightclub shooting in June 2016; however, as my tentative anti-gun stance I’d maintained for a while morphed into a more staunch one, I felt as though maybe I wasn’t being fair. Being bombarded by reports of mass shooting after mass shooting made the issue seem so widespread, so common, and so dire, but I truly had no familiarity with guns or understanding of gun culture and the true role of guns in U.S. society. I remember a conversation with a friend where I rather abruptly and exasperatedly decided that gun owners should have to give up their guns and put aside their hunting and sport shooting hobbies altogether immediately to reduce mass shooting violence, and that only after we figured out how to better prevent firearm-related deaths should they be allowed back into the public, consumer realm. This, however, was too simplistic, and I had no concept of the reality of gun culture today, but through this class, I’ve been exposed to the complexities of how people of different identities and backgrounds interact with guns and the wide ranges of attitudes towards them.
At the time of that conversation, it felt like the gun control debate was almost one of whether the right to firearm-based recreation was worth the loss of lives, but in reality, hunting and sport shooting is not the “center of gravity” of how people engage with guns and gun culture in today’s society at all. I’ve found that the common motif in today’s self-defense oriented gun culture is security — whether that sense of security is related to protecting one’s home, one’s resources, one’s family, oneself, one’s liberty from government oppression, or even the entire gay community by proxy. I was really struck by this, because even though I’d been aware of concealed carry permits and people who protect their home and family with firearms, I’d completely underestimated the magnitude and nuances of “Gun Culture 2.0.” My own opinions were guided by an outdated understanding of Gun Culture 1.0, and as I realized when conducting research for my final paper on hunting culture, that understanding was also misguided and lacked depth. This class has sparked my interest in both hunting culture and gun culture in general, and I hope to follow your blog and continue researching in the future as the gun control debate at the center of national discourse evolves. Additionally, while I found my exploration of hunting interesting, I think it would be really valuable to conduct firsthand ethnographic research, as there was a qualitative research gap in the literature I reviewed.
Figuring out how guns function in our culture and society and how to make them more functional and less destructive is absolutely imperative, but I absolutely believe any solutions are going to be difficult to determine, controversial, and complex, and they can’t be developed without a comprehensive sociological overview like the one we attempted to curate as a class through our class discussions on weekly literature and individual research projects. I’ve learned a lot, and now that I have more experience with and knowledge of the multifaceted role guns actually play in our society every day, including the prevalence of firearms, their lawful possession and use, gun crime and injuries, and mass homicide, as well as the historical significance and legalities of firearms, I can be better informed when debating these issues.
Personally, however, I still feel inconclusive as to where I stand, and that was especially evident to me when I attended the March For Our Lives rally and march in downtown Winston. I found myself noting the speakers’ rhetoric — was the abhorrence of the AR-15 warranted, or was this firearm simply the new “Saturday Night Special.” How were race and gender discussed? Policing, interpersonal violence, mental illness criminal activity, white supremacy, and school and mass shootings were all addressed, but how were these sensationalized, minimized, compared, contrasted, and conflated? Did gunowners who didn’t want to give up their guns but who did support more regulation have space and representation at this particular iteration of the movement? I found myself thinking of the articles we’d read, and I felt a little discomfort with getting completely on board with some of the chants and messaging I heard.