Following is the text of my lunch presentation at the NRA Foundation National Firearms Law Seminar in Indianapolis, Indiana on 26 April 2019. The 36 minute video version is available on YouTube.
I am very excited to have the opportunity to share my story with you. As I was preparing for today’s talk, a line from the classic Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime” got stuck in my head, although my earworm had a slight variation from the original:
“And you may find yourself
Speaking to a room full of gun lawyers.
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?”
I never saw, touched, or fired a real gun until I was 42-years-old. Eight years later, here I am speaking at the National Firearms Law Seminar. That’s remarkable.
Without disrupting your hard-earned lunch too much, I want to share with you my story – the story of how a liberal professor became an armed American.
I will also share with you some of what I have learned as a sociologist over the past half-dozen years I have spent studying American gun culture.
To begin, I don’t want to assume you have any in-depth knowledge of what sociologists do. So let me highlight two common responses to the question, “What is sociology?”
- First: The painful elaboration of the obvious, AND
- Second: Common sense made difficult
Many people believe that sociologists just tell us what everyone already knows about society, but in much more tortured language. But as we know from efforts to promote “common sense” gun laws, one person’s common sense is another person nonsense.
There may be things about gun culture today that are obvious to you all, as people heavily involved in the culture, that are a revelation to the many people, like me, who come from outside that culture. This is why Peter Berger wrote decades ago in his book Invitation to Sociology:
“It can be said that the first wisdom of sociology is this — things are not what they seem.”
As a liberal professor journeying into American gun culture, I have continually been surprised at what I have found. How things are very much NOT what they seem from the outside.
So, despite its occasional bad press, I still believe in the promise of sociology to illuminate social realities like guns and gun culture. According to the great sociologist of the mid-20th century C. Wright Mills, the sociological imagination allows people
“to grasp what is going on in the world, and to understand what is happening in themselves as minute points of the intersections of biography and history within society.”
As I hope you will see, a sociological imagination guides my approach to answering the question posed by the Talking Heads: How did I get here?
Knowing what I know now about the ubiquity of gun culture in America, I find it remarkable that I avoided guns as long as I did. But the orthodox liberalism of my social environment certainly helped.
I grew up in a little town called Half Moon Bay in the San Francisco Bay area. In this land of unicorns and rainbows, I played sports, revered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and protested apartheid in South Africa. I don’t recall ever thinking seriously about guns, positively or negatively. But if someone had asked my opinion, I am sure I would have said nothing much good comes from guns, so the fewer the better.
After graduating from high school in 1986, I made my way to American University in Washington, DC to study international relations. I served as President of the College Democrats and hosted a McLaughlin Group style political roundtable for the campus TV station. Our big concern at the time was global nuclear annihilation, so we didn’t have much interest in the small arms of American gun culture.
Disillusioned with politics after just 2 years in Washington, I retreated into the ivory tower. I made my way back home to California, to UC-Berkeley where I completed my undergraduate degree, and to the discipline of sociology where I have spent the past 30 years as a student and professor.
But even when I left California for areas of the country more flush with firearms like Wisconsin and Indiana, I remained insulated from gun culture by my liberal academic bubble. In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, I lived in Madison – often called “the Berkeley of the Midwest” – and in Indiana for my first faculty job at the University of Notre Dame, I remained safely protected from the thought of guns by my fellow “card-carrying liberal” academics.
In 2005, I moved to Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and the liberal academic bubble insulating me from guns began to break down. I have to give a lot of credit for this to my wife, Sandy, who is a native North Carolinian. In fact, she grew up in the next county over from Winston-Salem, in a town called Mocksville.
Mocksville has the distinction of being named the Number 1 Most Redneck City in North Carolina. One of the criteria used in the ranking is number of gun stores per capita. (I’ve actually bought 2 or 3 guns from Davie Outfitters in Mocksville, which is pictured in the story.)
Not only were guns a normal part of life for Sandy growing up in Mocksville, she also served in the United States Coast Guard and qualified as an expert with the Beretta M9 she carried while performing her law enforcement duties.
One moment early in our relationship highlights how far apart we were in our experience of gun culture. We were driving down the highway between Winston-Salem and Mocksville one afternoon when I looked out in a field and saw a wooden structure that seemed very out of place. I said, “Sandy, isn’t that a weird spot for kids to build a fort?”
She looked at me as if I were from another planet, which I sort of was, and said, “That is a deer stand.”
She also had to explain to me what they’re used for. For some reason, she married me anyway.
Of course, in North Carolina guns are not limited just to rednecks like Sandy. The whole state is lousy with gun culture. I actually met Sandy through tennis, and conversations with other white collar professionals I played tennis with reinforced what I learned from Sandy.
- My buddy who does health care marketing has some long guns that have been in his family for generations.
- My other buddy who works in IT has two .40 caliber pistols, a Glock and a Smith & Wesson.
- My mixed doubles teammate, a real estate agent, has a gun for when she shows houses.
Talking to these friends, I began to feel like I was the only person in North Carolina who DIDN’T have a gun.
This was an important first lesson I learned in my journey into gun culture:
Guns are normal, and normal people use guns.
This idea became the foundation for all of my scholarly work on American gun culture, as I made clear in a programmatic statement I published in 2017 on “The Sociology of U.S. Gun Culture.”
Although I am not the first scholar studying guns who has begun with this premise, or come to this conclusion, the idea has yet to catch on in academia. A quarter century ago (in 1995) sociologist James Wright included among his “Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America” that
“gun ownership is normative, not deviant, behavior across vast swaths of the social landscape.”
The idea that guns are normal and normal people use guns may seem to be common sense to those of us gathered here, but it is actually a dramatic departure from the standard social scientific approaches that view guns and their owners as deviant, and research literatures that are dominated by criminological and epidemiological studies of gun violence.
The theme is so constant that the New York Times ran a headline just last week declaring: “Gun Research is Suddenly Hot.” In fact, the story was about how research on gun VIOLENCE is hot. Research on lawful gun use is as cold as ever. I am in the scholarly equivalent of Siberia.
To quote the Talking Heads once again,
“Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.”
When the media – especially foreign media – call me for insight into American gun culture, I like to have a single, simple statistic for them that highlights the normality of guns here. One I have been using recently comes from a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center. I was fortunate to consult with Pew on the design of this survey, and they asked many good questions – by which I mean, of course, questions I suggested they ask. One very good question they asked, which I actually did not think of myself, was:
“Regardless of whether or not you own a gun, have you ever fired a gun?”
Pew found that 72% of their respondents said yes. That is nearly three-quarters of all respondents. Extrapolated to the U.S. adult population, this suggests that upwards of 180 million American adults have fired a gun before.
If that is not a normal behavior in our society, I don’t know what is.
For all the criticism we hear of “the mainstream media,” the media actually played an important role in my conversion to gun culture. Even before I started talking to Sandy about guns, I made an important discovery in a room at the Country Inn and Suites in Columbus, Georgia. I was there with my son for a tennis tournament and passed time between his matches flipping through the channels on the TV. By dumb luck, I landed on a History Channel marathon showing back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back episodes of the inaugural season of “Top Shot.” I didn’t have cable TV at the time, so had no idea that a mainstream channel would air a program that combined the basic premise of the reality TV show “Survivor” with a shooting gallery on steroids captured by high speed videography. What I saw was a revelation to me. To this day, I remember the trick shot showdown in episode 7 of that first season. Tara Poremba hit all of her targets shooting a Winchester Model 1873 rifle Annie Oakley style, backward over her shoulder using a mirror to aim, and Chris Cerino drove two of three nails by hitting them on the head with bullets fired from a Smith & Wesson double action revolver.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the excitement of watching the marksmanship skills of these “Top Shot” contestants planted in me a seed of interest in firearms.
Getting interested in guns because of “Top Shot,” and sensitized to their normality by my developing relationship with Sandy, inspired me to overcome my longstanding fear of guns by learning how they work. Sandy paved the way for this by calling her high school classmate Jimmy Staley, a gun trainer for the North Carolina Highway Patrol, who invited us to his nearby farm for a shooting lesson. Jimmy loaded a magazine with 9mm cartridges, inserted it into his Sig Sauer P226, and handed the gun to me. He showed me how to grip the pistol and said, “Go ahead.”
In January 2011, as a 42-year old, I shot a real gun for the first time.
Unfortunately, we didn’t take any photos that day. It was supposed to be a one-time experience to familiarize me with how guns work and so that I could say I did it. Anxiety wiped clean my memory of the precise moment I pulled a trigger for the first time, but I know I completely missed the target. As I shot my way through the first magazine, Jimmy suggested adjustments to my grip and stance and sight alignment and trigger press, and I walked each consecutive shot in closer to the bullseye. At the end of our session Jimmy said, “You did alright.”
Expecting to be frightened, I instead felt challenged. The experience was not unlike golfing. You can have fun golfing even if you are not a good golfer. And getting better at golf, or even just making a couple of good shots during an entire round, is enough to bring you back.
Getting into guns was most assuredly not my intention that day, but after shooting fewer than 50 rounds, I was hooked.
Which is the second lesson I learned in my journey into gun culture:
Shooting is fun and challenging.
It is fun in part because it is challenging. In these trying political times, this very attractive aspect of gun culture too often gets lost.
So, the first lesson I learned in my process of conversion is that guns are normal and normal people use guns. And the second lesson I learned is that shooting is fun and challenging.
But, at this point, you may be asking yourself: What does Gun Culture 2.0 have to do with it?
WHAT DOES GUN CULTURE 2.0 HAVE TO DO WITH IT?
To begin to answer this question, I have to recall an event that took place between my discovery of “Top Shot” and my getting to know Sandy and other gun nuts in my social network.
In the spring of 2010, I was living in an apartment in Winston-Salem. I had not lived in an apartment since I was in college some 20 years earlier. Fortunately, I could afford to live in one of the better complexes in town. But even in a nice apartment complex you have vacancies and turnover, and this transiency means you don’t always get to know your neighbors as well as you could, or perhaps should.
In the three years I lived at the Briarleigh Park Apartments, there were at least four tenants in the unit above mine. I never had a conversation with any of them (or anyone else at the complex for that matter) much longer than “How’s it going?” The sole exception was a woman in her mid-40s who lived alone in a unit upstairs on the back side of my building. Over a few months’ time, we progressed from simple greetings to slightly longer chats, about work or the weather. We talked enough to feel “apartment neighborly,” but not well enough that I even knew her name.
One Saturday afternoon in October 2010, I was just getting home with my younger two kids when I noticed my neighbor distressed and arguing with a man I didn’t recognize. She was standing in the open driver’s side door of her car, blocking him from getting in, and pleading with him not to take it. He was standing very close to her and yelling at her to “just get back in the damn apartment.”
I was nervous but felt I should try to help my neighbor, so I stepped over to ask her if everything was OK. The man looked at me, menacingly I would say, and said he was her boyfriend. He added, with emphasis, “Just mind your own damn business.” It was clearly a threat, not a suggestion. I told him that I had my kids with me and didn’t want any trouble. I asked her again if everything was OK. He backed away from her and she said yes. They then went to her apartment and my kids and I went to mine.
The next day, a frantic knocking on my apartment door startled us all. I looked through the peephole and saw my neighbor. She had a panicked expression on her face and, although it was after noon, she looked as though she had just woken up. Just like the day before, I felt very uneasy looking at the trouble outside my door, but once again my instinct to help kicked in.
I hurried my kids into one of the bedrooms and shut the door. As the kids hid in the bedroom closet, I let my neighbor in. She told me through tears that the guy she was with the day before had threatened her with a knife and stolen her cell phone and car. Thinking again of my kids, I hurried her outside where she used my phone to call her father then the police. At least a half an hour later the police arrived to take a report for the crime of “unauthorized use of conveyance.” The incident report I later found on-line notes that drug or alcohol use was involved, the offender and victim were related to each other as boyfriend/girlfriend, and the case was closed due to refusal of the victim to cooperate.
This experience opened my eyes to the reality that no one is immune to the possibility of violence. I also confronted the reality that my impulse to be a Good Samaritan to my neighbor endangered not only me but, more significantly, my children.
And not just in that moment, but going forward as well. I realized that I had no means of protecting us if my neighbor’s boyfriend-slash-drug dealer decided to seek retaliation for my involvement in reporting him to the police. I felt deeply the meaning of a gun culture cliché I would hear repeatedly in the ensuring years: “When seconds count, police are just minutes away.”
This feeling of insecurity, and desire to protect my family and myself, played a major role in changing me from an orthodox liberal who had no use for guns into an American who is armed not just with a Ruger 10/22 for plinking and a CZ over-and-under shotgun to shoot clay targets, but an American who is armed with a subcompact pistol and a North Carolina Concealed Handgun Permit.
But as a sociologist, I know that my decision to buy and carry a gun was not made in a vacuum. It was influenced by people in my social network, like Sandy and my tennis buddies. It was affected by the positive portrayal of guns I saw in “Top Shot.” And, more generally, it was facilitated by living in a particular historical and social context that was conducive to armed self-defense.
“Men make their own history,” Karl Marx famously wrote, “but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
Had I been living in my childhood hometown of Half Moon Bay instead of Winston-Salem, it is unlikely that I would have sought an armed solution to my problem of insecurity, at least not as quickly as I did. The same is true had I been living in Winston-Salem for most of the 20th century, before the shall-issue revolution in concealed carry laws swept over the country.
Put simply: I was not just getting interested in guns as an individual; I was becoming enmeshed in the longstanding culture of guns in American society. But the gun culture I was entering in the twenty-tens was not the same as the gun culture of the 1850s or even the 1950s.
In an influential essay called “America as a Gun Culture,” historian Richard Hofstadter lamented the uniqueness of the United States “as the only modern industrial urban nation that persists in maintaining a gun culture.” In Hofstadter’s account, America’s gun culture is rooted in the widespread, lawful possession of firearms by a large segment of the population. This culture stretches back to before the nation’s founding, but as the country developed, so too did our gun culture.
“What began as a necessity of agriculture and the frontier,” Hofstadter observed, “took hold as a sport and as an ingredient in the American imagination.” Hunting became not only a source of food but a dominant form of recreation for many, and target shooting (both recreational and competitive) was commonplace in the 19th century. In the early-20th century, gun collecting arose as an avocation among the wealthy, but like other forms of collecting it took on a more democratized form by mid-century.
Today, Americans still own guns for many different reasons, including hunting, sport, and collecting. My own experience shows that fun remains an important point of entry into gun culture and reason for remaining in it.
That said, the center of gravity of American gun culture has shifted over the course of the past half-century. The majority of gun owners in 21st century America, especially new gun owners like me, point to self-defense as the primary reason for owning a gun.
A 1999 poll found 26 percent of respondents cited protection as the primary reason for owning a gun; by 2013, that proportion had grown to 48 percent. Hunting, sport shooting, and gun collecting declined by a roughly equal amount. More recently, the Pew Research Center found 67 percent of respondents cited protection as a major reason for owning a firearm. And forced to choose, 52 percent said it is the most important reason, compared to 20 percent who cited hunting and 10 percent who cited collecting as their most important reason.
Another way of measuring this change in the center of gravity of American gun culture is to look at the predominant themes in gun advertising over time. To this end, with my son and another Wake Forest undergraduate, I examined advertisements in The American Rifleman from 1918 to 2017.
The findings graphically depict a profound change. As you can see in this figure, over this 100-year period, the prevalence of hunting and recreational shooting themes in ads, represented by the red line, declined in an almost mirror imagine to the increase in personal protection and concealed carry themes, represented by the green line. [NOTE: We have since replicated this finding in a study of advertising in Guns magazine from 1955 to 2019.]
These changes in American gun culture both fostered and were fostered by the liberalization of concealed carry laws that began in the 1980s. Even before the first wave of shall-issue laws had finished washing over the country, a second wave of permitless carry laws began and has picked up steam in just the past few years. The spread of this concealed carry revolution is strikingly evident in this GIF from the Wikipedia page on the “History of Concealed Carry.” Here blue represents shall-issue laws and green represents permitless carry laws.
Not long after my experience shooting on Jimmy’s range, I came across Michael Bane’s “Down Range Radio” podcast. In a post-SHOT Show episode covering new trends for 2011, Bane distinguished between what he called “Gun Culture 1.0” and “Gun Culture 2.0.” Gun Culture 1.0, according to Bane, is the historic gun culture in America that Hofstadter described, and Gun Culture 2.0 is the new culture of armed citizenship that I was just entering.
Hearing Bane made me realize that what I thought was my unique personal experience of getting into guns was actually a more common experience of becoming a part of a social and historical movement happening in American gun culture.
Bane’s distinction between Gun Culture 1.0 and Gun Culture 2.0 activated my sociological imagination and encouraged me, to quote C. Wright Mills again,
to grasp what is going on in the world, and to understand what is happening in myself as a minute point of the intersection of biography and history within society.
There is a lot I could say about Gun Culture 2.0 after half-a-dozen years of concerted study. I could discuss
- The specifics of concealed carry and stand your ground laws,
- The guns and gear that are the central technologies of concealed carry by armed citizens
- The rise and development of the civilian gun training industry
- Risk management and self-defense insurance, among other things.
But when I was trying to think of the single most important lesson I have learned in my journey into Gun Culture 2.0, what kept coming to mind was this:
Gun Culture 2.0 is inclusive
Or at least has the potential to be, because
Self-defense is a universal concern
Of course, we know from many surveys over a long period of time that the statistically average legal gun owner is a:
- Politically Conservative
- From a Rural area
- In the South or Mountain West
Basically, the guys from Duck Dynasty.
Compared to Gun Culture 1.0, however, Gun Culture 2.0 is younger and more female, more racially and sexually diverse, more urban and suburban, and more attracted to handguns for self-defense.
As noted earlier, a majority of all gun owners today cite protection as a reason for ownership. But among those who own handguns, 80% cite protection as a reason. People who only own handguns, therefore, are central to Gun Culture 2.0.
The 2015 National Firearms Survey provides some interesting information about differences between gun owners in general, and those who only own handguns.
- We know, for example, that fewer women own guns than men, but women who do own guns are twice as likely as men to own only handguns.
- We know that a higher percentage of whites own guns than racial minorities, but Blacks gun owners are three times as likely and Hispanic gun owners twice as likely as whites to own only handguns.
- Urban and suburban gun owners are far more likely to own only handguns than residents of rural areas.
- And even liberal gun owners are nearly twice as likely as political conservatives to own only handguns.
This is some compelling evidence for the diversity we find when we focus our attention on Gun Culture 2.0.
Another way of exploring the inclusiveness of Gun Culture 2.0 is to look at people, like me, who are new gun owners. The 2015 National Firearms Survey compared individuals identified as new gun owners to more long-standing gun owners, and the results are very suggestive.
According to the survey, between 8 and 12 percent of current gun owners are new gun owners. We differ in significant ways from long-standing gun owners.
New gun owners are more likely to:
- Be Female
- Have young kids
- Be Politically liberal
- Own only handguns, and
- Own guns for protection
New guns owners are less likely to:
- Be Old
- Have grown up with a gun in the home, and
- Own guns for hunting or collecting
These new gun owners represent an important part of the future of Gun Culture 2.0, or perhaps Gun Culture 3.0 if they push gun culture in America in yet another new direction.
Of course, the inclusivity of Gun Culture 2.0 is not entirely captured in statistics. In my journey so far, I have met an amazing collection of people who burst stereotypes of who and what gun owners are, beginning with my wife Sandy.
I’d like to mention just a few by name here, both to exemplify the diversity of Gun Culture 2.0 and to publicly acknowledge individuals who have helped me personally understand guns or professionally understand gun culture better.
- Of course, some of these people are conservative older white men, like Michael Bane himself, Massad Ayoob, Tom Givens, and Steve Hendricks.
- They also include younger, bearded and tattooed teachers and media stars like John Johnston of Citizens Defense Research and Ballistic Radio, and John Correia of Active Self Protection.
- They include brilliant women writers and shooters like Kathy Jackson, otherwise known as “The Cornered Cat,” and Tamara Keel, whose by-line you will see in magazines like Shooting Illustrated and RECOIL.
- They include skilled African American instructors like Tiffany Johnson and Aqil Qadir of Citizens Safety Academy.
- They include Asian American men and women like Chris Cheng – special to me as one of the winners of “Top Shot” – and Annette Evans, someone who enjoyed shooting and training so much she is opening a gun range outside Philadelphia.
- They include political liberals like Randy Miyan of the Liberal Gun Owners and Lara Smith of the Liberal Gun Club.
- They include LGBT 2A activists like Piper Smith of Armed Equality
I could go on and on. The point I am trying to make is that the diversity of Gun Culture 2.0 is not just a reality, it is one of its strengths.
In conclusion, I would like to offer you three brief takeaways, one for each of the three lessons I’ve learned in my journey so far.
As you’ll recall, Lesson #1 was: Guns are normal, and normal people use guns.
The takeaway from this is we need to resist the efforts out there to stigmatize guns and gun owners, and we do this best by showing the positive face of gun culture.
Smashing TVs with sledge hammers and burning newspapers may solidify the base, but it does nothing to convey to those outside the hard core of the 2A bubble that gun owners are normal.
In counteracting those who wish to stigmatize guns and gun owners, dis-arm them of their stereotypes by being courteous and respectful, even in the face of hostility.
To quote Annette Evans quoting Tiffany Johnson and Aqil Qadir quoting Tony Simon of The 2nd is for Everyone:
“Meet people at 60%. It’s not enough to get up to that middle ground between you and someone else. Put a hand across that line and genuinely try to connect, with compassion and humility because it’s another human being over there. When we do that, we find true commonalities and similarities.”
Among these is our normality.
Lesson #2 was: Shooting is fun and challenging.
Following from this lesson is the second takeaway: Promote the act of shooting whenever possible.
Create and take advantage of opportunities to introduce people to shooting. You don’t have to be a credentialed instructor to do this. Get a gun in people’s hands and give them a safe and fun experience. Here you can see a picture of my son with an exchange student from Argentina that he hosted. Our trip to the range was certainly one of his most memorable experiences in America.
The other picture here is of me with a Wake Forest University student who is shooting for the first time. For the past 5 years, I have taught a course called “Sociology of Guns.” At the start of each class, I take my students on a field trip to a gun range. No one is required to shoot, but most do, including many students who have never fired a gun before.
Although they are not magically converted into armed Americans / a goal that would be inappropriate for my academic course anyway / the experience of shooting has a profound effect on the students who have never shot before. They often experience the fun and excitement and challenge of shooting, and even when they don’t, they have direct experiential understanding of why others might.
Finally, Lesson #3 was: Gun Culture 2.0 is inclusive.
The associated takeaway is that we should embrace diversity and inclusivity in gun culture. Build bridges, not walls.
As this sentiment makes clear, I didn’t stop being a liberal professor just because I became an armed America. I became a card-carrying liberal snowflake gun owner.
The demographic present and future of America looks different than the historical core of American gun culture, and I would like to see gun culture reflect that diversity. We should embrace inclusivity not for pragmatic purposes to ensure the survival of gun culture, but because we know that using guns is normal, that shooting is fun, and that self-defense is a universal concern.
My own journey in gun culture is ongoing, both as an active participant and sociological observer. I hope one of these days to finish my book on how a liberal professor can become an armed American as a way of explaining Gun Culture 2.0 both to those inside and outside the culture.
Thank you very much.