Sociologists are Open Minded Toward the Open Minded

I just came across a review of some interesting work by my fellow sociologist of religion, George Yancey on religious and political bias in American higher education.

His book, Compromising Scholarship, was reviewed in a Chronicle of Higher Education Innovations blog post by Peter Wood called “Preferred Colleagues” (back in 2011 — I missed it!). Wood begins his review writing:

A new study presents evidence that more than a quarter of sociologists (27.8 percent) would “weigh favorably” membership in the Democratic Party by a candidate for academic appointment, and nearly 30 percent would weigh favorably a prospective candidate’s membership in the ACLU. More than a quarter (28.7 percent) would disfavor hiring a Republican, and 41.2 percent would weigh negatively a candidate’s membership in the National Rifle Association.

The study shows even greater bias against candidates with particular religious affiliations. Substantial numbers of the sociologists surveyed said they would be “less likely to hire” evangelical Christians and fundamentalists if they were aware that a candidate fell into either of those categories. Evangelicals face the barrier that 2 out of 5 sociologists (39.1 percent) are disposed not to hire them. Fundamentalists fare even a bit worse: 41.2 percent of sociologists say they would take such an affiliation negatively into account.

Imagine if you were to combine some of these categories of people — because, of course, we do not exist as separate variables in real life. Someone who is an Evangelical is more likely to be a Republican is more likely to be an NRA member. So, imagine asking sociologists to consider hiring a Evangelical, Republican, NRA member. Not going to happen.

I know in my own job interviews way back when someone at Notre Dame asked me if I was a “Catholic Restorationist” (whatever that is) and at another school I was asked to talk about what political magazines I read. Studying religion in general is suspicious to many sociologists, especially if there is some thought that the study has roots in some personal connection to religion.

The Most Rational Fear According to Michael Glassner: Guns

In a previous post I discussed sociologist Michael Glassner’s argument about the “culture of fear” that pervades America, especially the fear-mongering that takes place around very rare and anomalous events like public mass murders, especially at schools. In his book, Glassner uses the example of the 1997-98 string of school shootings in Pearl (MS), West Paducah (KY), Jonesboro (AK), and Springfield (OR). His argument applies perfectly to the string of mass murders we saw in 2012 in Oakland, Aurora, Oak Creek, and Newtown. In this second post on Glassner, I move from the part of his argument I get, to the part I don’t quite get.

It is possible to attribute to Glassner the view that we have nothing to fear – that all fear is basically a distortion of reality. But he hastens to add that he does not agree with Teddy Roosevelt that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (p. xxv). The title of the introduction to the 1999 edition of his book, “Why Americans Fear the Wrong Things,” suggests this also. It is not that we have nothing to fear; it is that we fear the wrong things. As Glassner puts it, “Valid fears have their place; they cue us to danger. False and overdrawn fears only cause hardship” (p. xxiii).

What then are “valid fears” for Glassner? In both the 1999 and 10th anniversary editions of his book, he makes clear that the danger “that by any rational calculation deserves top billing on Americans’ list of fears” is guns (p. xxvii).

Glassner writes: “Yet even after tragedies that could not have occurred except for the availability of guns, their significance is either played down or missed altogether.” Referring back to the school shootings of 1997-98, he concludes that without access to guns, “some or all of the people they killed would be alive today. Without their firepower those boys lacked the strength, courage, and skill to commit multiple murders” (p. xxvii).

Here Glassner shifts from recognizing that youth homicide rates had been declining in the years leading up to the publication of his book – and continued to decline from then until now – and that people are more likely to be killed by lighting than violence at schools, to focusing on the fact that their weapon of choice was a gun. But the fact that guns were used, even the fact that they HAD to use guns given their age, does not make these events any anomalous.

Indeed, his language that the tragedies “could not have occurred except for the availability of guns” may be correct in the case of 11 and 12 year-old kids involved in a school shooting, but the argument cannot be extended to all public mass murders. Some of the most notorious mass murders in US history did not involve guns: the attacks of 9/11 (box cutters and airplanes), Timothy McVeigh (explosives), the Bath (MI) school disaster (explosives), the Happy Land arson (gasoline).

Which is not to say that if there were zero guns in American society that there would not be fewer gun-related deaths. But Glassner’s entire culture of fear argument about mass shootings is that they are used to create an irrational fear in the American population, so it is odd that he would then turn his attention to what he says is “by any rational calculation” the biggest fear we should have. It conveys the impression, as I have seen from at least one other sociologist, that he simply does not like guns and wants them to go away. Perhaps that is a misreading of him. If so, I apologize.

Glassner does cite other evidence, such as:

  • More guns stolen from gun owners in America annually (300,000) than many countries have gun owners.
  • Great Britain, Australia, and Japan, where gun ownership is highly restricted, has only a few dozen gun deaths each year
  • In the US, with 250,000,000 guns in circulation, 15,000 are killed, 18,000 commit suicide, and 1,500 die accidentally from firearms.
  • “American children are twelve times more likely to die from gun injuries than are youngsters in other industrialized nations” (p. xxvii).

These are selected statistics and Glassner does not (feel the need to?) elaborate much on them. It is as if they speak for themselves. But to compare the US legal and cultural context to that of Great Britain, Australia, and Japan is no easy matter. And how does the likelihood of American children dying from non-gun injuries compare to youngsters in other industrialized nations? And what is the relationship between stolen guns and gun deaths? Glassner does not say, instead assuming that the conclusion to be drawn from the statistics is evident.

In trotting out these statistics, but not putting them in any context, Glassner seems to ignore some of his own criticism. He knows, for example, the juvenile homicide rates were declining during the time he was writing, including gun homicide rates for juveniles, and also for the entire population (see table below as well as the related table in my previous post). The number of accidental deaths have also dropped substantially. At the same time, the total number of guns in circulation – especially AR-15 style “assault rifles” – have gone up dramatically, as have the number of individuals who are concealed weapon permit holders. Without making a causal argument, the fact that there are more guns around, but fewer gun-related deaths (and a declining gun-death rate) I would think at least give Glassner some pause to think about what “any rational calculation” would conclude.

Firearms Related Deaths Juveniles 1993-2009

What I think deserves “top billing on Americans’ list of fears” are the things that are most likely to kill us. So, according to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the leading actual causes of death in the year 2000 were:

  1. tobacco (435 000 deaths; 18.1% of total US deaths)
  2. poor diet and physical inactivity (400 000 deaths; 16.6%)
  3. alcohol consumption (85 000 deaths; 3.5%)
  4. microbial agents (75 000)
  5. toxic agents (55 000)
  6. motor vehicle crashes (43 000)
  7. incidents involving firearms (29 000)
  8. sexual behaviors (20 000)
  9. illicit use of drugs (17 000)

There is some suggestion that poor diet and physical inactivity (esp. obesity) has overtaken tobacco as the leading cause of death in America. Deaths by motor vehicle crash declined to 35,900 by 2009. Even though firearms-related deaths increased slightly from its low point in 2000 to 31,300 in 2009, it still does not surpass motor vehicle crash deaths in this ranking.

Of course, it is important to think about deaths in relation to rates of exposure, but here it is difficult to come up with common metrics. Using a typical public health practicing of giving a death “rate” (number of deaths per 100,000 population) is not exactly apples to apples, because people are more exposed to motor vehicles than they are to guns. The fact that people are more exposed to motor vehicles than they are to tobacco, and yet tobacco causes 18.1% of all US deaths, suggest that truly our biggest fear ought to be tobacco. And tobacco related deaths, like auto related deaths, do not only take a toll on the individual responsible. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 49,000 smoking-related deaths are the result of secondhand smoke exposure. That is, more people die from secondhand smoke than from incidents involving firearms.

Again, I do not know what Glassner would propose, but I read him as suggesting that the biggest problem is access to guns, and so if there was no access to guns, we would have much less to fear. At this point, I do not agree with this conclusion. If there were a wholesale ban on access to guns, what that effectively means is that law-abiding citizens would not have access to guns. People who use guns to murder other people are by definition criminals and criminals do not care whether the guns they use are banned. Chicago had a ban on handguns for 28 years (up to 2010). 16 years into that ban there were over 700 homicides in Chicago.

I have previously mentioned the NPR Fresh Air interview with David Kennedy, author of “Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner City America” (St. Martin’s Press, 2011) and director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. When Dave Davies notes there is nothing about gun laws in his book and asks him whether restrictions on access to guns would help address the problem, Kennedy answers emphatically no. Actually he says, laughing because it is ludicrous, “How’s that working for you?” Kennedy actually began his work with the idea that eliminating illegal gun markets was the key solution, but changed his mind. So, banning guns may not make us safer because only law-abiding citizens will respect such a ban.

One friend I was discussing this issue with said that Chicago is not a good example because it was an island in a sea of guns. The ban would have to be nationwide to be effective. Again, I do not agree. We have a complete and total ban on certain drugs – cocaine, methamphetamine – and it has not prevented people from obtaining and using either. Cocaine makes it from South America to Chicago routinely. I have no reason to think that guns would not do the same. Such a ban would, however, prevent law abiding citizens from obtaining guns, rendering them defenseless against the criminals.

This part of his argument aside, Glassner really did draw my attention to the question of what the real dangers are that we confront, and what we can do about them. Why are we focusing on banning “military style assault rifles” and “high capacity magazines”? These are responsible for very few deaths annually. According to the FBI, in 2009 there were 348 homicides using rifles – of which “military style assault rifles” are a subset, and “military style assault rifles” with “high capacity magazines” a further subset. This is strictly political posturing, and a form of fear-mongering that Glassner rightly criticizes.

If we want to impose some restrictions that will save more lives, here are some I thought of:

  • Driving fast is dangerous to self and others. No one needs to drive 70 MPH when 55 MPH will get you there more safely (and have less of a negative impact on the environment). All civilian motor vehicles should be governed to go no faster than 55 MPH. Only law enforcement and safety officers should be permitted to drive above 55 MPH
  • Alcohol consumption is the 3rd leading cause of death according to the JAMA article cited above. Individuals should be allowed to purchase only one six pack of beer, or one bottle of wine, or 375ml of hard liquor each week. Any drinks consumed in bars should be counted against these purchases.
  • In addition to limiting drinking capacity, we should also impose an outright ban on drinking and driving. None of this 0.08 BAC stuff. Why shouldn’t it be 0.00? How many children’s lives would be saved every year if the legal BAC for driving were 0.00? This would bring driving cars in line with the safety measures in place for carrying firearms, at least in North Carolina. A concealed weapons permit holder in the state of North Carolina cannot carry a firearm any place where alcoholic beverages are sold and consumed. Also, it is unlawful to carry a concealed handgun in North Carolina while consuming alcohol or at any time while the person has remaining in their body any alcohol or in their blood a controlled substance previously consumed. I.e., 0.00 BAC to carry a firearm.

To be sure, there are too many gun-related deaths in America, particularly the deaths of innocent people — whether at the hands of friends and loved-ones or gun-wielding criminals. I need to learn more about the process by which minor disputes between friends and family escalate into homicides when guns are present. That is quite troubling. I also need to learn more about the likelihood that a gun kept for self-protection will end up being used against the owner. And I also want to think about and try to answer the question of whether banning guns or restricting access to them or restricting the types of guns/accessories that can be LEGALLY owned will make law-abiding citizens that much safer. Or if it will just make criminals’ work easier to accomplish. These are authentic questions for which I do not have predetermined answers.

Public Mass Murders and the Culture of Fear in America

The reader I am using for introduction to sociology this semester include an excerpt from sociologist Barry Glassner’s (relatively) famous book, The Culture of Fear (originally published in 1999, with a 10th anniversary edition in 2009, by Basic Books).

Glassner’s basic argument is that Americans have an excessive fear of the wrong things. For example, parents panic over child abductions, but that is a minor threat to their children compared to automobiles, house fires, swimming pools and bicycles. As Glassner writes, “If a parent is concerned about his or her children, their money is best spent on car seats, smoke detectors, swimming lessons, and bike helmets as opposed to GPS locators and child identification kits.” Indeed, “Motor vehicle injuries . . . are the leading cause of death in the U.S. for children ages one to fifteen” (p. xv).

The culture of fear does not just happen. It is promoted by politicians (for votes), journalists (for ratings), advocacy groups (for donations and/or political influence), and marketers (for money). Among the “tricks of the fear mongers’ trade,” according to Glassner, is “[s]tatements of alarm by newscasters and glorification of wannabe experts,” as well as “the use of poignant anecdotes in place of scientific evidence, the christening of isolated incidents as trends, depictions of entire categories of people as innately dangerous” (p. 208), presenting victims as experts, and misdirection.

Culture of Fear and Mass Murder

In the original edition, Glassner gives as an example of the culture of fear a spate of school shootings by adolescents that took place in 1997-98 in Pearl (MS), West Paducah (KY), Jonesboro (AK), and Springfield (OR). Of course, the media went apoplectic about these events – after all, crime is a staple of the news media (“if it bleeds, it leads”). But high profile is not synonymous with common, and for Glassner the alarm raised by these shootings was not proportionate to the danger they posed.

Glassner approvingly mentions Vincent Schiraldi (founder of the Justice Policy Institute and currently NYC department of probation commissioner), who appeared on NPR to discuss the school killings and “tried to explain that the recent string of incidents did not constitute a trend, that youth homicide rates had declined by 30 percent in recent years, and more than three times as many people were killed by lightning that by violence at schools” (p. xxiii).

Of course, today we have a parallel situation with the mass murders in 2012 at Oikos University (Oakland, CA), the Century Theaters (Aurora, CO), a Sikh temple (Oak Creek, WI), and most notoriously Sandy Hook Elementary (Newtown, CT).  Glassner’s argument about the culture of fear applies as well to these anomalous events as they did to the 1997-98 school shootings. Fear has risen to a fevered pitch, as has the desire to do something to address that fear regardless of whether it will prevent these anomalous events from happening again.

Crime Down, Fear Up

It is important to consider the broader context within which Glassner situates his argument. He begins the 1999 edition of the book by asking, “Why are so many fears in the air, and so many of them unfounded? Why, as crime rates plunged through the 1990s, did two-thirds of Americans believe they were soaring?” (p. xix). Answer: Because people promote a culture of fear to serve their own interests. Diane Feinstein has wanted to ban “assault weapons” for years, so the more fear she can promote, the more likely she will be to get her way legislatively. The same is true for advocacy groups, like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, who want to ban guns. (To be sure, this cuts both ways: pro-gun politicians and advocacy groups also use fear of crime and government tyranny to promote their agendas.)

In the years since Glassner wrote about the school shootings of 1997-98, we have seen additional mass murders at schools – notably at Virginia Tech and Columbine High School, as well as other less notable ones – but we have at the same time seen the homicide rate (including youth homicide) and the violent crime rate continue to drop. As Glassner would predict about a culture of fear, at the same time we see fewer and fewer gun-related deaths, we see an increasing concern about gun-related deaths.

A Congressional Research Service report on Gun Control Legislation from November 2012 documented the decline in firearms-related murder rate, as seen in Figure 1 from the report below:

The report also shows trends in firearms-related deaths other than homicide for all ages:

Firearms Related Deaths All Ages 1993-2009

As Glassner says of the culture of fear generally, “The more things improve, the more pessimistic we become” (p. xxii). And, indeed, as we will see in my next post, Glassner shares some of the pessimism he criticizes other for.

Concealed Carry Nation: Understanding Armed Citizens in 21st Century America


On July 20th of this year, James Holmes entered a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises through an exit door at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. He was dressed in tactical gear and carrying a shotgun, semi-automatic pistol, and a military style semi-automatic rifle. He proceeded to set off tear gas grenades and shoot into the audience, ultimately killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. Less than three weeks later, white supremacist Wade Michael Page used a 9mm semi-automatic pistol he bought a week earlier to shoot worshipers at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek. Six of his victims died.

These stories can easily be integrated into the narrative of gun violence and the need for greater gun control that has been prominent in American society since the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy in the 1960s. Indeed, editorials calling for greater gun control in the wake of the Aurora shooting could be found in newspapers from California to New York. (“Tragedy Shows Need for Gun Control,” San Francisco Chronicle, 20 July 2012; “The Shootings in Colorado,” New York Times 21 July 2012). Similarly, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence released a statement: “This tragedy is another grim reminder that guns are the enablers of mass killers and that our nation pays an unacceptable price for our failure to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.”[i]

But there is a second narrative that coexists with the first, one focused on personal protection through firearms. This view is as old as America itself (Cramer 2006), but in the past thirty years it has taken on new life as some have increasingly promoted the idea of the “armed citizen”: the right and duty of civilians to carry concealed firearms in public. In a post-Aurora “HandgunWorld Podcast” episode, host Bob Mayne suggested to his listeners that “a well-trained concealed carrier . . . might have been able to slow that guy down. Maybe fewer people would have been killed, don’t you think? . . . If you can put six rounds on him in short order, you are going to make him slow down.” For Mayne, the incident reinforced his belief in the motto, “I carry a gun because I can’t carry a cop.” Similarly, Tom Gresham, host of the nationally syndicated radio program “Gun Talk,” said to his listeners in the wake of the Sikh Temple shooting, “There is one question you have to ask yourself . . . The question is simply this: Why are you not carrying?”[ii]

Increasingly in American society, ordinary citizens are carrying firearms. As with the incidents at Virginia Tech and U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ event in Tucson, gun sales surge after mass shootings. The Denver Post reported that interest in gun purchases in Colorado increased by 43 percent in the immediate aftermath of the Batman shooting – 2,887 individuals cleared state background checks in the three days following the shooting, including 1,216 on the day after (Burnett 2012).[iii] To be sure, some will purchase a gun after a mass shooting because they fear gun control measures are imminent, but news stories strongly suggest that many buyers are motivated by a desire for personal protection. More difficult to track in the short run is applications for concealed weapons permits (CWPs), which would give the gun owner the legal right to carry their weapon in public. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that these too have risen since Aurora. The Denver Post story quoted Dion Studinski, who said of his concealed carry classes at Firing-Line gun store and range in Aurora, “We’ve definitely had an increase.” The Associated Press interviewedDick Rutan, owner of Gunners Den in Arvada, Colorado, who said requests for concealed weapon training certification “are off the hook.” Rutan added, “What they’re saying is: They want to have a chance. They want to have the ability to protect themselves and their families if they are in a situation like what happened in the movie theater.” The AP also reported that in Washington State’s King County requests for concealed pistol licenses doubled following the Aurora shooting over the same period the previous year (Associated Press 2012).

Laws regulating the concealed carrying of firearms by ordinary citizens are relatively recent in American history. After World War I, many states began requiring individuals to have CWPs, and gave various officials (police chiefs, judges) broad discretion in issuing such permits. This discretion meant CWPs were issued rarely and unevenly. Over the course of the 20th century, particularly in the last third, there was a shift toward state passage of “shall-issue” laws (Cramer and Kopel 1994). These laws require state or local authorities to issue a CWP to an applicant that meets the objective statutory criteria if no statutory reasons for denial exist (GAO 2012:5). As Grossman and Lee (2008:200) report, through 1979, only two states had “shall-issue” laws – Washington (1961) and Connecticut (1969). 12 more states passed such laws in the 1980s, followed by 16 states in the 1990s, and 7 states in the 2000s, most recently Wisconsin in 2012. Adding to these “shall-issue” states the 4 “no permit required” states (Alaska, Arizona, Vermont, Wyoming), in 41 of 50 states individuals either do not need or have a right to receive a CWP. Eight other states are classified as “may-issue”: issuing authorities can grant CWPs but have the right to apply discretion – e.g., determining the need or moral character of the applicant – in deciding to whom they issue permits.[iv] In only one state, Illinois (and the District of Columbia) is no concealed carry of a firearm allowed whatsoever (GAO 2012:73–74).

As concealed carry laws have been liberalized, the number of CWP holders has grown. In response to a Congressional request for information about concealed weapon permitting in the states, the GAO issued a report in July 2012 which found that “there were at least 8 million active permits to carry concealed handguns in the United States as of December 31, 2011” (GAO 2012:1). This amounts to at least 3.5 percent of the eligible U.S. population (adults who are legally allowed to possess guns). The portion of individual state populations with a CWP varies, but shall-issue states like Georgia (600,000 permits, 11.5%), Iowa (243,000 permits, 10.9%), and South Dakota (62,000 permits, 10.6%) have the highest rates in the country. It would surely surprise many to know that one out of every ten adult citizens in these states is potentially legally armed in public, not to mention 3 to 4 out of every 100 Americans overall.[v] There is some truth to the claim that America is becoming a concealed carry nation.

Social scientists have sought to understand the reality of guns in America primarily through closed-ended surveys. According to the 1994 National Survey of the Private Ownership of Firearms, 46 percent of gun owners – 41 percent for males and 67 percent for females – cited self-protection as the primary reason for ownership. The figures rise to 63 percent among those who own a handgun (57% for males, 84% for females), and to 74 percent for those who own only handguns (Cook and Ludwig 1996:38–39). Why exactly these individuals feel the need for self-protection is not clearly established in the literature. The dominant approach attributes the need to fear of crime, perceived risk, and experience of victimization, but as Kleck et al. (2011:313) note, “Studies assessing the effect of fear/risk and criminal victimization on gun ownership have obtained wildly varying results.” They attribute this to methodological problems – in measuring gun ownership and establishing causal order using cross-sectional data – that can be partially overcome through better surveys and more sophisticated statistical analyses, though closed-ended surveys will always fall short of understanding the subjective motivations, emotions, and decision-making processes that are related to affective fear, cognitive risk assessment, victimization experience, and gun ownership choices.

Actually carrying a firearm is related to ownership, though carrying entails a level of seriousness beyond keeping a gun in one’s home for personal protection. Using data from the 1993 National Self-Defense Survey, Kleck and Gertz (1998) found 3.8 percent of respondents reported carrying a gun on their person (distinct from in their vehicle) – slightly more than 7 million carriers. These individuals also reported carrying firearms 138 days per year, on average, which suggests almost 2.7 million individuals carrying guns on their person on an average day (Kleck and Gertz 1998:208). The characteristics of individuals who are consistently found to be more likely to carry firearms are Southerners and Westerners, African Americans, and men, along with individuals who have experienced or fear victimization (Felson and Pare 2010; Kleck and Gertz 1998). Unfortunately, these figures do not distinguish between those who carry legally versus illegally, or those who carry with defensive intent versus criminal intent. And theoretical explanations for why these categories of individuals are more likely to carry also remain rudimentary.

Surveys tell us a little bit about a lot of people. This is their strength and weakness. In trying to understand the motivations and decision-making process of individuals who acquire guns and carry them, we need to get below the surface gloss provided by these statistics. A few scholars have begun to approach the issue more qualitatively. Perhaps most significantly, in Language of the Gun, Bernard Harcourt (2006) gives voice to teenagers who have carried firearms. He gets into the meaning, symbolism, and emotion of carrying guns for them. Unfortunately, his findings are restricted to a certain class of teenagers: incarcerated repeat offenders. By contrast, anthropologist Abigail Kohn (2004) gives her attention to individuals who legally and enthusiastically own guns. But her exploration of “America’s gun cultures” is similarly limited, based largely on an analysis of members of the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS) in the San Francisco Bay Area. In other words, she examines a fringe group in a fringe area of the gun culture. In the recent Flea Market Jesus, Arthur Farnsley (2012) follows a similar path as a participant observer in the annual gathering of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association (NMLRA) in Friendship, Indiana. Studying what Fine (1979) calls “idiocultures” – the local cultures that emerge from and guide the social interactions of concrete groups like the NMLRA and SASS is an important sociological enterprise, and the tradeoff between specificity and generalizability is inherent in this line of work. But it is nonetheless possible to study particular social groups that are closer to the heart of America’s gun culture than teen offenders, cowboy action shoots, and muzzle loaders.

As these gaps in the scholarly literature suggest, the culture and practice of legal concealed carrying still begs for greater understanding. Indeed, the National Institutes of Justice Firearms Topical Working Group, meeting in 2011, highlighted some areas in which further research is needed:

Studies of defensive gun use to date have focused primarily on estimating the number of times guns are used to prevent crimes. The NRC report identified the limitations of these approaches and established what appears to be today a reasonable estimate of the range of the number of times guns are used to prevent crimes. The next step in this research area should focus on the process of defensive gun use. This would be an effort to move beyond an estimation of extent to an understanding of the decision process that occurs during a potential crime in which a potential victim uses a gun to deter the criminal. The same kinds of studies should be undertaken in the topical area of right-to-carry. While the debate continues on the impact of right-to-carry laws on crime, almost no information is available on when and where individuals who have been granted the right to carry a weapon actually use the weapon to deter crime. Nor have there been detailed cost/benefit analyses of the actual use of guns for defensive purposes. Getting into the “black box” of defensive gun use will allow us to move beyond debates about te extent of defensive gun use to an understanding of when and how it happens. (National Institute of Justice 2011)

The research I am proposing to conduct also tried to enlighten the “black box” of defensive gun use by asking and answering several related questions that are logically prior to those the NIJ Working Group pose:

  • How and why do new gun owners decide to purchase a gun in the first place?
  • What motivates people to seek to legally carry firearms in public for purposes of self-defense?
  • What do people learn about their legal and moral obligations when carrying a concealed weapon in their required CCW classes, and elsewhere?
  • What training do people avail themselves of beyond what is required once they decide to carry concealed?

Addressing these questions will allow me to explore the complex decision-making that goes into the choice of a new shooter to acquire a gun, to seek a license to carry it, and then to exercise that license by actually carrying. This exploration necessarily entails putting these decisions in the broader context of the gun culture that shapes and enables these decisions.


Associated Press. 2012. “Gun sales surging in wake of ‘Dark Knight Rises’ shooting.” New York Post. Retrieved October 3, 2012 (

Burnett, Sara. 2012. “Aurora theater shooting: Gun sales up since tragedy.” Denver Post, July 25 Retrieved October 6, 2012 (

Cook, Philip J., and Jens Ludwig. 1996. Guns in America: Results of a comprehensive national survey on firearms ownership and use. Washington, DC: Police Foundation.

Cramer, Clayton E. 2006. Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How And Why Guns Became As American As Apple Pie. Thomas Nelson Inc.

Cramer, Clayton E., and David B. Kopel. 1994. “Shall Issue: The New Wave of Concealed Handgun Permit Laws.” Tenn. L. Rev. 62:679–757. Retrieved October 2, 2012.

Farnsley, Arthur E. 2012. Flea Market Jesus. Cascade Books.

Felson, Richard B., and Paul-Philippe Pare. 2010. “Gun Cultures or Honor Cultures? Explaining Regional and Race Differences in Weapon Carrying.” Social Forces 88(3):1357–1378.

Fine, Gary Alan. 1979. “Small Groups and Culture Creation: The Idioculture of Little League Baseball Teams.” American Sociological Review 44(5):733–745.

GAO. 2012. Gun Control: States’ Laws and Requirements for Concealed Carry Permits Vary across the Nation. United States Government Accountability Office Retrieved October 4, 2012 (

Grossman, Richard S., and Stephen A. Lee. 2008. “May Issue versus Shall Issue: Explaining the Pattern of Concealed-Carry Handgun laws, 1960-2001.” Contemporary Economic Policy 26(2):198–206. Retrieved October 3, 2012.

Harcourt, Bernard E. 2006. Language of the Gun: Youth, Crime, and Public Policy. University Of Chicago Press.

Kleck, G., and M. Gertz. 1998. “Carrying guns for protection: results from the National Self-Defense Survey.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 35(2):193–224. Retrieved October 2, 2012.

Kleck, G., T. Kovandzic, M. Saber, and W. Hauser. 2011. “The effect of perceived risk and victimization on plans to purchase a gun for self-protection.” Journal of Criminal Justice 39(4):312–319. Retrieved October 1, 2012.

Kohn, Abigail A. 2004. Shooters: Myths and Realities of America’s Gun Cultures. Oxford University Press, USA.

National Institute of Justice. 2011. “Firearms Topical Working Group Meeting Summary 2011.” National Institute of Justice. Retrieved October 5, 2012 (


[i] Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, “We Don’t Want Sympathy From The President Or Other Elected Officials; We Invite Americans To Join Our Campaign To Hold Politicians Accountable To Act,” 20 July 2012,, Retrieved 3 October 2012.

[ii] Bob Mayne, HandgunWorld Podcast, Episode 190, 28 July 2012; Tom Gresham, GunTalk, 5 August 2012.

[iii] This number is not equivalent to actual gun sales because not everyone who clears a background check will end up purchasing a firearm, and some who do will purchase more than one gun.

[iv] “May-issue” states as of 2012 are Alabama, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York. The distinction between “shall-issue” and “may-issue” is significant. For example, Hawaii is a may-issue state but reported to the GAO that there were no active concealed carry permits in the state at the end of 2011. California and Maryland do issue some permits, but the restrictiveness of the process there results in just 35,000 permits in California (0.1% of adults over 20 years of age) and 12,000 permits in Maryland (0.3%). This contrasts sharply with shall-issue states like Georgia (600,000 permits, 11.5%), Iowa (243,000 permits, 10.9%), and South Dakota (62,000 permits, 10.6%).

[v] Obviously, not everyone who holds a CWP carries a firearm in public, and even in states with liberal carry laws there are many restrictions on carrying. In Florida, for example, among the restricted locations listed in Section 790.06 (12) of the Florida Statutes are: police stations, jails, courthouses, polling places, government meetings, elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, sporting events (not related to firearms), any establishment dispensing alcohol, and airports.


My New Research on America’s Gun Cultures – From Tragedy to Understanding

In the fall of 2001, I received word that I would spend the 2002-2003 academic year at the University of Virginia’s Center on Religion and Democracy. I had a postdoctoral fellowship to work on my book, The Catholic Church in State Politics, which focused on the role of conferences of Catholic bishops in lobbying state legislatures. Then, in January 2002, the Boston Globe ran a series of articles exposing Cardinal Bernard Law’s cover-up of sexual abuse by priests. As the scandal spread, I began to get a sinking feeling that I was going to spend a year writing about something that didn’t exist anymore: a role for Catholic bishops in politics. What moral authority, many people asked, did the bishops have to speak in the public arena anymore? Hadn’t they lost all of their credibility?

As I thought more about this question, though, I had an insight into how Catholic lobbying works in state legislative arenas. I was able to share that insight at The Brookings Institution and in an essay in the Catholic magazine Commonweal, and it became the topic of chapter 5 of my book, “Political Influence and the Catholic Watergate.” I will spare you the details here, but suffice it to say what I thought was going to doom my book actually became a point of analytic leverage.

Fast forward 10+ years. My research is again caught up in controversy. In October 2012, I submitted a leave application and a research grant proposal to study the growing phenomenon of ordinary citizens legally carrying concealed firearms. The project title is “Concealed Carry Nation: Understanding Armed Citizens in 21st Century America.”  On December 6th, I heard that I received my leave and on December 19th that my grant was approved.

Between those two dates, however, everything changed. On December 14th, a mass murderer killed his mother, and then six staff and 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. What was a controversial topic to begin with has gone nuclear. In a post on my gun culture blog after the Aurora, Colorado theater murders I wrote, “Jumping into the gun culture as a complete novice is like jumping into the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim.” After Sandy Hook, things got even harder. Like trying to take a sip of water out of a fire hose.

What will become of my research? It is too early to tell. I will still tell the story of “concealed carry nation,” but also feel compelled to try to bring some more objective, empirically-driven, sociologically-informed thoughts to bear on the broader issue of guns and their place in American society. I don’t know how well-received these thoughts will be, as many (sociologists included) have already made up their minds on these issues.

But, as I did with my previous work on the Catholic bishops, I will try to leverage this tragedy into greater understanding. You can follow along to see if I am successful in this effort on this blog, as well as on my Gun Culture 2.0 blog.