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.