Reflections on Ferguson (and America)

In the wake of the announcement that a grand jury in St. Louis would not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown I have seen a huge outpouring of appalling commentary on social media. Ignorance of the law, insensitivity toward law enforcement, blatant racism, subtle racism, and on and on. I guess this is to be expected, since social media facilitates polarization of viewpoints and inhibits real dialogue. No situation as fraught as this one is amenable to simple analyses and conclusions, despite the impression that is frequently conveyed on-line.

My general take on the situation has been to try to think synthetically (both/and) rather than dichotomously (either/or). To wit: the criminal justice system can be very racist AND Officer Wilson can at the same time be totally justified in his actions.

It’s not easy to convey complexity in 140 characters, though, and to do justice to the situation in Ferguson (as a reflection of America) would take more time and energy than I have. Thankfully, in steps Benjamin Watson’s now viral Facebook wall post reflecting on Ferguson. As of Thursday afternoon, the Facebook post had 382,008 shares and 679,009 likes, and counting.

Benjamin Watson facebookI had never heard of Benjamin Watson before this week. Apparently he is a professional football player, which may mean something to some people out there (good or bad). To me, he is someone who did a great job of capturing the complexity of the situation (although I remain agnostic regarding his concluding paragraph). Here is Benjamin Watson’s reflections in their entirety, copied from his Facebook page:

“At some point while I was playing or preparing to play Monday Night Football, the news broke about the Ferguson Decision. After trying to figure out how I felt, I decided to write it down. Here are my thoughts:

I’M ANGRY because the stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes.

I’M FRUSTRATED, because pop culture, music and movies glorify these types of police citizen altercations and promote an invincible attitude that continues to get young men killed in real life, away from safety movie sets and music studios.

I’M FEARFUL because in the back of my mind I know that although I’m a law abiding citizen I could still be looked upon as a “threat” to those who don’t know me. So I will continue to have to go the extra mile to earn the benefit of the doubt.

I’M EMBARRASSED because the looting, violent protests, and law breaking only confirm, and in the minds of many, validate, the stereotypes and thus the inferior treatment.

I’M SAD, because another young life was lost from his family, the racial divide has widened, a community is in shambles, accusations, insensitivity hurt and hatred are boiling over, and we may never know the truth about what happened that day.

I’M SYMPATHETIC, because I wasn’t there so I don’t know exactly what happened. Maybe Darren Wilson acted within his rights and duty as an officer of the law and killed Michael Brown in self defense like any of us would in the circumstance. Now he has to fear the backlash against himself and his loved ones when he was only doing his job. What a horrible thing to endure. OR maybe he provoked Michael and ignited the series of events that led to him eventually murdering the young man to prove a point.

I’M OFFENDED, because of the insulting comments I’ve seen that are not only insensitive but dismissive to the painful experiences of others.

I’M CONFUSED, because I don’t know why it’s so hard to obey a policeman. You will not win!!! And I don’t know why some policeman abuse their power. Power is a responsibility, not a weapon to brandish and lord over the populace.

I’M INTROSPECTIVE, because sometimes I want to take “our” side without looking at the facts in situations like these. Sometimes I feel like it’s us against them. Sometimes I’m just as prejudiced as people I point fingers at. And that’s not right. How can I look at white skin and make assumptions but not want assumptions made about me? That’s not right.

I’M HOPELESS, because I’ve lived long enough to expect things like this to continue to happen. I’m not surprised and at some point my little children are going to inherit the weight of being a minority and all that it entails.

I’M HOPEFUL, because I know that while we still have race issues in America, we enjoy a much different normal than those of our parents and grandparents. I see it in my personal relationships with teammates, friends and mentors. And it’s a beautiful thing.

I’M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. BUT I’M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through the his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind. One that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being. The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It’s the Gospel. So, finally, I’M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope.”

Concealed Carry Fun with Google Ngram

My writing accountability partner recently turned me on to Google Ngram. The search engine lets you you electronically comb through millions of books in Google’s database for certain words or phrases. (You can read about the technical details on Google or Wikipedia.)

I searched for the phrase “concealed carry” as a case-insensitive phrase and the engine returned the following chart.

Google NGram Concealed Carry

 

Because the phrase has to appear in 40 or more books per year to register on the chart, the fact that it shows up in 0% of the books before 1980 doesn’t mean the phrase never occurs. But it doesn’t commonly occur through the 1980s, and then starts picking up in the 1990s — surely a lagged effect of Florida passing its concealed carry law in 1997 given the time it takes most people to publish books. The term steadily rises through the 2000s (the Google database ends in 2008). I don’t put much stake in the decline from 2006 to 2008, since we don’t see a big downward trend in either of the other spellings during that time. Without seeing the period from 2008 forward it is hard to know if it is just a blip or if it marks a trend.

It is interesting to note that by 1994 the term “Concealed Carry” — CAPITALIZED to signify it as an entity — begins to appear and remains relatively stead through 2008.

No major insight here. Just some fun with Google Ngram that further documents the rise of concealed carry in American since 1987.

Lecture on How People Become Catholic at College of the Holy Cross

I was fortunate recently to be asked by my old friend Tom Landy to deliver one of the Deitchman Family Lectures on Religion and Modernity at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA.

My talk, “How Do People Become Catholic?” was based on my book, Becoming Catholic: Finding Rome in the American Religious Landscape.

I’m excited to note that the lecture was videotaped and is being made available by the Rev. Michael C. McFarland, S.J. Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture at Holy Cross.

 

Mencken and Froese on the Sources and Strength of America’s Gun Culture

As I noted in my last post, scholars associated with the 2014 Baylor Religion Survey held a session at the recent annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion unveiling their data. (Of course, this is more of a tease since the data will not be publicly available for a year or two.)

Although there were four presentations, the one by Paul Froese and Carson Mencken on gun culture garnered the most interest – including mine!

Professor F. Carson Mencken (left) courtesy of Baylor University Media Communications

Photo of Professor F. Carson Mencken (left) courtesy of Baylor University Media Communications

Photo of Paul Froese courtesy of Baylor University Media Communications

Photo of Paul Froese courtesy of Baylor University Media Communications

Froese and Mencken noted, rightfully so, that accessing the symbolic and affective nature of the gun itself for gun owners is something that is done well in qualitative studies (by Kohn, Taylor, Floyd, Burbick, and Carlson, as noted in my previous post), but not in studies based on nationally-representative samples.

The authors of the Baylor Religion Survey hoped to bridge this gap by posing the following question:

Q72. If you own a gun, please indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statement: Owning a gun makes me feel: (a) Safe. (b) Responsible. (c) Confident. (d) Patriotic. (e) In control of my fate. (f) More valuable to my family. (g) More valuable to my community. (h) Respected.

Response categories for each subpart were: strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, and strongly disagree. The authors see the first four Likert items (“a” through “d”) as measuring a dimension of power and the second four (“e” through “h”) as measuring a dimension of morality. Taken together, responses to these questions constitute a Likert scale of intensity of attachment to guns. The authors reported a scale reliability statistic of alpha = 0.86, which is very good for social scientific scales.

Using multivariate statistical modeling, the authors attempted to identify the factors associated with higher levels of attachment to guns. Using a question on the survey about economic despair, Froese and Mencken find that higher levels of economic despair are related to higher levels of attachment to guns. This finding, however, holds only among white gun owners. They surmise that black gun owners may be more accustomed to economic deprivation given America’s history of racial inequality, and so they are less likely to exhibit the “substitution effect” of replacing economic empowerment with empowerment through guns.

This confirms in a nationally-representative sample of respondents what Jennifer Dawn Carlson found in her ethnographic study of gun carriers in Detroit, Michigan, to be published as Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline next spring by Oxford University Press.

Also for white gun owners, there is a strong positive effect on having a judgmental image of God on attachment to guns, though for both whites and blacks a higher level of importance attached to religion is associated with a lower level of attachment to guns. The relationship between church attendance and attachment to guns seems to be curvilinear, with individuals who are very low church attenders and very frequent church attenders having the least attachment to their guns.

By their own admission these findings are preliminary, but even this initial take on the data suggests much to look forward to from the analysis of the gun questions on the Baylor Religion Survey. I will continue to watch with envy and report with interest on the work of these scholars.

Faith and Firearms in the 2014 Baylor Religion Survey

Having begun my sojourn from the sociology of religion to the study of American gun culture a couple of years ago, I was excited to make a “homecoming” of sorts by attending the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Indianapolis this past weekend.

I was there to present my first paper on guns in America, an analysis of the relationship between faith and firearms ownership based on the General Social Survey (about which, more later).

I was excited to find another group of scholars – from Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion – working on the issue as well. For the first time, the nationally representative Baylor Religion Survey (fielded previously in 2005, 2007, 2010) included questions about gun ownership and attitudes toward guns. (See end of post for methodological details.)

Baylor Religion Survey 2011

These questions go beyond what is typically found in national surveys like the General Social Survey, and in combination with extensive questions about religiosity, makes for a promising set of data.

Specifically, in the section on “Guns and Society,” five questions are posed (each with a number of sub-parts):

Q68. For each item, please tell us how much, if at all, each of the following contributes to gun violence in the country: (a) The availability of guns. (b) The absence of God from our public schools and places. (c) Irresponsible gun owners. (d) Media violence such as in movies and video games. (e) Inadequate treatment of mentally ill people. (f) Inadequate background checks on gun purchases. Response categories are: a great deal, not so much, not at all.

Comment: I always try to approach the issue of “gun violence” cautiously, because I am not yet convinced there is something distinct about “gun violence” that merits its designation as a single entity, as opposed to “violence that involves guns” or “violence and guns.” But violence that involves guns is a serious concern among a large part of the American population and so it is good to ask about what people think its causes are (and are not).

One oversight here, I think, is the most significant contributor to gun violence in American society: criminal activity, especially drugs dealing and use, and gang activity (including respect killings related to the “code of the street.” (I made a presentation on this issue recently, which I will blog about soon.)

If I were a respondent to this survey, I would not be able to express this view – unless I counted criminals as “irresponsible gun owners,” but I don’t think that is what the survey authors intended for that response. I know media violence is not a major cause, and more extensive background checks are not going to stop criminals from shooting people.

Q69. Have you, or anyone you are close with, ever been threatened with a gun or shot at? Response categories are: yes or no.

Comment: What is the extent of people’s direct experience of violence with guns, and how might this affect their outlooks? I believe this is what this question is trying to get at.

Obviously, it would be interesting to distinguish between the respondent herself vs. others, and also being threatened vs. being shot at. But there are limits on how many questions you can ask on a survey like this (there were 99 total questions on the survey already), so combining several questions into a single question like this is not uncommon.

It would also be interesting to know whether the respondent, or anyone the respondent is close with, had ever brandished or shot a gun in self-defense, or found themselves in a situation in which they wished they had a gun for self-defense.

Those on the pro-gun side of the great American gun debate often accuse those who focus on the harmful effects of guns of not giving due attention to the beneficial effects of guns. This type of question will certainly be seen as coming from a position that is less sympathetic toward guns in general.

Q70. Please tell us whether you oppose or favor the following: (a) A ban on semi-automatic weapons. (b) Expanded gun safety programs. (c) Putting armed security guards/police in more schools. (d) Better mental health screening of gun buyers. (e) A ban on high-capacity ammunition clips that hold more than 10 bullets. (f) More teachers and school officials having guns. (g) Banning the possession of hand guns except by law enforcement. (h) Laws that allow citizens to carry concealed guns. Response categories are: favor or oppose.

Comment: I hope my readers who are part of one of America’s gun cultures will overlook the use of the term “clip” and “bullets” in subpart “e.” The scholars who put this survey together are experts in religion, not guns. But if you can get past that terminological issue, here you find an interesting mix of questions about laws or policies that address guns and safety. Some represent what are conventionally understood as “gun control” (subparts a, e, and g), some are ideas that come more from the pro-gun side (subparts c, f, and h – and I’m especially happy to see the question on concealed carry), and some could be interpreted in different ways depending on where the respondent is coming from (subparts b and d).

It’s good to have some survey questions available that go beyond one side’s definition of “common sense” gun laws. And perhaps having these different questions asked at the same time will allow us to see for the first time the diversity and complexity of people’s views about the various roles that guns can and should play in our society.

Three handguns

Q71. Do you happen to have in your home (or garage) any of the following: (Please mark all that apply.)

(a) Hand gun/revolver.
(b) Long gun
(c) Automatic/Semi-Automatic weapon

Comment: Here is a conventional gun ownership question, with a bit of a twist. The main question is the same as the General Social Survey, but the follow-up options differ. The GSS asks whether the person who owns a gun owns a handgun/revolver, a shotgun, or a rifle. Here shotgun and rifle are combined, and an additional response of “automatic/semi-automatic weapon” is added. The potential benefit of this approach is the ability to distinguish those who do NOT own automatic/semi-automatic weapons from those who do. Perhaps these are collectors of historic arms or true “Fudds” who would never hunt with anything other than a bolt action rifle or sporting gentleman who only use side-by-side shotguns.

With due respect to my colleagues, though, someone with some firearms experience should have looked these categories in advance because the qualitative and quantitative difference between ownership of “automatic” and “semi-automatic” weapons is ENORMOUS. Consequently, to the extent this question is used, I think the assumption will have to be that respondents who say “yes” to this question basically own semi-automatic weapons (since it is hard to imagine someone who owns a fully automatic weapon who does not own a semi-auto).

I would have been much more interested in knowing how many people own AR-15 style “modern sporting rifles” (a.k.a., “assault weapons”). Combining long gun and automatic/semi-automatic ownership categories doesn’t get at this, though, since it would also include a semi-auto shotgun, a Ruger 10-22 rifle, a Tommy Gun, and an M2 Browning, to name just a few.

Dianne Feinstein Assault Weapon Ban 1994

Q72. If you own a gun, please indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statement: Owning a gun makes me feel: (a) Safe. (b) Responsible. (c) Confident. (d) Patriotic. (e) In control of my fate. (f) More valuable to my family. (g) More valuable to my community. (h) Respected.

Comment: This promises to be some of the most interesting information that comes from the Baylor Religion Survey, because it goes beyond simply whether people own guns or not to get at some of the symbolic and affective meanings that people attach to gun ownership. We know something about this through qualitative studies like Abigail Kohn’s Shooters: Myths and Realities of America’s Gun Cultures, Jimmy Taylor’s American Gun Culture: Collectors, Shows, and the Story of the Gun, Joan Burbick’s Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy, Nancy Floyd’s She’s Got a Gun, and Jennifer Dawn Carlson’s forthcoming Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline. But it will be nice to have nationally-representative data on some of the things that are cultural causes and consequences of gun ownership. I think it will be particularly interesting to see what gender differences emerge in responses to these questions.

I am also working up a separate blog post specifically on Baylor sociologists F. Carson Mencken and Paul Froese’s presentation of some early analyses of this last question at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion meetings. Stay tuned for that.

In the end, the questions asked about guns on the Baylor Religion Survey are not perfect – which is to say, they are not what I would have asked. But some of them are quite ingenious – which is to say, they are smarter than what I would have asked. And they will contribute considerably to our understanding of American gun ownership and attitudes.

Unfortunately, the data will not be public for a year or two while the Baylor University researchers do their analyses. I for one will be anxiously awaiting their release, and looking forward to reports from Baylor in the meantime.

METHODOLOGICAL DETAILS: The 4th wave of the Baylor Religion Survey was fielded by mail (in English and Spanish) in collaboration with the Gallup Organization between January and March 2014. In the end, there were 1,572 respondents. The 15% response rate at first blush seems low, but comparisons with the General Social Survey show strong similarities on demographic characteristics (age, gender) and religious characteristics (religious attendance). Weights are also provided to correct for known differences between the survey sample and the American population. 40% of questions concern demographics and religious affiliation, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors. 60% topical modules, including 5 questions (with many subparts) on “guns and society.”