“The Sociology of U.S. Gun Culture” Article Published and Available Free Online

In case you missed the announcement on my Gun Culture 2.0 blog, I am very happy to report that my second academic article on gun culture was published recently in the journal Sociology Compass (my first was on religion and gun ownership).

Thanks to a generous grant from Wake Forest University’s ZSR Library and the Office of Research & Sponsored Programs, “The Sociology of U.S. Gun Culture” is available as a free download from the journal’s website.

In the paper I argue that social scientists have been so concerned with the criminology and epidemiology of guns that there is no sociology of guns, per se. To help develop a sociology of guns that is centered on the legal use of guns by lawful gun owners, I give a brief historical overview of gun culture in the United States, review the small research literature on recreational gun use, highlight the rise of Gun Culture 2.0, and offer some thoughts on directions for future research.

Sociological Key Words: Guns, Gun Culture

The American Sociological Review was founded in 1936 as the official publication of the American Sociological Society. (The ASS was founded in 1906, and was apparently unaware of acronyms until 1959 when it changed its name to the American Sociological Association.)

The ASR remains the flagship journal of the ASA, and is one of the top 2 US journals in the field (the other being the American Journal of Sociology). It is a difficult journal to publish in because peer reviewers and editors set a very high bar for acceptable quality.

Recently I was asked to review an article submitted in my former area of expertise, the sociology of religion. I responded that I did not want to review the submission because I am not longer working principally in the sociology of religion, but I would be happy to review any submissions received on the topic of guns or gun culture.

An editorial assistant kindly responded to tell me that the key word “religion” was removed from my reviewer profile so I would no longer be sent manuscripts on that topic, but no key word existed in their database for “firearms,” “guns” or “gun culture” so they could not be added to my profile.

This is telling and reflective of the reality of what is published about guns and gun culture in sociology.  To find an article in the ASR about guns that isn’t primarily about gun violence or crime, you have to go back nearly 30 years to 1988 for an article by Douglas Smith and Craig Uchida called “The Social Organization of Self-Help: A Study of Defensive Weapon Ownership” or 1980 and 1981 for articles by Alan Lizotte and David Bordua on “Firearms Ownership for Sport and Protection.”

Without the modifier “violence,” guns are simply not a key word in sociology.

Religion and Guns Research Digested in Academic Minute

For those of you who would rather listen to me explain my recent article on religion and guns in America than read it, you can do so thanks to WAMC Public Radio’s Academic Minute program, which is also available on the Inside Higher Education website.


Or if you are a real glutton for statistical punishment, go ahead and read the full paper (yamane-2017-journal_for_the_scientific_study_of_religion).

The Problem with Averages in Understanding Guns, Violence, and Crime: No One Lives in “The United States”

The problem with averages is that there is no “United States of America” when it comes to guns, violence, and crime, but many Americas. Some of these Americas – like my neighborhood in Winston-Salem – are more like our first world counterparts in the OECD, and some of them are more like the third world politically, economically, and socially.

Back in January, a video called “Number One with a Bullet” by someone named Bill Whittle – apparently a conservative blogger — got a lot of attention on the various internet gun sites I survey. People loved it. As of today, it has over 700,000 views on YouTube, and thumbs up are nearly 7,000 to just over 300 thumbs down.

In addition to these cheers, the video also drew jeers, notably in a response by the consistently anti-gun founder of “Armed with Reason,” Evan DeFillipis, on the ever faithful(ly anti-gun) Huffington Post (“Better Than Somalia – How to Feel Good About Gun Violence”).

I watched the video, saw some good and some bad in it, and moved on. Or at least I thought I had. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, especially about how Whittle and DeFillipis basically talked past each other and so, as happens most of the time in these gun debates, no mutual understanding is gained.

For my part, I think Whittle is completely unhelpful on one point, and extremely insightful on another; DeFillipis is the mirror image, being very helpful on one point, and completely blind on another.

Round 1: The U.S. and Per Capita Homicide Rates Inter-Nationally

Whittle spends the first three minutes or so of the six minute video showing the ranking of the countries of the world according to per capita homicide rates. #1 Honduras, #2 Venezuela, etc. Whittle smugly notes that the United States is not even in the Top 5 or the Top 10, 20, 30, etc. The United States with 4.7 murders per 100,000 population in 2012 ranks #111 in the world, just behind Yemen and Niger and just ahead of Latvia and Micronesia.

Here, Whittle’s data is not incorrect, but his interpretation is questionable. Do I care that the United States’ per capita homicide rate is better than Venezuela’s or Mozambique’s or Turkmenistan’s? Or, as DeFillipis correctly observes, better than Somalia’s? Absolutely not. I care how the United States compares to comparable nations – advanced, (post-)industrial, democratic nations. DeFillipis looks at Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member nations ranked as high-income by the World Bank (those with a gross national income > $12,616). Among these 31 countries, the United States has the highest per capita homicide rate. That is significant.

Not even knowing what the other 30 high income OECD nations are, I could just watch the list as Whittle scrolled through the countries and know that his argument was ridiculous. Not a single country I think is comparable to the United States politically (democratic) and economically (rich) ranks higher than the U.S. No country I would want the U.S. to emulate ranks higher. That is significant and here Whittle’s rhetoric is simply unconvincing.

My judgement: DeFillipis 1, Whittle 0.

Round 2: The U.S. and Per Capita Homicide Rates Intra-Nationally

In the second half of the video, Whittle looks more in depth at per capita homicide rates in different U.S. cities. Here he is onto something extremely important in terms of the problem with averages. Aggregating data for the entire United States helps us see some things, but blinds us from other things. Most importantly as concerns exposure to homicidal violence, no one lives in “the United States,” per se. We live in 50 different states (and the District of Columbia). But we don’t just live in one of 50 states, we live in one of over 3,000 particular counties or county-equivalents. But we don’t just live in one of 3,000+ counties, we live in one of thousands of cities, towns, municipalities, unincorporated areas, and so on. My risk of being a victim of homicide in my home town of Winston-Salem, is different from my risk in the next city over, Greensboro, or the state’s capital, Raleigh.

Unequal Distribution of Homicide in NC CitiesWhittle recognizes this, and begins by observing the homicide rate in Detroit (54.6 per 100,000) is almost 12 times the average for the United States. Were Detroit ranks alongside the world’s countries, it would rank #2, just behind Honduras and just ahead of Venezuela. Whittle lists other extremely violent cities like New Orleans, St. Louis, Baltimore, Newark, Oakland, etc. – all of which inflate the average murder rate for the United States.

By contrast, there are cities which have extremely low homicide rates, like Henderson (Nevada) at 1.5 per 100,000, Lincoln (Nebraska) at 1.1, and Plano (Texas) at 0.4. Whittle observes that if the entire country had Plano’s homicide rate, the United States would rank #211 out of 218 countries, including a number of those OECD nations we ought to be comparing ourselves to like France, Italy, Denmark, Spain, and Germany.

Moreover, even city-wide averages can obscure the realities of relative risk. We don’t even live in particular cities, but in particular neighborhoods. I don’t have data on the geographic distribution of homicides in Winston-Salem, but the following graphic shows the geographic concentration of assaults in particular neighborhoods in my home town. The ring shows my neighborhood.

Unequal Risk of Assault in Winston Salem GraphicWhittle mentions Chicago, and as I have written previously, Chicago is very instructive. Chicago is the 13th most murderous city in the United States with 18.5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, 4 times the national average. But as Andrew Papachristos has shown in his research there are vastly different rates of homicide and gunshot injury according to where one lives in Chicago.

Papachristos takes these distinctions even further, because even in a high-crime neighborhood in Chicago not every person is equally exposed to homicide risk. In a study of gun homicides in one high-crime neighborhood in Chicago (82,000 people living in a 6-mile area), Papachristos and his co-author Christopher Wildeman found that “41% of all gun homicides occurred in a network component consisting of approximately 4% of the population of the community.”

Papachristos, Anthony Braga, and David Hureau have also studied the risk of gunshot injury in Boston’s Cape Verdean community. Again, the risk of gunshot injury is highly concentrated in certain social networks. 85% of gunshot victims are found in the network, as depicted in the graphic below.

Papachristos: Co-Offending network of high-risk individuals in a Boston community, 2008. Red nodes represent the victims of fatal or non-fatal gunshot injuries, and these are clustered within the network. http://yins.yale.edu/illustrative-projects/social-networks-help-explain-gun-violenceAn implication of Papachristos’s research accords with Whittle’s ultimate conclusion: “Maybe it’s not the guns. Maybe it’s the people holding the guns.” Maybe more guns in the hands of the wrong people leads to more crime, and more guns in the hands of the right people leads to less crime? I wrote previously about a promising study I saw presented at the American Society of Criminology which looked at homicide in New Orleans. The authors set out to move the guns and crime debate forward by distinguishing between the effect of legal and illegal guns on homicide. They hypothesized that presence of legal and illegal guns affect homicide rates, but in different ways. Legal guns reduce gun homicide rates (supporting Lott’s more guns, less crime argument), while illegal guns increase gun homicide rates (supporting Cook’s more guns, more crime argument).

The problem with averages is that there is no “United States of America” when it comes to guns, violence, and crime, but many Americas. Some of these Americas – like my neighborhood in Winston-Salem – are more like our first world counterparts in the OECD, and some of them are more like the third world politically, economically, and socially. DeFillipis unintentionally recognizes this in making another point using a U.S. State Department travel warning for Guatemala: “Violent crime is a serious concern due to endemic poverty, an abundance of weapons, a legacy of societal violence, and weak law enforcement and judicial systems.” This could very well be issued as a travel warning to U.S. citizens traveling to certain parts of certain cities here.

DeFillipis is largely silent on distinctions like this, and dismisses any talk of racial disparities in homicidal violence and violence due to gang involvement.

Hence my judgement for round 2: DeFillipis 0, Whittle 1.

Conclusion: A Lose-Lose for Understanding

In the end, it’s a tie: DeFillipis 1, Whittle 1. But rather than seeing it as a “win-win,” I see this as yet another “lose-lose.” No dialogue, no understanding, not even any attempt at understanding. But of course, I already knew that.

New Course for Fall 2015: The Sociology of Guns

I am excited to be teaching a new course in the fall semester, related to my new research project on American gun culture: Sociology 384: Special Topics Seminar – The Sociology of Guns. Course description follows the flier.

Sociology of Guns Course Annoucment 3-12-15COURSE DESCRIPTION

Guns often have a spectacular presence in the American imagination, from George Zimmerman to Sandy Hook Elementary to the American sniper Chris Kyle. But guns are also a part of everyday life in communities across the United States. They are used as tools of criminal violence and self-defense, and are one of the mostly commonly owned pieces of sporting equipment in the country.

Clearly, guns are an important part of American society and culture. With more than 300,000,000 guns held by private citizens and a Constitutional amendment associated with gun ownership, the possession, regulation, meaning, and use of firearms reaches into important realms of American society, including: civil rights and liberties, identity and culture, crime and violence, public health and personal safety, and even sport and leisure.

This course explores the multifaceted role guns play in the U.S. from a sociological perspective. From a firm foundation of understanding the history and technology of firearms, as well as the historical and constitutional origins of the 2nd Amendment, the course will focus on a range of topics, including: the prevalence and distribution of guns; attitudes and opinions about gun ownership; lawful possession and use of firearms; illegal and legal gun markets; gun crime and injuries; and the varieties of responses to gun injuries and crime.

On the Ideal of Ethical Neutrality in Research on America’s Culture Wars

I am not sure what it says about me, but in my career as a sociologist, I have been drawn to some of the more controversial issues of my time. What James Davison Hunter way back in 1991 called “culture wars.” Culture wars, according to Hunter, are “struggles to define America,” and have been fought in recent years over the family, education, media and the arts, law, and politics.

Hunter Culture WarsMy earliest work looked at one aspect of the culture wars over education: the struggle to incorporate multiculturalism into the curriculum. I then examined the intersection of religion and politics – two topics to be avoided in polite conversation and potentially explosive when considered together. And now I am studying one of the most controversial and divisive issues of all: guns.

Because my topics are part of ongoing culture wars in America, it is common for people to want to situate me on one side of the battle or the other. From multiculturalism, to religion and politics, to guns, I find myself repeatedly coming back to the question of objectivity in research.

I recognize that there is no perfect standpoint of objectivity (“Punctum Archimedis”). As philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once observed, “there is no well so deep that leaning over it one does not discover at bottom one’s own face.” But this does not mean that everything is completely relative and the quest of objectivity should be abandoned.

In the appendix to my first book, I wrote at some length about the ideal of ethical neutrality in research. Re-reading that appendix, I realized that I could with some minor editing, say the same thing about my research on guns as I did about my research on multiculturalism. So what follows is my adaptation of the words I originally wrote back in the late 1990s.

Student Movements for MulticulturalismThe battle over guns in American society is a culture war. The two sides in this battle not only have different positions on guns, they have different views of what American is fundamentally. Much of the discourse over guns, therefore, is shaped by the ideological positions people bring to the debate. Given this reality, in my study of Gun Culture 2.0, am I not simply substituting one ideologically-based analysis for another?

This is a very significant question, and one which I need to address immediately and directly. There is absolutely a difference between my social scientific analysis of Gun Culture 2.0 and the advocacy research of groups like the Violence Policy Center, the applied research of public health scholars like Arthur Kellerman, the journalistic muckraking of Dana Loesch or Tom Diaz, and the like.

The difference is in my aspiration to and the methodical pursuit of “value freedom” or “ethical neutrality” in scholarship. Of course, a full consideration of the question of whether social science is, can be, or should be “value free” is beyond the scope of this work. Whether dealing with important issues of epistemology or ontology, the philosophy of science or sociology of knowledge, such a treatment would fill a volume in itself. I can only briefly offer my own position on the question, one I derive from my engagement with the great German social scientist, Max Weber, and his famous essay on “value freedom” (Wertfreiheit, sometimes rendered as “ethical neutrality”) in the social sciences. [Source: Weber, “The Meaning of ‘Ethical Neutrality’ in Sociology and Economics” (1917), pp. 1-47 in Max Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences, Edward Shils and Henry Finch, eds. (New York: Free Press, 1949.]

Weber Methodology Book CoverAlthough Weber’s specific concern was with the “sciences of culture” (Kulturwissenschaften), his principles seem to me applicable to all the social sciences which aspire to be empirical sciences of concrete reality, or what Weber called “sciences of actuality” (Wirklichkeitswissenschaften). [Source: Weber, “‘Objectivity’ in Social Science and Social Policy” (1904), in The Methodology of the Social Sciences, p. 72.]

Weber argues for a particular relationship between “facts” on the one hand and “values” on the other. He holds that although “the problems of the social sciences are selected by the value-relevance of the phenomena treated,” these problems “are, of course, to be solved ‘non-evaluatively.’” Social scientists, therefore, should heed “the intrinsically simple demand that the investigator and teacher should keep unconditionally separate the establishment of empirical facts . . . and his own practical evaluations, i.e., his evaluation of these facts as satisfactory or unsatisfactory. . . . These two things are logically different and to deal with them as though they were the same represents a confusion of entirely heterogeneous problems.” [Source: Weber, “The Meaning of ‘Ethical Neutrality,’” pp. 21, 11.]

Thus, while the values and interests social scientists hold necessarily affect the questions we pose, the phenomena we choose to study, and our modes of investigation, these values and interests should not affect our application of widely-accepted protocols for the collection, analysis, and presentation of evidence.

To be sure, these protocols and their enforcement through peer review of work prior to publication are imperfect. Ideologies, we know from Marx, Freud, and other “hermeneuticists of suspicion,” often operate unconsciously or subconsciously, and so the ability of methodology to bracket motivations may be limited. [See: Irving Louis Horowitz, “Social Science Objectivity and Value Neutrality: Historical Problems and Projections,” in Professing Sociology: Studies in the Life Cycle of Social Science (Chicago: Aldine Publishing, 1968), p. 40.]

Hence, ethical neutrality is an ideal we pursue; even Weber himself was not able to attain it. That we pursue neutrality nevertheless is, in my view, a characteristic which most distinguishes social scientific research from journalistic speculation and advocacy. The Violence Policy Center’s “research” on concealed carry killers, for example, would never see the light of day in a peer-reviewed academic journal.

This is not to say that social scientists should never make normative claims, be involved in the public sphere, or seek to influence public policy. Social science, as my teacher at UC-Berkeley Robert Bellah often said, can be a form of “moral inquiry” and “public philosophy.” [See especially the position outlined in the Appendix to Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), a book which itself exemplifies social science as public philosophy.]

But, Weber implores us, in moving from “judgments of fact” to “judgments of value” we must try to be “absolutely explicit” about our movements and intentions (as Bellah is in his work). [Source: Weber, “The Meaning of ‘Ethical Neutrality,’” p. 10.]

Reinhard Bendix (1916-1991)

Reinhard Bendix (1916-1991)

Another UC-Berkeley sociology professor, Reinhard Bendix, provides a useful summary of the position I am outlining when he writes, “Social research is characterized by an interplay between identification and detachment, of subjectivity and objectivity.” [Force, Fate, and Freedom: On Historical Sociology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 28.]

In my case, my identification with the issue of guns came not until my 43rd year of life, when a combination of circumstances led me to learn to shoot a handgun under the guidance of my future wife and a trainer for the state police. From there I had the opportunity to do more fun shooting: plinking with .22 handguns, trap and sporting clays with shotguns, and destroying plastic bottles with a .50 cal rifle. I also came to identify with armed self-defense after a very dangerous encounter with a drug addict and criminal in the parking lot of my apartment complex.

Thus, before I even began studying Gun Culture 2.0, I had already formulated certain answers to questions such as, “What are guns for?” and “Why do people need X/Y/Z gun?” and “Why carry a gun?” I necessarily approach empirical questions about guns with these pre-scientific intuitions and ideas in mind. It is this “value-relevance” which shapes my choice of phenomena to study. But in seeking to understand Gun Culture 2.0, I turn not to speculation or advocacy but to my disciplinary training as a professional sociologist which stresses the aspiration to detachment and objectivity in the analysis of empirical data.

I believed when I began this work a couple of years ago, and I continue to believe, that my distinctive contribution to the question of guns in American society is to examine the issue empirically using established methods of social scientific inquiry. My aspiration in this work was best summarized for me by the late Reinhard Bendix, a Weberian sociologist who I had the good fortune to meet at Berkeley not long before his death in 1991. Bendix referred me to a quote from the philosopher Baruch Spinoza which I will always remember as embodying the social scientific ideal to which I still aspire: “I have sedulously endeavored not to laugh at human actions, not to lament them, nor to detest them, but to understand them” (Tractatus Politicus, i, 4).

Gun Rights versus Gun Control: On the Need to Understand Sampling Error in Reporting Statistics

Based on a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, we can be 95% confident that the actual gap in American’s attitudes toward protecting gun rights versus controlling gun ownership is as small as 0% and as large as 12%.

Depending on where you stand on the issue, things might not be as bad as was reported (no gap between gun rights and gun control!) or they could be much better than what was reported (12% more favor gun rights than gun control!).

These important caveats got lost amid all of the controversy over this Pew Research Center survey question about American’s attitudes toward protecting the right of Americans to own guns versus controlling gun ownership. (I wrote about this controversy here and here.)

Pew Research reported that in 2014, the scales tipped in favor of protecting gun rights (52% of respondents) over controlling gun ownership (46% of respondents). That result, as well as the trend in responses over the past 20 years, is displayed graphically below.

Pew Research Center Graph on Rights vs Control

Gun rights supporters rejoiced and gun control proponents lamented – the latter even going so far as to petition Pew Research to change the wording of this question. But as Peter Berger said, “the first wisdom of sociology is this—things are not always what they seem.”

We are bombarded so constantly with statistics like these that we often forget (or for some, do not know in the first place) that the results of surveys based on samples are estimates (sample statistics) of the true underlying values in the population being observed (population parameters). Ideally, a sample statistic will match the population parameter, but in the real world that is basically impossible 100% of the time.

Having some idea of how big the gap is between a sample statistic and population parameter is vital to interpreting results like those reported by Pew Research. Unfortunately, in this particular graphic, what is not reported is the survey’s margin of (sampling) error.

However, if you go to the section of the Pew Research site that gives further information about the survey,  you will see that for the total sample size of 1,507 respondents, the margin of error is +/-2.9% — basically 3%.

So, looking at the responses above, what we really know is that the proportion of the population in favor of protecting gun rights could be as high as 55% and as low as 49%, and the proportion favoring controlling gun ownership could be as high as 49% and as low as 43%. (Assuming no other biases or errors in measurement or methodology – about which more in another post.)

So, the actual gap in American’s attitudes on this question ranges from 0% to 12%. Things could be either not as bad as gun control/safety advocates think OR much worse! And things could be either worse than gun rights proponents think OR much better!

Moreover, we are only 95% confident that the sample statistic is +/-3% of the actual population parameter. That means there is a 5% chance that the statistic is off from the actual underlying population parameter by more than 3%. In other words, in 95 out of 100 samples of the same size that are drawn, the survey estimate will be +/-3% of the population parameter. 5 times out of 100, it will deviate more than that.

All is not lost, however. There are more advanced statistical methods we can use to determine the likelihood that a difference we see in survey statistics is “real.” But to just say X% of people believe this and Y% of people believe that based on a survey is very imprecise indeed.

The Pew Research Question “about the survey” section also concludes, “In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.” I will take up this issue in a future post.


Sampling error is based on the central limit theory (nice overview from the Khan Academy), which holds that the sampling distribution of any statistic will be normal or close to normal if the sample size is sufficiently large – even if the values in the population are not normally distributed. A normal distribution is sometimes called a “bell curve.” This is fairly well represented in the following graphic from the Web Center for Social Research Methods:


Live Tweeting PBS Frontline Episode “Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA”

Thanks to a recommendation from my fellow sociologist of guns, Jennifer Carlson, I was asked by the digital content manager for PBS’s FRONTLINE to participate in live Tweeting before, during, and after the premier of their upcoming episode, “Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA.”

The episode airs at 10:00am Eastern Time on Tuesday, January 6th. I will be Tweeting from @gunculture2pt0 and PBS will be tweeting from @frontlinepbs — using the hashtag #GunnedDown.

Frontline Gunned DownHere is a brief description of the episode by PBS: “How the NRA became a powerful lobbying force. Included: remarks from individuals on both sides of the gun-control debate, including former NRA spokesman John Aquilino; Vice President Joe Biden; and former NRA executive vice president Warren Cassidy.”

A five minute YouTube preview video is also available:

I was also asked to suggest to PBS Frontline some individuals who might live Tweet the episode from a more pro-gun perspective. I will be interested to see who they may have asked and who may have said yes.

Of course, anyone can Tweet the event using the hashtag #GunnedDown, so I will look forward to “seeing” old and new virtual friends/colleagues Tuesday night.


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.