“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.

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.

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).

A Letter to My Future Students

I am participating in a faculty Writing Associates Seminar, in which we are learning to integrate writing more intelligently and productively into our courses. For an upcoming retreat, our seminar leader asked us to write a letter to our future students about what we hope they will get out of our class. I wrote the letter below for a course I am developing — related to my new research project on American gun culture — on “Guns in American Society.” Enjoy!

Photo credit: Lauren Carroll/Winston-Salem Journal

Photo credit: Lauren Carroll/Winston-Salem Journal

11 July 2014

Dear Students –

I am excited for this opportunity to spend some time together learning about the place of guns in American society. I have very high, perhaps even unrealistic, expectations for what I hope you will take away from this course.

First of all, I hope you will cultivate a scholarly approach to understanding guns. That means you will be able to take an issue that is contentious and complex, and approach it in as objective and nuanced a manner as possible.

This is easier said than done. As sociologists, we are a part of, not apart from, the social worlds we study. This is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because we bring a great deal of personal experience and understanding to our studies. It is a weakness because our personal experiences and understandings can be partial, biased, uninformed.

Therefore, we need to inform our personal experiences and understandings with broader sociological theories and more rigorous sociological studies of the phenomenon of interest. In other words, we need to develop our sociological imaginations. As C. Wright Mills put it decades ago, “it is by means of the sociological imagination that [people] now hope to grasp what is going on in the world, and to understand what is happening in themselves as minute points of the intersections of biography and history within society.”

This passage from Mills also points to a second objective of this course. I hope you will come away from the course with a better understanding of yourself with respect to guns. This includes your personal relationship to and personal beliefs about them.

Finally, although we will cover the good, the bad, and the ugly of guns in American society, there is much more to understand than we will be able to cover in the short time we have together this semester. Therefore, I hope to encourage you to develop an attitude and the tools necessary to continue to develop your sociological imagination with respect to guns for the rest of your life.

I am looking forward to getting started on this sociological enterprise with you.

Until then, best wishes,

David Yamane

Official Catholic View of Use of Lethal Force in Self-Defense

Miguel at the Gun Free Zone blog posted recently about a new book by a Texas police officer called Jesus Christ on Killing.

jesus-christ-on-killing-coverI expect to see evangelical Christians taking this position, but Miguel brings to light some interesting passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church that I had not previously read:

The seldom discussed subject of the legitimate killing of a human being and how does that mixes with Judeo/Christian values.  As a Catholic (although in a long hiatus) I refer to the Catechism regarding the Fifth Commandment

2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not.”

2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:

 If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.

2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.

A burden we do not seek but we know we might face.

Catechism of the Catholic Church


Gun Digest Magazine Shows How NOT to Create a Pie Chart

Thumbing through the February 13, 2014 issue of Gun Digest magazine, I was excited to see data on a recent survey of first-time gun buyers, attributed to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the trade association for the shooting, hunting and firearms industry.

Two pie charts, shown below, describe (1) the percentage of new shooters who engage in certain activities (target shooting, hunting, plinking, etc.), and (2) how frequently new shooters shoot.

These are both very important pieces of information, but what’s wrong with this picture?

Gun Digest magazine, 13 February 2014, p. 11
Gun Digest magazine, 13 February 2014, p. 11

If you answered that the pieces of the pie chart do not add up to a meaningful whole, you are correct. The first pie chart totals 264% and the second totals 80.3%. A meaningful whole in this case would be 100% of new shooters.

Pie charts are appropriate visual displays of information when we want to show the relative sizes or proportions of different phenomena as a part of a fixed whole. If one slice of the pie grows, another slice has to shrink. You can’t just expand the pie (to 264%). If you remove a slice of the pie, the other slices have to grow. You can’t just shrink the pie (to 80.3%).

A pie chart is not appropriate for a situation in which a single respondent can choose more than one category (a new shooter can be a target shooter and a hunter and a plinker, for example). Or when there are categories of responses that are not displayed (19.7% of new shooters shoot less than once a week or did not respond to this particular question, we can infer). In these cases, a bar chart is more appropriate to display the relative sizes of phenomena.

For a really excellent discussion of pie charts and their potential pitfalls, see “Understanding Pie Charts” on the eagereyes blog.

Reflections on My Reflections on Gun Culture Based on Site Statistics

Since November 2012, when I first started working in earnest on a new research project on American gun culture, I have tried to blog regularly at Gun Culture 2.0. I have been averaging about 5 posts a month since then, which is pretty good compared to my previous attempts at blogging (like on this blog).

As I noted in one of my first posts, “Jumping into the gun culture as a complete novice is like jumping into the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim.” I wrote this after the movie theater attack in Aurora, Colorado that month. Things only got worse later in 2012 when the Sandy Hook massacre took place. What was already a challenge to get up to speed on only became worse.

As a consequence, my posts on Gun Culture 2.0 have ranged widely from my own experiences shooting to reviews of books about guns to my attempts to understand existing research on guns. I am pretty much all over the place.

I began the blog as a way to force myself to reflect in writing on gun culture – a way to force myself to write! – but not many people who take the time to write do it only for themselves. So of course I have been interested to know if anyone out in cyberspace is looking at my posts. Recently I decided to look at my site statistics to see how many people have visited and what they have been most interested in reading about.

Top Blog Posts

The majority of my posts have fewer than 100 views, so the 6,370 total page views since I started Gun Culture 2.0 are dominated by a few entries. The home page not surprisingly leads the way with 1,415 views (though June 14).

1. Massad Ayoob’s MAG-40 Course – A Humanitarian Approach to Armed Citizenship (735 views). This is a long entry, but for anyone interested in a very thoughtful approach to the rights and responsibilities of armed citizenship, Massad Ayoob is the man.

2. Understanding Case-Control Studies of Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor (656 views). I am glad so many people have looked at this, because a lot of the most often cited statistics on the dangers of keeping a gun in one’s home is based on case-control designs. I learned a lot myself about this methodology in writing this entry.

3. Massad Ayoob Checks the Accuracy of My Handgun (612 views). This entry is just funny, because you often hear people who shoot guns say things like, “That gun doesn’t shoot well.” Given my own experience, I wonder what percentage of the time the actual statement should be, “I don’t shoot well.” Guns don’t shoot badly; people shoot badly.

4. Assessing the Great Ammo Shortage of 2013 (592 views). The fact that this entry has gotten as many views as it has suggests how concerned people are about the ammo shortage.

5. Shooting the MAG-40 Qualification Course (545 views). Three of the top 5 most visited pages on my site have to do with Massad Ayoob and his MAG-40 course. Overall this suggests that people are a lot more interested in Massad Ayoob than they are in me!

6. Investigating the New York Times’ Dangerous Gun Myths (173 views). This entry is another long one, and probably too boring for mass consumption, but looking at specific claims made in a NYT editorial claiming to debunk gun myths is important for those who want to look below the surface of those claims.

7. The Culture of Fear and the Mass Murders of 2012 (114 views). Here is another entry I wish more people would read. Recently, a big to do was made about the near-simultaneous release of a government study that showed violent crimes committed with guns is way down over the past 20 years, and a Pew Research Center poll that shows that people perceive gun crime to be going up. But this is an old story — crime down, fear up – as I note in this entry from January 2013.

8. Thoughts on Banning Certain Types of Rifles and Magazines (107 views). Banning so-called “assault rifles” and so-called “high capacity” magazines is a panacea designed to make us feel better without making us significantly safer. Enough said, but I wish more people had looked at this page, too.


From its inception, Gun Culture 2.0 has had 6,370 page views. I don’t have any basis for comparison in terms of blog readership, but I know this is more people than bought my first three books combined!

The best ever single day was 142 views. On that day I posted an entry on “Looking Forward to History’s Top Shot Season 5 All-Stars.” I like this because as I noted in my first ever entry, Top Shot had a major role in my interest in guns and gun culture.

My best month ever was May 2012 with 1,687 views. That was up from just over 1,000 in each of March and April. If I can get 1,000 page views a month, I am happy with that.

Although the vast majority (5,352 of 6,370) visits have been from the United States, I have also had 548 visitors from Australia, and the other 400+ visitors have come from 60 other countries including Vietnam, Slovenia, Kuwait, Nepal, South Africa, and Malta.

Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America by James D. Wright

In my introduction to sociology class this week, I am discussing sociologist James D. Wright’s classic essay, “Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America” (from Society March/April 1995, reprinted in Guns in America: A Reader).

Among his points: “There are 200 million guns already in circulation in the United States. . . . firearms are the most commonly owned piece of sporting equipment in the United States.” [Note: 270-300M today]

“Most of those 200 million guns are owned for socially innocuous sport and recreation purposes. . . . Gun ownership is … more appropriate to the sociology of leisure than to the criminology or epidemiology of violence.”

“Many guns are also owned for self-defense against crime, and some are indeed used for that purpose; whether they are actually any safer or not, many people certainly seem to feel safer when they have a gun.”

“Most of the gun violence problem results from the wrong kinds of people carrying guns at the wrong time and place.” Or as Canadian journalist Daniel Gardner says in The Science of Fear, “if you are not a drug dealer or the friend of a drug dealer, and you don’t hang out in places patronized by drug dealers and their friends, your chance of being murdered with a handgun shrinks almost to invisibility.” Or as Gun trainer John Farnham says: “Don’t go stupid places or do stupid things with stupid people.” This lowers your risk of homicide substantially, whether you have a gun or not.

“Everything the bad guys do with their guns is already against the law.” To wit: Sandy Hook shooter shot his mother (murder), illegally transported firearms into a gun free zone, etc. (some say he violated as many as 40 laws).

The first law of economics: “Demand creates its own supply.” Outlawing alcohol didn’t work, making certain drugs illegal hasn’t kept them out of the United States. If cocaine can make it from Colombia to Chicago, who thinks guns won’t make it from Brazil to Chicago?

“Guns are neither inherently good nor inherently evil; guns, that is, to not possess teleology.”

“Guns are important elements of our history and culture. . . .restrictions on the right to ‘keep and bear arms’ amount to the systematic destruction of a valued way of life and are thus a form of cultural genocide.”

Implications of Initial Foray into the Guns and Crime Research

Although part of me thinks it is hopeless to think that either side in the debate over whether more guns leads to more crime or less crime will yield any ground to the other, as an outsider I see some possible common ground in the scholarship. If I had to come to a conclusion based on my initial foray into this scholarship it would be this:

(1) In general, more guns do not lead to more crime. Both Duggan’s and Lott’s scholarship (discussed in my previous post) shows this for such crimes as rape, assault, and robbery (as does the work of Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig, for example: “The Social Costs of Gun Ownership,” Journal of Public Economics, 2006). These scholars are on opposite sides of the debate, but seem not to recognize this commonality.

(2) At least as concerns more populous areas, more guns lead to more homicides. Both Duggan’s and Lott’s work show this (as does the work of Cook and Ludwig noted above). Again, this seems like an area of agreement that is not often recognized.

To me, this suggests two implications:

(a) Guns as Force Intensifiers. As Cook and Ludwig suggest, “guns don’t kill people, but they make it real easy” (Gun Violence: The Real Cost, 2000). This is sometimes called the “instrumentality effect,” associated especially with Franklin Zimring’s work — that guns introduce lethality into situations in a way that no other weapon does.

It makes me wonder how many of the 33 percent of homicides annually that result from ARGUMENTS would not have ended in fatality were a gun not present — or, too frequently, a gun and alcohol present. Gun people experienced this closely last year when the former editor of Guns & Ammo magazine Richard Venola was arrested and charged with second degree murder for killing his friend James O’Neill with a rifle. It is reported that Venola appeared to be drunk and was arguing with O’Neill before the shooting. Amazingly, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (full citation below), “the number of homicides resulting from ARGUMENTS declined by nearly half from 10,300 homicides in 1980 to 4,696 homicides in 2008, but as of 2008 remained the most frequently cited circumstance of the known circumstances” (emphasis added).

Gun people know that firearms are force intensifiers. When I took one of the best courses in handgun self-defense in the United States, Massad Ayoob’s “Armed Citizens’ Rules of Engagement,” the gun was seen to represent LETHAL FORCE. The course description was “an intensive 40-hour program encompassing the legal and ethical parameters of the use of lethal force and deadly weapons in defense of themselves and others within the mantle of their protection, including the use of the defensive handgun under stress with an overall emphasis on safety and fast, accurate shot placement.” (In fact, as many know, Ayoob used to train under the auspices of the “Lethal Force Institute.”) We learned that one of the conditions for the legal use of deadly force is when a person is encountering a DISPARITY OF FORCE against them (e.g., force of numbers, positional advantage). In this situation, the gun equalizes the situation because it is in fact a force intensifer for the armed citizen.

(b) The Unequal Distribution of Homicide. The connection between guns and homicide is not evenly distributed through the American population. Focusing attention on the specific issue of handgun homicides by and against certain people yields the greatest payoff. For example, the homicide rate for the United States as a whole was 4.8 per 100,000 in 2010, while the rate in 2008 for Blacks was 27.8 per 100,000, and for Black males age 18 to 24 was 91.1 per 100,000 – almost 20 times the national average. Amazingly, this rate of 91.1 is actually a decline from its peak in 1993 of 195.9 homicides per 100,000. Young Black men 14 to 24 years old are 1% of the US population, but 16% of homicide victims and 27% of homicide offenders. According to the NPR Fresh Air interview with David Kennedy that I am fond of citing, the homicide rate for members of gangs and “neighborhood turf groups” can be as high as 3,000 per 100,000. (And according to Kennedy, gun control is no solution to that problem.)

I don’t find the rate in the report on homicide I am looking at, but 7.5% of all homicides took place in rural areas, which seems to me a higher percentage than the proportion of the American population that lives in rural areas. But I am not certain. (See “Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 236018, November 2011).

My Initial Take on the More Guns, More or Less Crime Debate

In response to my post on Michael Glassner’s anti-gun sentiments in his “Culture of Fear” book, my fellow sociologist Matt Loveland pointed me to an article by economist Mark Duggan called “More Guns, More Crime,” published in the Journal of Political Economy in October 2001 (volume 109, number 5, pages 1086-1114).

Duggan’s abstract reads:

This paper examines the relationship between gun ownership and crime. Previous research has suffered from a lack of reliable data on gun ownership. I exploit a unique data set to reliably estimate annual rates of gun ownership at both the state and the county levels during the past two decades. My findings demonstrate that changes in gun ownership are significantly positively related to changes in the homicide rate, with this relationship driven almost entirely by an impact of gun ownership on murders in which a gun is used. The effect of gun ownership on all other crime categories is much less marked. Recent reductions in the fraction of households owning a gun can explain one‐third of the differential decline in gun homicides relative to nongun homicides since 1993.

Having now looked into the Duggan paper, I have two responses:

(1) GUNS AND “CRIME” OR GUNS AND HOMICIDE? The title is “More Guns, More Crime” but Duggan’s strongest findings concern homicide. In fact, at both the state and county level, Duggan finds no relationship between changes in gun ownership and rates of robbery, assault, or rape. At the state level, he finds a small relationship to burglary and larceny (Tables 7), and at the county level to auto theft (Table 9).

So, to the extent that there are concerns, they should have to do with homicide. Not that this is a minor concern, but the fact that more guns do not necessarily lead to more robberies, assaults, or rapes seems an equally significant finding from this study, to me at least.

(2) CHANGES IN MAGAZINE SALES AS PROXIES FOR MORE/LESS GUNS? IF the findings of this study are valid, the more limited claim that more guns = more homicide is still dependent on the quality of Guns & Ammo circulation as a proxy for guns.

Because there are not national gun registries and surveys like the Gallup Poll and the General Social Survey do not have enough cases to do analyses at the state level (much less the county level), scholars have needed to use various proxies to estimate the number of guns in these localities. Duggan writes, “The main impediment to applied work in this area was the absence of a reliable measure of gun ownership that could be measured across geographic areas over time. . . . I argue that state- and county-level sales data for one of the nation’s largest gun magazines, Guns & Ammo, provide a much more accurate way to measure both the level and the change in gun ownership within an area” (p. 1087).

Duggan supports his use of Guns & Ammo as a proxy by including in his article an entire section showing that sales of Guns & Ammo are higher in areas that demographically resemble areas in which there is likely to be more gun ownership (areas that are more rural, less educated, more southern, etc.). He also shows a strong correlation between sales of Guns & Ammo and the number of gun shows in a state.

So, he makes a convincing argument about gun magazine sales as a proxy for gun ownership. But his argument about more guns = more crime is based not on a simple cross-sectional correlation, but on an analysis of CHANGE in gun ownership and CHANGE in crime rates.

So, the change in the circulation of Guns & Ammo in relation to changes in crime rates is what is at issue here. If Guns & Ammo circulation goes up, then homicide rates should go up, if G&A is a good proxy for guns and if more guns = more homicide. Duggan finds this to be the case.

Of course, in gun research nothing is quite as simple as it seems. According to John R. Lott, Jr., there are some peculiarities about Guns & Ammo that reduce its value as a proxy for guns, and especially for changes in gun ownership rates. In the 3rd edition of his book, More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 2010), Lott makes two points: (a) other magazines – specially, Handguns Magazine and American Handgunner – have more of a focus on handguns than Guns & Ammo, which makes them better proxies for the types of guns which are involved in most crime, and (b) Guns & Ammo “was the only one of the top seven largest gun magazines that experienced a drop in sales during the 1990s” (p. 297). Lott also says that a vice president at Primedia told him that during the 1990s, from 5 to 20 percent of national sales of Guns & Ammo were purchased by the company and then given away free to dentists’ and doctors’ offices. AND that these free copies were not distributed randomly throughout the country, but were targeted to locations where Primedia thought gun purchases would be increasing, including “areas where they thought that crime rates were going up” (p. 298).

Lott provides a table in More Guns, Less Crime that shows that of 7 gun magazines (G&A, American Handgunner, Handguns, American Hunter, American Rifleman, and North American Hunter), only sales of Guns & Ammo shows a statistically significant positive relationship to homicide (using two-tailed t-tests, Table A7.1, p. 366).

But, wait, there is still more. In an unpublished paper with Florenz Plassman, Lott conducts his own analyses using Handguns Magazine as a proxy and making some statistical adjustments for the fact that in most counties there are very small number of homicides in any given year. The results of these analyses find – congruent with Duggan – no evidence for a correlation between guns and rapes or robberies. They DO find, however, that “counties with population of more than 100,000 persons provides some evidence that increases in the number of magazine sales [i.e., in guns] cause the number of murder to increase,” but that this relationship does not hold true for all counties (p. 22).

They speculate that the effect of guns on murders may differ for urban and rural areas, which seems to make sense on its face considering that in some rural counties as many as 90 percent of households own guns (according to James D. Wright’s essay, “Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America”).

INITIAL CONCLUSION: There are no simple answers when it comes to assessing the relationship between guns and crime. Anyone who says there is probably has a dog in the fight or horse in the race or a certain fish to fry. This blog entry considers just two of many, many very, very statistically complex scholarly publications that speak to the question of whether more guns equal more crime or less. In my next entry I will consider some of the lessons I take from my initial foray into this research.