Wednesday, February 16, 2005


If there�s a gun in a scene, an old writer�s adage says, it had better go off. As that bit of advice suggests, there are few symbols more powerful than guns. They can represent liberation from oppression or serve as a weighty physical reminder of a lurking existential threat. No matter the association, the powerful emotional responses that guns elicit are largely responsible for the stagnant and vitriolic nature of the current gun control debate.

In Shooters, anthropologist Abigail Kohn argues that both sides of the debate have become so alienated from one another that they effectively form subcultures, and she studies them accordingly. Kohn calls Shooters an ethnography, an anthropological study conducted from within a culture to gain the �natives� point of view.� Rather than studying gun enthusiasts though literature and statistics, or from behind a duck blind to ensure �objectivity,� Kohn spent time with enthusiasts, interviewing them, taking classes with them, and shooting with them.

Her research methods appear to be scrupulous. She confined her survey to a particular area (the San Francisco Bay area) rather than glossing the gun culture as a whole. She published her standard questionnaire as an appendix to the book, and the citations she offers to support her claims seem to come from both sides of the gun control debate. The result is a fascinating look into the world(s) of gun enthusiasm that puts real, human faces on a gun debate dominated by antiseptic statistics and abstract principles. After reading Shooters, you�ll wonder why no one has done such a study before.

The omission may stem from the typical attitude toward guns among academics, which Kohn addresses in her preface. From �public health� articles proposing gun control as a cure for the �epidemic� of gun violence to highly regarded sociologists who argue that gun research should be informed by �moral principles� rather than hard facts, she confesses her surprise at the ill-informed and often tendentious research conducted by academics. Kohn�s own research for Shooters, some of which appeared in this magazine (�Their Aim Is True,� May 2001), elicited predictable responses. One colleague said she was performing a �social service by researching �such disgusting people.�� Another said that unless Kohn acknowledged the �inherent pathology� of gun enthusiasm, she was disrespecting victims of gun violence.

The characters that emerge from Kohn�s interviews and observations are far more complex and interesting than the �gun nut� stereotypes that such comments suggest. The shooters in Shooters are diverse, including doctors, lawyers, artists, and men and women of various ages and races. Even their political persuasions are not as predictable as you might expect. While most of the people in Kohn�s book describe themselves as conservative, a few are politically liberal and say they regularly vote Democrat.

More (much more) here

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