Guns, America and Anthropology

America has a problem with guns. This is certainly not news, but at the moment it is once again newsworthy. I have mentioned my position on guns here before (see also comments). More recently, I remarked elsewhere with regard to the poor political efficacy of anthropology that the US is struggling with gun control in a profoundly disturbing way. Meanwhile, it feels as if anthropologists have only just scratched the surface on this deadly issue, throwing their hands up and demanding more research and less action (see AAA Statement on Gun Violence). Notable exceptions to this trend include efforts by Jason Antrosio at Living Anthropologically and some coverage over at Savage Minds.

I still believe that the AAA's own response was weak and has not helped enough to bring together a cohesive stance on guns on the part of anthropologists. The discussion in the comments section on Ryan Anderson's Newtown post at Savage Minds covers a broader spectrum of responses to the subject of what anthropologists can/should do and was, on the whole, much more divided and contentious. This no doubt more accurately represent how anthropologists feel about, and react to, the gun debate and our roles in it than the brief AAA statement might suggest.

Repeated in several comments was the now standard call for more ethnography about the culture of gun owners and/or gun-loving Americans in order to better understand and inform the gun control debates. Conversely, Jason Antrosio counters that we're missing the point by getting bogged down in what amounts to an overdue and absurd "national conversation" about guns:

On this issue the only conversation we need to have is how to best reduce and ban the semi-automatic weaponry, following examples set by Australia or Britain. That conversation might include how to best reach people who have a knee-jerk negative reaction to “gun control,” but a conversation about gun control itself is pointless. One reason anthropologists might be involved in these issues is that many so-called Second Amendment arguments invoke a very bad anthropology, with assumptions about human nature, culture, and history which should be challenged.
Similarly, commenter Steven Tran-Creque posed a very pertinent question that has in part inspired this post: "How did we get to the point where even anthropologists are discussing gun control policy in such insipid terms?"

Anthropologists and Gun Politics

In the latest issue of Anthropology Today, Hugh Gusterson (who has previously drawn attention to the irony of the uniquely American approach to guns; see Arming Ourselves to Death) similarly takes issue with anthropology's seeming inability to adequately address the gun issue:

‘Firearms remain largely at the margin of the ethnographic lens’ […] is surely an understated characterization of anthropology’s remarkable indifference to one of the leading sources of mayhem and suffering in the contemporary United States. Those firearms that anthropologists hardly ever write about kill roughly 30,000 Americans every year. Of these deaths approximately 17,000 are suicides, 12,000 are homicides, and 1,000 are accidents. According to a recent New York Times column, ‘more Americans die in gun homicides and suicides in six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined’.

He highlights what little anthropology has been produced on guns thus far and how the tone oddly fits in with the position of the NRA and the gun lobby. The NRA itself is a facet of this debate that anthropologists have been slow to address, perhaps for fear of getting "too political", something we should really stop being afraid of:

Rather than critique the NRA, the little that had been written by anthropologists about guns in America before the Newtown massacre tended to align quite closely with the NRA narrative that gun owners should be understood as patriotic citizens who ‘believed that gun ownership was necessary for a country to truly be free’ (Doukas 2010). This might seem surprising in view of the liberal politics of most American anthropologists, but it is a classic example of a relativizing liberal anthropology seeking to discomfit readers by making the strange familiar. Abigail Cohn (2004) and Dimitra Doukas (2010) are symbolic anthropologists who studied the culture of gun owners in California and upstate New York – the kind of small-town Americans about whom Barack Obama famously (and dismissively) said, ‘they cling to their guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them’. By contrast, Cohn and Doukas ask us to see the sense and power of a social world within which owning a gun is viewed as a rite of passage to adulthood, the consummation of masculine power, and as an exercise of a free citizen’s responsibility to ensure that Americans are armed against a possibly tyrannical government. Cohn also emphasizes the aesthetic appeal of weaponry within this world, quoting one man who said, ‘I’m happy just to hold a gun in my hands… it’s a work of art, and thing of beauty… I would rather fondle a fine firearm than I would a naked woman’ (Cohn 2004:12).

This type of storytelling certainly offers an anthropological look into the sad reality of gun ownership in America. Anthropologists and ethnographers are especially apt at communicating the intricacies of localized social and cultural values, which is our edge as a discipline over, say, historical, legal, political or sociological accounts of gun ownership, violence, and public safety. It seems like the best use of our skills to shed more light on the human stories behind gun violence, hence all the calls for more and better research. Yet romanticized analyses of guns that promote sympathy over criticism offer little to advance any meaningful understanding of the broader realities of America's lethal obsession with firearms. At this point, they are also – as implied in Jason Antrosio's comment quoted above – too little and too late.

Gusterson continues:

While such reports from behind ideological enemy lines are certainly useful and interesting, in the context of what is becoming a national epidemic of gun violence, anthropology surely has more to contribute to the gun control debate than a warmed-over rehash of NRA talking points legitimated by our discipline’s historic legacy of cultural relativism. A more critically edged anthropological enquiry would juxtapose such ethnographic explorations of gun owners with an investigation of the political economy of American guns, and it would probe the relationship to guns of other constituencies as well as the NRA’s base.

Without the relevant context and an appropriately critical approach, we end up not only humanizing gun ownership, but also risk supporting it, inadvertently colluding with the gun lobby, and doing little to further the preservation of human life.

Relevant anthropology now

The ownership of deadly weapons is something that affects us all (even non-Americans) including all the other peoples we work with around the world. This is all happening on a global stage. So, if we can't avoid the topic any longer and we can't approach it with distanced and disinterested relativism, what else is there to do? On an individual basis, we can at least be more open and vocal about our own perspective as political beings in a society whose troubles are at least as profound as those that pad out the pages of our monographs. In my opinion, a suitable reaction from an anthropologist is to at least give the issue the attention it deserves and stop worrying in this instance about theorizing, reflexivity, and whether or not it is our place to discuss such things. I was surprised not to see more blog posts and calls for action in my anthro feeds; no suggestions for outreach; no conferences planned; no activism close to the kind we display in a fight for open access or chiding academic pay scales; no press attention like the coverage we get when cutting down Jared Diamond and disgracing Napoleon Chagnon.

An example of a more thoughtful reaction (in addition to Gusterson's articles and Antrosio's blog) is this podcast by the Anonymous Anthropologist. The questions s/he poses balance an anthropological and historical approach with some real insight about gun control, anger, violence and mental health in the wake of the Newtown, CT shooting from the personal perspective of an educator who, just because s/he works in America, has to give real consideration to what s/he would do in the event of a mass shooting at work. More than just an anthropological response, it is a natural human response. It doesn't come with all the answers, but it asks the right questions.

Not all anthropologists can be expected to embark on ethnographies of gun control. And really, there is no end to the number and depth of studies that can be done on all manner of related aspects of guns and US politics. From what I am re-learning about my own country in its post-9/11 years, there are probably more pro-gun democrats than there are anti-gun republicans. Party lines offer only a rough guideline that is contradicted around each small-town corner in America. For every furrowed brow maligning gun ownership or defending it to the literal death, there are dozens of politically apathetic citizens clutching a Constitution they've never read much less understood, relishing in their freedom to be fully equipped to kill just because "it's a free country" (even when it's not).

This is not an issue that will become easier to solve with time, so we have no time to waste. Change is far too slow in coming for the tens of thousands of senseless deaths each year. It is completely farcical to simply reduce the number of bullets a legally owned semi-automatic weapon magazine can hold and call it "gun control". Proudly announcing that New Yorkers can no longer buy assault weapons over the Internet as a "victory" is cringe-worthy when one deduces that such an activity is still legal in 49 other states, or, hell, that it was ever legal in the first place, and of course that a myriad of other gun types are still freely available online and off.


I live in New York. Shortly after the latest regulations on gun and ammunition ownership were passed, I found myself conversing with a security officer at a nearby federal building. Probably in his late fifties, gray on top and a bit on the portly side, he was friendly and fit the description of the typical Long Island family man, happily edging his way towards retirement. We talked as he went through the government-mandated machinations of his front-desk job, programmatically guiding visitors to their appropriate electronic sign-in points, handing out the correct bureaucratic forms and directing them to wait in the lengthy line. Although he sat at a desk positioned below side-by-side framed photos featuring the grinning faces of President Obama and Vice President Biden, it did not take long to find out that he'd rather have any other portraits peering down upon the back of his head than theirs.

A staunch Republican, one of the first things he brought up in our conversation was gun control. The new restrictions on his guns - which he insists he keeps safely in his home and present no threat to society because he has been shooting since he was 7 or 8 years old – to him amount to unacceptable government intrusion. He openly announced, while at work in his security uniform, badge and all, that he would never succumb to these new regulations, especially those which require him to officially register his firearms, because such laws are merely a ploy by the government to steal his guns upon his death and not allow him to pass them on to his son. He defiantly refuses to comply, repeating the mantra: "They're not taking my guns. No way."

He listened sensibly to my concerned reply, offered his counterpoints about keeping his home and family safe ("if you have guns in your house, no criminal is gonna mess with you"), and remained friendly as ever while I rebutted each point with logic. But his diehard stance – including actual plans to hide his guns from the government if they came knocking on his door ("I wouldn't shoot a cop, but they're not getting my guns") - was no different than a street gang caching their weapons out of police view to subvert the law.

We debated his position on liberal media "lies", my position on Fox "news", and the reality of the Constitution as a document that needs to grow and change with the society whose protections it ensures. I'm pretty sure we didn't change each others' minds on anything. The same reasons he clings to as support for why Americans need their guns (safety, a violent society, personal freedom) are the reasons why I desperately want them banned. The only two things we agreed on are that the US has problems that make it a pretty uncomfortable/scary place to live in right now and that American news media has no integrity.

Yes, the second amendment is a deeply entrenched political and "cultural" issue with many points of view. That excuse has allowed the severity of the American weapons epidemic to intensify with no sign of abatement and little palpable commitment to the kind of dramatic change that is necessary. How much more "research" and "understanding" do we need before something is done to stem the bloody tide?

Take a stand

If it hasn't been made clear by now, I favor a full ban on the public ownership of guns, regardless of the "cultural impediments" to making this a reality that, drenched in a sticky residue of American exceptionalism, have for too long offered a reliable crutch for stagnating real progress towards eliminating public access to lethal weapons. That unavoidably means repealing the outmoded Second Amendment which thwarts all legal attempts to enforce bans that include handguns as well as semi-automatic weapons.

Gun ownership in America is a form of sanctioned domestic terrorism. A constant fear of being shot while going about one's daily life is not - as fear-mongering, gun-toting Republican pundits would have you believe - a quirky fact of American history which necessitates that guns be readily available to the public, but itself a byproduct of this very obsession with guns as a "right" worth dying for.

As a US Citizen and a human being, if it will take 3 to 5 or even 10 years of ethnographic research to begin chipping away at the giant iceberg of reasons behind America's infatuation with guns, then, genuine an academic pursuit as it is, I have to admit that I wouldn't want to waste the time. I also do not think that it is okay, under the guise of inexplicably warm and cuddly social science/cultural relativism, to lend decency and credibility to the gun-lovers' cause by validating their poor, misunderstood feelings. Emotions aside, as scientists, we have plenty of evidence to support a fundamental and radical reversal of gun policy in the US. So where is the source of this crippling disciplinary roadblock? We participate in and observe life in this country and have a right and duty to call out failed policy-making when we see it.

When I add up all the people that will die or have their lives and families destroyed by mass shootings, accidental shootings, in cross-fires and miscellaneous gun crime while we're making meticulous notes about it, I can't help but care more about fixing the problem than documenting it. Like Gusterson argues, we can begin by expanding our investigations of gun culture far beyond the sympathetic realms of the NRA's comfort zone by openly exposing the hypocrisy of gun laws in America. I would add that anthropologists (and academics in general) today can better serve humanity by demanding prompt legislation from a government that ignores us in large part because we never put up much of a fight. Finally, we can stop dithering about whether or not we're authorities on the lethal potential of guns and just take a stand.

Not being able to formulate a meaningful stance on this issue without logging years of additional ethnography – all the while moaning that we don't have the cash to get it done – is a perfectly convenient way to justify more inaction. The next time an anthropologist has to bother mentioning anything about guns will be in the wake of yet another national "tragedy", again playing catch-up to media sensationalism and partisan politics and being drowned out as irrelevant academic navel-gazers (which would not be too far off the mark in this instance). Or, we can take this opportunity to lead a conversation on implementing a real weapons ban on behalf of the preservation of human life.

We will be able to ask Americans why they once loved guns or why they're attempting to resist reforms during the enforcement stage of a second amendment repeal (when my friend the security guard will be burying his guns in the back yard) or, better yet, after the firearms have been safely mounted behind glass displays at various museums. And hopefully, one day soon, we'll study guns like we now view asbestos-lined toasters, cigarette smoking, and over-the-counter heroin prescribed for children's colds. That solves another problem: the gun conversation will be squarely in our anthropological purview when they're obsolete artifacts of a peculiar and misguided time in human history (ours), and then we won't have to worry about how to go about discussing it.


Gusterson, H. (2013), Making a Killing. Anthropology Today, 29: 1–2. doi: 10.1111/1467-8322.12001

Photo credit: Pro-gun rally,


Jason Antrosio said...

Bravo. Smart and hard-hitting. A couple things:
- I'm not finding Hugh Gusterson's follow-up piece. Maybe I missed it?
- I still don't think we can let people get away with the idea that the Second Amendment, all by itself, precludes sensible legislation. After some extensive back-and-forth on one of my posts, Shoddy Anthropology & Gun Control, I'm a bit shaken by how much even some anthropologists seem to feel the 2nd Amendment entails, but for a number of reasons (I'll need to think more about this!) I just don't think 2nd Amendment repeal or even focus would be very effective.
In any case, thank you again, and great work.

Fran Barone said...

Jason, I agree about the 2nd Amendment. I actually read through the comments on the post you link to and was amazed by the support given to the amendment (although it sounded familiar). You handled it really well, by the way. Repealing the 2nd Amendment is not enough, but it has to be done regardless, and since that seems to be the heart of any gun debate in the US, then it's time to get the archaic thing repealed and move on.

I can't believe I forgot to link to Gusterson's piece, Making a Killing, from the Feb 2013 issue of Anthropology Today. I'll update the post with a link.

Unknown said...

Let me offer a couple of disjointed comments as I am, I think, one of the few anthropologists currently working on gun control, albeit not in the US (personal plug time: I am in the middle of a NSF-supproted research project on small arms control in West Africa). I also have a response to Gusterson forthcoming in Anthropology Today (the page proofs were just sent back the few days ago), which echoes some of the below.

I 100%, agree that anthropology's absence in gun control discussions is problematic and that the AAA response was weak (though I agree with it it did not seem to go far enough). For what its worth, I am also pretty far "left" (whatever that means) on the gun control spectrum (I grew up in Sweden, where guns are rarer than space aliens).

All that aside, I am struck by the idea, in Gusterson's article and (less so) here, that to document (ethnographically) a "gun culture" is in some way to support it or to make it understandable and therein validate their its view, even where it rests of incorrect facts. I don't think these things have to go hand-in-hand at all (nor do I think that such research would be a substitute for political action). I am reminded of Jennifer Schirmer's book on the Guatemalan military. Schirmer (a political scientists but her book is very anthropological) offers a great deal of "relativistic" insight into how torture and the like "made sense" to the Guatemalan military in order to explain how certain policies and practices took hold, not in order to validate torture and various other strategies of control.

Another issue, to me, is that those in favor of gun control tend to treat gun control as the "unmarked" half of the gun control/gun rights pairing (which is itself a simplification). I know this very phrase sounds like a big cop out ("let's nor argue for gun control, let's theorise it!"), but bear with me. The assumption that a government should be the sole regulator of what Elaine Scarry has called the "legitimate distribution of injuring power" is a relatively recent one tied to the consolidation of state power in the West and elsewhere (a la Weber). Scarry argues that discussions over the distribution of injuring power are not simply discussions of that but a more fundamental question of the nature of power in the polity. This is of course same terrain that some of the NRA-like gun control activists inhabit, which is disturbing to a pro-gun control anthropologist such as myself. Nonetheless to stop short of theorising the nature of state power when it comes to an issue where you agree with it seems a bit disingenuous (as a side note, I recently heard a presentation by Bill Maurer on the payment system where he basically exclaimed that "oh my gosh I am such a statist" and noted how discomforting that realisation was).

The big problem to me, and here I believe that we are in full agreement, is how to connect such insights or theorising or whatever with a political stance and not be paralysed by a kind of meek "everything is complicated and nuanced" stance. I do not think that viewing things as complicated and nuanced should preclude political action; anthropologists, like everyone else, have convictions after all. The bigger question is how anthropology as an institution should address gun control (note anthropology, not AAA). I don't have a terrific answer, but I do think part of the answer would be that anthropology can contribute to more responsive policy design by virtue of its cultural relativism, holism, emphasis on the emic, or whatever term you want to use (of course this leads to well-worn arguments about how such anthropological voices can rise above the din of the media, various pop-political science, and so on). This is in fact exactly the conclusion (though couched in different language) reached in much of the recent small arms control literature that argues for such holistic understandings of gun ownership and use.

Fran Barone said...

Thank you for the great comment, Niklas. My post was in many ways influenced by a number of related conversations I have been having recently regarding how anthropology and anthropologists can be more publicly influential/relevant in general, which set some of the tone.

I do think it is immensely important to talk about state power (health care and gun control are probably the two most pressing issues in American society at present and both hinge on serious questions of the State, its mandate and its efficacy). The western nation-state as we know it is a very recent construct. As far as the state's monopoly over/distribution of legitimate violence/injuring power, many societies where handguns are rarer than space aliens (e.g. most of Europe) are not exactly suffering from a deficit of personal "freedom" just because the state controls the personal ownership of weapons, but pro-gun would Americans disagree. These sorts of impasses are where we can do better to inform.

Of course it is not the case that ethnography is itself a waste of time or that all ethnography about "gun culture" will necessarily legitimate it. But this is a risk - which is the point Gusterson appears to be making - largely determined by how we present the data/results and how critical we choose to be (or not). I agree with your last paragraph completely. And I want to believe that more ethnography will get us somewhere other than to the point where we shrug and say that it's too complicated/nuanced. Yet it's obvious that anthropologists struggle with this. Perhaps they are just afraid of being labeled statists or "state apologists", as per Bill Maurer's discomfort.

On a more practical note, I wonder if there is one thing in particular you have learned in your work in West Africa that you think can be applied to the current US gun debates that people are missing due to US-centrism (in addition to questioning state power)?

Paul Moore said...

A brilliant and extremely well written article, Fran. As you know, I am of the same opinion as you regarding this matter. You have expressed my feelings perfectly.

Unknown said...

Fran - to sort of answer your question, I am still thinking through the research findings (and the project is by no means complete), so it is a bit premature to draw firm conclusions. I am also about to go to the airport, so this is a bit rushed.

Anyway, what I have focused on thus far is precisely the issue of the state. One related angle is the remedies that people view as salient when it comes to everyday precarity of which (gun) violence is a part. Here I have found that the inability to obtain a gun as a private individual is actually an issue, i.e. that people want to be able to get a gun and are critical of the government's restrictions on gun ownership (this is in the Gambia, by the way). Alternative "remedies" include things like jujus and other magical means, which is a somewhat different issue (I will hopefully have something else come out soon on this issue; I have a couple of things under review). This research has made me more sympathetic to the pro-gun crowd in a roundabout way, even if my politics go against what they believe. This is discomforting and a bit hard to explain.

I completely agree that how we present data/results is a big issue, as is the issue of case selection (it will never happen, but an ethnography of the NRA would probably be a very important contribution to the gun debate beyond what is offered by the rather "safe" gun sub-cultures that have been studied by anthropologists such as Kohn).

Unknown said...

Fran - I am a undergraduate student at Purdue university enrolled in an Anthropology class where I have to write a paper on a blog post for a social issue in America today. First off, i'd like to point out I am a conservative and share Republican views on fiscal and social views in America.

With that said, I respect your opinion on the stance of Gun Control, however, I do have a few questions for you. You speak of cultural relativism but have you ever actually spoke with a farmer or true land owner who possesses guns simply for means of food consumption. When I speak of these farmers, I am speaking from the perspective of a more industrialized foraging type of person. These people need guns in order to survive, for example, my family hunts deer, turkey, duck...etc, and we use the meat as a source of food to sustain living.

You state "Gun ownership in America is a form of sanctioned domestic terrorism" but by no means is our hunting a form of domestic terrorism and I feel that is a statement too broad to be accepted giving the vast uses of guns in America. I have grown up in a family where the respect of guns, the safety and use has been preached since birth and I know the proper and improper uses of guns through years of experience handling them. How do you justify taking away the right of gun ownership to me when nothing of what I speak about has to deal with the "fear-mongering, gun-toting Republican voices" you state in your blog post.

Now, I agree you with you on the basis of semi-automatic guns in America. I understand where people are coming from when they say it is their right for gun ownership, however, I agree with the fact that public ownership of such guns should be prohibited to the public because they are made for industrialized warfare and mass slaughter, not protection or hunting. I also agree with you on the fact that such arguments on the 2nd amendment are invalid because the constitution was written during a time in America that is completely different from now and such uses almost seem irrelevant. However, I may suggest a change in the 2nd amendment but not a complete ban on the public ownership of guns because despite some fear-mongering arguments you state, there are still completely justifiable reasons for public ownership of guns, which I have stated a bit above.

You speak a lot of the Newtown tragedy in your article and I just want to comment on that quickly. A semi-automatic weapon was used in the sad massacre of those innocent children and it was a national tragedy but there were a lot more underlining factors. This is a completely different topic of discussion but before you instantly go to the ban of guns in America, don't you think as an Anthropologist you should study Mental Illness in America, the statistics behind the locking up of guns in the home and the access of purchasing guns before going immediately to the ban of guns as a quick out/solve to the problem with much more underlining factors. Just some food for thought.

Either way, I just wanted to provide my opinion on your article and I look forward to your response.

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