Learning to Need a Gun

Abstract

Millions of Americans feel the need to carry guns with them everywhere they go. They feel this need in their minds as well as in their bodies. Cognitively, they feel their lives are in danger and physically, they feel unease when they are not carrying their guns. In this article, we demonstrate that the practice of carrying guns is constituted by both cognitive schemas about risk and safety, as well as sensory and embodied experiences of comfort, and even pleasure, in holding, shooting, and carrying a gun. As with other social practices, these cognitive schemas and embodied experiences are not innate, but rather learned. Drawing on interviews with 46 people who regularly carry guns, as well as fieldwork at firearms training schools, we examine the process by which people learn the cognitive schemas (how people think about guns) and embodied experiences (how people physically experience guns) associated with the practice of carrying guns.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    To protect confidentiality, we use pseudonyms to identify all people.

  2. 2.

    While states use different terms for licenses or permits to carry a concealed firearm, we use License to Carry (LTC) to refer to all such policies that allow gun owners to carry concealed handguns in public.

  3. 3.

    Beyond being places where students take the mandatory class required to obtain an LTC, gun schools are places where people take a broad array of classes, from those meant for beginners, to more advanced tactical self-defense training.

  4. 4.

    Women expressed a fear of being raped, while men expressed a fear of having their wives and daughters being raped.

  5. 5.

    Repeatedly, the sense of danger was gendered and racialized (with women usually being the ones needing protection, and black and brown men usually being the ones they need protection from). We address this in a working paper, “The Role of Race and Gender in How Gun Owners Perceive Risk.”

  6. 6.

    In firearms classes, students are encouraged to not only carry guns, but also engage in a range of behaviors meant to make them safer. This includes, most importantly, what is called “situational awareness,” in which people are taught to become cognizant of their surroundings and avoid “dangerous situations.” However, ultimately, our research shows that firearms instructors and people who carry guns believe, and teach people to believe, that they need guns and that if they are not carrying a gun at all times, they are not as safe, even if they engage in the other sets of behaviors (such as carrying pepper spray or having situational awareness).

  7. 7.

    While shooting someone does not necessarily have to result in death, firearms schools train specifically to not just injure but to kill. Indeed, instructors make a concerted effort to teach students that injuring someone does not guarantee your safety because that individual can “continue to fight.”

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Acknowledgments

We thank Shamus Khan, Christine Williams, and David Yamane for feedback they gave us on earlier versions of this article. We are also particularly grateful for the insights and encouragements provided by David Smilde throughout the editorial process. This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

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Correspondence to Harel Shapira.

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Shapira, H., Simon, S.J. Learning to Need a Gun. Qual Sociol 41, 1–20 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-018-9374-2

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Keywords

  • Guns
  • Embodiment
  • Practice
  • Socialization