One such further juxtaposition involves firearms. As I have mentioned before, I do enjoy recreational shooting. I own a Springfield M-1 Garand .30-caliber semi-automatic rifle (The rifle that won World War II) and have a good time taking it down to the range occasionally. I could fairly be referred to as "Dead-Eye Drek" on such trips, not so much because of my skill, as because my first few shots are usually so bad as to make one question my ocular health.
Since returning home I have gone shooting with one of my good friends, who might safely be referred to as a "gun nut." During this trip to the range I had the chance to fire off six different types of rifles (ranging from a bolt-action .30-06, to a semi-automatic .223) as well as three different pistols (ranging from .45 caliber to 9mm). If we had more time, my friend doubtless would have brought along his two black powder smoothbores, which start at .55 caliber and go up from there. Needless to say, it was an exciting day in which we discovered that I am a better shot with a pistol than many of the security guards who practice on my friend's range. Since this was the first time I had fired a pistol, none of you should feel particularly pleased about this.
I refer to my enjoyment of firearms as a juxtaposition because, as a general rule, the political left and, thus, sociology is not terribly friendly towards guns. Indeed, there seems to be a general feeling in some circles that guns are inherently evil, or inherently oppressive, or inherently simply "bad" and that, therefore, we should dispose of them entirely. This has never really made sense to me, and to be fair I do know a number of sociologists who are not entirely uncomfortable with firearms, yet it is a more or less liberal view. Similarly, gun owners are frequently stereotyped as ignorant, uneducated, or unconcerned with the public welfare.
Of course, gun owners aren't entirely unaware of this situation and have their own stereotypes about liberals. We're often thought of as weak, wafflers, dreamers, and incompetent. When it comes to guns, that incompetent part is often true, but I prefer to believe that the rest is largely inaccurate. Nevertheless, both sides have a substantial crust of negative impressions built up, and this crust acts to shield each side from the other's arguments, no matter how reasonable.
As a result of all this, being a gun-owning liberal, a shooting sociologist, can be a little tension-inducing. For the most part I don't mention my enjoyment of firearms around the department, though if the matter comes up I do sometimes comment on it. When at the range, I don't usually wear clothing that promotes liberal causes, although I do often wear clothing that indicates that I'm one of those crazy academic types that President Bush hates so much. What can I say? We gots ta represent. Either way, however, I feel torn between two roles: that of a left-leaning sociologist, and that of a gun owner.
It was, therefore, with considerable pleasure that I picked up a copy of Abigail A. Kohn's Shooters during this winter break. Kohn, an anthropologist, uses this book to report on her ethnography of American gun owners. It is, essentially, a diary of her involvement in the shooting community, shooting sports, and reports of her conversations with gun owners and enthusiasts.
Her journey is an interesting one, and covers many aspects of the shooting culture. These include introductory shooting courses, gun shops, gun ranges, women and guns, and sport shooting, including the surrealistic sport of Cowboy Action Shooting, which is part shooting match and part dress-up. Along the way, Kohn does an excellent job of describing the rationale behind shooters' love of guns, and the philosophy of responsibility and personal freedom that many of them subscribe to. Kohn makes it clear that shooters are not callous or ignorant or stupid, but rather disagree with liberals about certain basic characteristics of firearms. For many liberals, firearms are inherently harmful. For shooters, firearms are dangerous to the extent that they are not treated respectfully, fitting into much the same category in that respect as a car or a circular saw.
What makes the book truly useful, however, are her remarks about her fellow academics, as well as anti-gun liberals generally. Seen through her eyes, many of the arguments these people make seem hysterical and ridiculous, born out of ignorance and a lack of thought. This is not to say that gun owners get a thorough white-washing, but rather only that she uses a book likely to be read primarily by academic audiences to make it clear why those same academics are sometimes seen as irrational lunatics. Kohn is to be applauded in this effort, as a better understanding of gun owners as well as gun control advocates can only lead to improvements in our society's handling of guns generally. Indeed, as my friend and I discussed over burgers, despite the fact that he is relatively conservative and a gun lover, and I am relatively liberal, our views on gun control are essentially the same. We both support waiting periods, background checks, and restrictions on particularly dangerous types of firearms like machine guns and very heavy rifles. An approach like Kohn's that encourages people to see these areas of overlap, rather than simply the hostile rhetoric of the gun control debate, is extremely useful.
Of course, the book is not entirely good. While it serves an excellent rhetorical function, its scholarly value is dubious. Kohn indulges in a considerable amount of analysis, but does so largely at the expense of observation and entirely at the expense of theory. Her analytical passages are ponderously large and are, unfortunately, unconvincing due to a relative paucity of description. Without having made the world of the shooter a living, breathing reality, her analysis feels like a punchline in search of a joke. This issue is further exacerbated by the lack of any consistent theoretical construct, either drawn in from elsewhere or constructed by Kohn herself. As a result, this work feels unfinished, fails to connect with a wider literature, and is of limited value for scholarly work. Indeed, in an academic sense, Shooters succeeds best in demonstrating Kohn's potential- a potential I hope is realized as her career progresses.
Still, Shooters is an interesting and valuable read. It is a book that reminds us of the value of humility, and dispels myths about both sides of the gun control debate. It is a book that speaks to gun owners, in that it does not denigrate them, and to gun control advocates, in that it sympathizes with many of their goals. Sociologists, particularly of the liberal stripe, and especially of the radical liberal variety, would benefit substantially from reading this book. It might also serve as a worthwhile reading for undergraduates, written as it is in clear, concise language. This is doubly so if these students were given theoretical guidance by the instructor to make up for its lack in the text.
To make a long story short: a good book that many should, at least, page through. Watch for good things from Abigail Kohn in the future.