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Americans and Gun Culture

Today’s guest blog post is by Jessica Cunningham. Ms. Cunningham is a Social Anthropology undergraduate student from Queen’s University Belfast, Ireland. This past summer she has done field research, based in Austin, Texas, on American gun-owners and their attachment to their guns.

Jessica CunninghamA few years ago, I set off with two others on a coast-to-coast road trip across North America. Like all such trips, we were exposed to countless new experiences, yet for me one particular experience stands out. A fairly casual afternoon spent shooting tin cans with some friends in Santa Fe had a surprising effect on me which I can only describe now as visceral. Aware of the widespread use of guns in America, (although growing up my cultural exposure to guns was limited to gangsters and cowboys as seen on TV),  my unexpected reaction to using a gun for the first time, left me wondering just what it is about the gun that holds such sway for so many.

Since then this interest has continued and grown, as has the media coverage surrounding the issue. Now as a social anthropology undergraduate, going into my final year at Queen’s University Belfast with the opportunity to undertake my first fieldwork project as part of my dissertation, it seemed the obvious subject for my research.

Accordingly, this summer I spent two months in Austin, Texas. As an undergraduate this was a completely new challenge for me, particularly since it is also a largely uncharted area within anthropology, so I went in blind so to speak. I wanted to explore and measure the social value of firearms. By using a universally understood value reference, namely money, I asked each participant ‘If I gave you $1 million, would you in return give up your gun rights?’ In almost every case the answer was ‘No’. To what then do these rights equate?

Not having the knowledge to be overly selective, I talked to anyone and everyone in the area connected in any way with guns; including ammunition dealers, skeet, trap  and IDPA shooters (International Defensive Pistol Association), instructors and concealed handgun licensing (CHL) teachers, ranchers, hunters, students and the police, not to mention your average Joe and Josephine doing it for fun. I was completely dependent on people’s good will and openness which I can say I found in abundance. I believe that one factor which played a significant role throughout my research was my apparent ‘otherness’ to the context that I found myself in. I feel that being a relatively young girl from the UK, placed me outside of the lived experience of the gun debate. I was able to present myself as impartial, but willing to learn.

However, I soon realized that not only was I completely ignorant of the ‘gun language’, the technical terminology and even basic types and uses of firearms, but I had also not fully grasped the complex and multifaceted nature of the ‘culture of guns’, namely who uses them and why. Because of this and my obvious time limits, my stay in Texas felt far more akin to a ‘reccy’-style, preliminary research as opposed to a more conclusive academic piece of work.

However, one forcible aspect did emerge from my research, that is the way in which gun ownership is often regarded as being a right as unalienable as free speech or religious freedom. Although I approached the subject under the assumption that gun attachment held deeper implications than is commonly realized, I was surprised by the degree to which some really did hold guns in almost sacred esteem and feel sure that this warrants further attention and research.

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