product: guns

The harrowing mass shooting in Las Vegas this week is part of a tragic pattern, and it raises big questions about how we deal with such tragedies in public life. In the face of such horror, many people rightly turn to their deep convictions for comfort and strength, and their leaders are no different. Referencing religion is a common choice for politicians, especially in troubling times. Experimental evidence shows these references draw voters in, but lately it seems like the calls for comfort may have gotten a little…rehearsed.

For a growing number of Americans, calls for “thoughts and prayers” ring especially hollow. About a fifth of the U.S. population has no religious affiliation, and new experimental research shows we may be drastically underestimating the number of atheists in the population as well. Despite these trends, we don’t often seen direct challenges to religious beliefs and practices in policy debates. Healthcare reform advocates don’t usually argue that we should keep people alive and well because “there probably isn’t an afterlife.” While the battle to legalize same sex marriage discussed the separation of church and state, we didn’t see many large advocacy groups arguing for support on the grounds that biblical claims simply weren’t true.

In lieu of prayer, calls for concrete action on gun control in the face of mass shootings are a new challenge to these cultural norms. In the wake of the 2015 San Bernardino shooting,  the New York Daily News ran this cover:

Now, in press conferences and on the floor of Congress, more political leaders are openly saying that thoughts are prayers are not enough to solve this problem. Sociologists know that the ways we frame issues matter, and here we might be seeing a new framing strategy emerging from the gun control debate that could reshape the role of religion in American politics in the long term.

 

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

If there’s one thing Americans can agree upon, it might be that people shouldn’t be indiscriminately firing guns crowds, no matter how angry they are. The shooting in the Ft. Lauderdale airport is just the latest example. Mass shootings are on the rise and I’m fearful that what we are seeing isn’t just an increase in violence, but the rise of a new habit, a behavior that is widely recognized as a way to express an objection to the way things are.

To register an objection to something about the world, a person or group needs to engage in an action that other people recognize as a form of protest. We know, in other words, what protest looks like. It’s a strike, a rally, a march, a sit-in, a boycott. These are all recognizable ways in which individuals and groups can stake a political claim, whereas other group activities — a picnic, a group bike ride, singing together — are not obviously so. To describe this set of protest-related tools, the sociologist Charles Tilly coined the phrase “repertoire of contention.” Activists have a stock of actions to draw from when they want to make a statement that others will understand.

A culture’s repertoire of contention is in constant evolution. Each tool has to be invented and conceptually linked to the idea of protest before it can play this role. The sit-in, for example, was invented during the early civil rights movement. When African American activists and their allies occupied white-only restaurants, bringing lunch counters to a halt to bring attention to the exclusion of black people, they introduced a new way of registering an objection to the status quo, one that almost anyone would recognize today.

New ways of protesting are being invented every day: the hashtag, the hacktivist, and shutting down freeways are some newer ones. Some become part of the repertoire. Consider the image below by sociologist Michael Biggs, which shows how suicide as a form of protest “caught on”  in the 1960s:

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I am afraid that mass murder has become part of the repertoire of contention. This is theoretically tricky – others have fought over what really counts as a social movement action – but it does seem quite clear that mass murder with a gun is a more familiar and more easily conceptualized way of expressing one’s discontent and then it was, say, pre-Columbine. If a person is outraged by some state of affairs, mass killing is a readily available way to express that outrage both technically (thanks to gun regulation) and cognitively (because it is now part of the recognized repertoire).

Dylann Roof wanted to register his discontent with the place of black people in American society, Robert Lewis Dear stormed a Planned Parenthood with a pro-choice message, Elliot Rodgers was angry about women’s freedom to reject him, Omar Matteen killed dozens to express his (internalized) disgust for homosexuality, Gavin Long communicated his sense of rage and helplessness in the face of black death by killing police. At some point each thought, “What can I do to make a difference?” And mass murder came to mind.

In the aftermath of such events, the news media routine contributes to the idea that mass murder is a form of protest by searching for an explanation above and beyond the desire to kill. That explanation often positions the rationale for the murder within the realm of politics, whether we call it terrorism, resistance, or prejudice. This further sends the message that mass murder is political, part of the American repertoire of contention.

The terrifying part is that once protest tools become part of the repertoire, they are diffused across movements and throughout society. It’s no longer just civil rights activists who use the sit-in; any and all activists do. Perhaps that’s why we see such a range of motivations among these mass murderers. It has become an obvious way to express an objection that the discontented can be sure others will understand.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

A Pew study found that 63% of white and 20% of black people think that Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Darren Wilson was not about race. This week many people will probably say the same about two more black men killed by police, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.

Those people are wrong.

African Americans are, in fact, far more likely to be killed by police. Among young men, blacks are 21 times more likely to die at the hands of police than their white counterparts.

But, are they more likely to precipitate police violence?  No. The opposite is true. Police are more likely to kill black people regardless of what they are doing. In fact, “the less clear it is that force was necessary, the more likely the victim is to be black.”

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That’s data from the FBI.

This question was also studied by sociologist Lance Hannon. With an analysis of over 950 non-justifiable homicides from police files, he tested whether black people were more likely to take actions that triggered their own murder. The answer was no. He found no evidence that blacks were more likely than whites to engage in verbal or physical antecedents that explained their death.

There is lots, lots more evidence if one bothers to go looking for it.

Castile and Sterling, unlike Brown, were carrying weapons. People will try to use that fact to justify the police officer’s fatal aggression. But it doesn’t matter. Black men and women are killed disproportionately whether they are carrying weapons or not, whether carrying weapons is legal or not. Carrying weapons is, in fact, legal in both Minnesota and Louisiana, the states of this week’s killings. What they were carrying is no more illegal than Trayvon’s pack of Skittles. Black people can’t carry guns safely; it doesn’t matter whether they are legal. Heck, they can’t carry Skittles safely. Because laws that allow open and concealed carry don’t apply the same way to them as they do white people. No laws apply the same way to them. The laws might be race neutral; America is not.

Revised from 2014.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Democratic members of the US House of Representatives sat in on the floor of the House, demanding recorded votes on gun control measures. Rep. John Lewis (Georgia) made the speech that launched the effort, and was framed at the center of most of the photos; after all, he has an unrivaled record for participating in such efforts that dates back to the sit-in movement of 1960.

Click image to watch the video:

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They’re grandstanding, hoping to the play to the crowd by violating the norms and rules of the House where, under normal circumstances, a member of the minority party can’t do much on matters of policy. Appealing to the public is their best shot to get a vote, but it’s not a very good one; and it’s extremely unlikely that anything gun control advocates in the House want could win majority support in that body. The members sat on the floor in the well of the House, likely the most comfortable surface Rep. Lewis has ever protested on, without much fear of arrest or violence. The presiding officer, always from the majority party, adjourned the session, turning off CSPAN’s cameras – seeking to deny Democrats the audience they seek. But the protesters are livestreaming on a variety of social media. It’s not quite so easy to control the flow of images and information anymore.

The Democratic revolt in the House is yet another response to the mass shooting in Orlando, which once again reminded Americans – and their representatives – that it’s very easy for dangerous people you don’t like to get powerful weapons. The sit-in is also an attempt to escalate the political conflict and make more of the generally fleeting moment of public attention that follows such a tragedy. We’ve all seen it many times before: a mass shooting captures public attention and sets the agenda, but only briefly, and a familiar political ritual plays out: Advocates of gun control hold vigils and make speeches; advocates of gun rights mostly stay silent on matters of policy, and offer thoughts and prayers for the victims and their families. And the moment passes.

In normal political life, when  everyone isn’t talking about guns all the time, the gun rights side of the debate enjoys a substantial advantage, particularly visible in the National Rifle Association, which deploys more money, more active membership, and calls upon more well-positioned allies than its opponents, who come and  go. Gun control advocates have been “outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, outplanned” (to quote Hamilton).

Since the tragic massacre of school children in Newtown, Connecticut, gun control advocates have been building organizations and  an infrastructure for action. They have been better able to exploit the moment of a massacre, and less willing to allow their opponents to stall until concern passes.

Last week, Senator Chris Murphy, who previously represented Newtown in the House, staged a filibuster of sorts in the Senate, monopolizing the floor while standing, not sitting, and talking about the need for action. In the upper house, a Senator can hold the floor as long as he can stand and talk. Most Democrats, and a couple of Republicans, joined Senator Murphy for part of 15 hours, offering sympathetic questions and taking up some of the talking. The leadership agreed to hold votes on four gun control bills, and Murphy stopped talking. The next day, the Senate rejected all of them.

Movement on policy? Not so much, and not so fast, but all of this sets up further contest in the November elections.

Meanwhile, other advocates are prospecting another strategy that operates with different rules and on an alternative schedule. Parents of some of the massacred students at Sandy Hook Elementary School have filed a product liability suit against Remington Arms, the company the  manufactures and markets the AR-15 Bushmaster, the weapon used in the mass murder. (See Evan Osnos’s report at The New Yorker.) By pursuing their argument about deceptive marketing, they hope to publicize the workings of the arms industry, contributing to a political debate that’s only slowly emerging. America offers many outlets for people to try to organize for change, none of them very easy or fast.

Nothing gun control advocates have tried has affected national policy for more than twenty years. As public concern and political resources grow, however, they keep trying to innovate new approaches, hoping that something works before the next time.

David S. Meyer, PhD, is a professor of sociology and political science at the University of California, Irvine. He blogs at Politics Outdoors, where this post originally appeared, and where he offers comments on contemporary events informed by history and the study of social movements. 

On Mardi Gras mornings before dawn, members of the North Side Skull and Bones Gang prowl the streets. It’s a 200 year old tradition belonging to African American residents of the city. They first prowled in 1819.

Members of the gang dress up like ominous skeletons. At nola.com, Sharon Litwin writes:

Because the origins of the Gang were with working class folk who had little money for silks and satins, the skeleton suits are made from everyday items and simple fabrics. Baling wire (to construct the shape of the head) along with flour and water to bind together old newspapers, create the head itself.

Their message is to “warn [people] away from violence” — says the North Side Chief, Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes — especially young people, and especially gun and domestic violence. He explains:

The bone gang represents people… waking people up about what they’re doing in life, if they don’t change their lifestyle. You know. We’re like the dead angels. We let you know, if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re gonna be with us.

Up before most residents, members of the gang cause a ruckus. They sing songs, bang on doors, and play-threaten their neighbors.

Here’s some footage:

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

2 (1)Following the recent mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17th, 2015 – a racially motivated act of domestic terrorism – President Barack Obama delivered a sobering address to the American people. With a heavy heart, President Obama spoke the day following the attack, stating:

At some point we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing that politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge.

President Obama was primarily referring to gun control in the portion of his speech addressing the cause of attacks like this. Not all mass shootings are racially motivated, and not all qualify as “terrorist” attacks — though Charleston certainly qualifies.  And the mass shooting that occurred a just a month later in Chattanooga, Tennessee by a Kuwati-born American citizen was quickly labeled an act of domestic terrorism. But, President Obama makes an important point here: mass shootings are a distinctly American problem. This type of rampage violence happens more in the United States than anywhere else. And gun control is a significant part of the problem. But, gun control is only a partial explanation for mass shootings in the United States.

Mass shootings are also almost universally committed by men.  So, this is not just an American problem; it’s a problem related to American masculinity and to the ways American men use guns.  But asking whether “guns” or “masculinity” is more of the problem misses the central point that separating the two might not be as simple as it sounds.  And, as Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, and Deanna Pan note in the Mother Jones Guide to Mass Shootings in America, the problem is getting worse.

We recently wrote a chapter summarizing the research on masculinity and mass shootings for Mindy Stombler and Amanda Jungels’ forthcoming volume, Focus on Social Problems: A Contemporary Reader (Oxford University Press). And we subsequently learned of a new dataset on mass shootings in the U.S. produced by the Stanford Geospatial Center. Their Mass Shootings in America database defines a “mass shooting” as an incident during which an active shooter shoots three or more people in a single episode. Some databases define mass shootings as involving 4 shootings in a single episode. And part of this reveals that the number is, in some ways, arbitrary. What is significant is that we can definitively say that mass shootings in the U.S. are on the rise, however they are defined. The Mother Jones database has shown that mass shootings have become more frequent over the past three decades.  And, using the Stanford database, we can see the tend by relying on data that stretches back a bit further.

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Additionally, we know that the number of victims of mass shootings is also at an historic high:

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We also produced a time-lapse map of mass shootings in the United States illustrating both where and when mass shootings have occurred using the Stanford Geospatial Center’s database to illustrate this trend over time:

Our map charts mass shootings with 3 or more victims over roughly 5 decades, since 1966. The dataset takes us through the Charleston and Chattanooga shootings, which brought 2015 to 42 mass shootings . The dataset is composed of 216 separate incidents only 5 of which were committed by lone woman shooters. Below we produced an interactive map depicting all of the mass shootings in the dataset with brief descriptions of the shootings.

In our chapter in Stombler and Jungels’ forthcoming book, we cull existing research to answer two questions about mass shootings: (1) Why is it men who commit mass shootings? and (2) Why do American men commit mass shootings so much more than men anywhere else?  Based on sociological research, we argue that there are two separate explanations – a social psychological explanation and a cultural explanation (see the book for much more detail on each).

A Social Psychological Explanation

Research shows that when an identity someone cares about is called into question, they are likely to react by over-demonstrating qualities associated with that identity.  As this relates to gender, some sociologists call this “masculinity threat.”  And while mass shootings are not common, research suggests that mass shooters experience masculinity threats from their peers and, sometimes, simply from an inability to live up to societal expectations associated with masculinity (like holding down a steady job, being able to obtain sexual access to women’s bodies, etc.) – some certainly more toxic than others.

The research on this topic is primarily experimental.  Men who are brought into labs and have their masculinity experimentally “threatened” react in patterned ways: they are more supportive of violence, less likely to identify sexual coercion, more likely to support statements about the inherent superiority of males, and more.

This research provides important evidence of what men perceive as masculine in the first place (resources they rely on in a crisis) and a new kind evidence regarding the relationship of masculinity and violence.  The research does not suggest that men are somehow inherently more violent than women.  Rather, it suggests that men are likely to turn to violence when they perceive themselves to be otherwise unable to stake a claim to a masculine gender identity.

A Cultural Explanation

But certainly boys and men experience all manner of gender identity threat in other societies.  Why are American boys and men more likely to react with such extreme displays?  To answer this question, we need an explanation that articulates the role that American culture plays in influencing boys and young men to turn to this kind of violence at rates higher than anywhere else in the world.  This means we need to turn our attention away from the individual characteristics of the shooters themselves and to more carefully investigate the sociocultural contexts in which violent masculinities are produced and valorized.

Men have historically benefited from a great deal of privilege – white, educated, middle and upper class, able-bodied, heterosexual men in particular.  Social movements of all kinds have slowly chipped away at some of these privileges.  So, while inequality is alive and well, men have also seen a gradual erosion of privileges that flowed more seamlessly to previous generations of men (white, heterosexual, class-privileged men in particular).  Michael Kimmel suggests that these changes have produced a uniquely American gendered sentiment that he calls “aggrieved entitlement.”  Of course, being pissed off about an inability to cash in on privileges previous generations of men received without question doesn’t always lead to mass shootings.  But, from this cultural perspective, mass shootings can be understood as an extremely violent example of a more general issue regarding changes in relations between men and women and historical transformations in gender, race, and class inequality.

Mass shootings are a pressing issue in the United States.  And gun control is an important part of this problem.  But, when we focus only on the guns, we sometimes gloss over an important fact: mass shootings are also enactments of masculinity.  And they will continue to occur when this fact is combined with a sense among some men that male privilege is a birthright – and one that many feel unjustly denied.

Cross-posted at Feminist Reflections and Inequality by (Interior) Design.

Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober are sociologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara.   You can follow them on at @tristanbphd and @tobertara.

 

This video was making the rounds last spring. The video maker wants to make two points:

1. Cops are racist. They are respectful of the White guy carrying the AR-15. The Black guy gets less comfortable treatment.

2. The police treatment of the White guy is the proper way for police to deal with someone carrying an assault rifle.

I had two somewhat different reactions.

1. This video was made in Oregon. Under Oregon’s open-carry law, what both the White and Black guy are doing is perfectly legal. And when the White guy refuses to provide ID, that’s legal too. If this had happened in Roseburg, and the carrier had been strolling to Umpqua Community College, there was nothing the police could have legally done, other than what is shown in the video, until the guy walked onto campus, opened fire, and started killing people.

2.  Guns are dangerous, and the police know it. In the second video, the cop assumes that the person carrying an AR-15 is potentially dangerous – very dangerous. The officer’s fear is palpable. He prefers to err on the side of caution – the false positive of thinking someone is dangerous when he is really OK.  The false negative – assuming an armed person is harmless when he is in fact dangerous – could well be the last mistake a cop ever makes.

But the default setting for gun laws in the US is just the opposite – better a false negative. This is especially true in Oregon and states with similar gun laws. These laws assume that people with guns are harmless. In fact, they assume that all people, with a few exceptions, are harmless. Let them buy and carry as much weaponry and ammunition as they like.

Most of the time, that assumption is valid. Most gun owners, at least those who got their guns legitimately, are responsible people. The trouble is that the cost of the rare false negative is very, very high. Lawmakers in these states and in Congress are saying in effect that they are willing to pay that price. Or rather, they are willing to have other people – the students at Umpqua, or Newtown, or Santa Monica, or scores of other places, and their parents – pay that price.

UPDATE October, 6You have to forgive the hyperbole in that last paragraph, written so shortly after the massacre at Umpqua. I mean, those politicians don’t really think that it’s better to have dead bodies than to pass regulations on guns, do they?

Or was it hyperbole? Today, Dr. Ben Carson, the surgeon who wants to be the next president of the US, stated even more clearly this preference for guns even at the price of death.  “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” (The story is in the New York Times and elsewhere.)

Originally posted at Montclair Socioblog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Trigger warning for racist language and discussions of racial violence.

After the storm had passed, while New Orleans was still in a state of crisis, residents of a predominantly white neighborhood that had escaped flooding, Algiers Point, took it upon themselves to violently patrol their streets.

“It was great!” says one man interviewed below. “It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it!” According to one witness testimony, they were looking for “anything coming up this street darker than a paper bag…” At least 11 black men were shot.

Here is a short interview with two of the men of Algiers Point, from the documentary Welcome to New Orleans:

This next video, sent in by reader Martha O., includes some of the footage above, but focuses much more on the experiences of several African American men who lived in the neighborhood and were shot or threatened by their White neighbors.

The men talk about the panic and terror they felt during these incidents. Toward the end, Donnell Herrington watches footage of the White residents bragging about their exploits. It’s brutal to watch this man listening to the militia members talk about shooting African Americans casually and with obvious enthusiasm and pride.

The video is part of an in-depth story about the Algiers Point shootings featured in The Nation in 2008. And as Martha explained, it’s a harrowing example of how swiftly organized violent racism can emerge when external constraints are even briefly weakened.

Originally posted in 2012. Watch the full documentary here.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.