In the fall of 1997, … I set out to conduct an anthropological study of gun enthusiasm. To collect data, I used the traditional anthropological method of participant observation, which basically entails joining the designated group in question, making friends with its members, observing and participating in community events, and engaging in group activities with the community. For fourteen months, I spent time at shooting ranges, gun shops, and shooting competitions … [and] conducted in-depth interviews with thirty-seven male and female gun enthusiasts and spent hours hanging out shooting with dozens more.
Kohn informs her readers that anthropologists term this method “ethnography,” although to me, as a trained economist and lawyer, it just sounds more like simple journalism. But either way, Kohn tells us “… [e]thnography fills in the gaps and provides a window for the social world of any given group” and her goal is to inform her readers as to “what gun enthusiasts really think and do.”
As I will discuss shortly, Kohn succeeds at her task, but for those like me already in the “gun enthusiast” camp, the book tells another, perhaps unintentional story. That story is Kohn herself, or more generally, the transformation of a liberal intellectual to a gun enthusiast (or at least gun-tolerant). This subtext unfolds as Kohn reveals events she observed and conversations she had, and the manner she chooses to interpret these facts and explain them to the reader. Kohn does more than simply observe and participate…it is clear her mere exposure to “gun enthusiasm” transformed her. And while Kohn many not explicitly discuss this personal metamorphosis in the book, one of her articles at reason.com does
I am a 32-year-old anthropologist, and the focus of my research is gun use in the U.S. For a “gun scholar,” I think I have an unusual background. I did not grow up with guns; I grew up on the East Coast, the daughter of white, politically liberal, Jewish parents. After finishing college and a master’s program in England, I came back to the U.S. and decided on more graduate school. I chose to study anthropology because I liked the spirit of adventure it embodied, and because I liked the idea of working within a nonjudgmental discipline that encouraged the study of human social interaction. In 1993, I entered the joint program in medical anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco.
I didn’t expect to study guns. But after several years of studying and living in Berkeley, I found that my interest in my original topic of inquiry — culture-bound psychiatric syndromes — was waning. So I slowly began looking around for other research topics, hoping to find something current and interesting. Around that time, I met a fellow anthropology graduate student named Michael (his and all subsequent names have been changed), who was writing his dissertation on Moroccan tourism.
Michael was a fascinating person. A highly educated secular Jew from New England, he was pro-choice and pro-feminism — and he liked to ride motorcycles. Most intriguing of all, Michael was a hunter. I found this last facet to be particularly odd. I felt that I had a lot in common with Michael, but I didn’t expect a man who was so liberal and so urbane to be interested in guns. Unlike me, Michael had grown up around guns. He hunted with his father and brother, and he owned several guns, including a rifle, a shotgun, and a starter pistol that he used to train his dog to hunt.
We began by studying the right-wing militia movement of the early 1990s. Our first foray into the subject would have been comical if it hadn’t been so naive. Our initial attempt to meet local militia members took us to a shooting range in the Bay Area, where we assumed local militia meetings would be held. We went on a Tuesday night, fully expecting the range to be seething with radical political activity. Why else would people congregate at a shooting range, if not to meet other like-minded, potentially dangerous right-wing gun nuts? It never occurred to us that they might be there for the simple enjoyment of target shooting.
It embarrasses me now to recall that trip. We went expecting to find militia members milling around in camouflage gear, holding signs, and handing out radical pamphlets. Needless to say, we didn’t meet anyone during our visit who fit that description. There may be isolated ranges across the U.S. that do cater predominantly to shooters involved with the militia movement, and even ranges that covertly sponsor “radical political activity.” But there were no militia meeting schedules to be found at the range we visited, even though we did see a radical bumper sticker or two: “Gun control is hitting your target.”
After we realized that we probably weren’t going to accomplish our original goal of establishing contact with the militia, we starting paying attention to what we could learn at the range. And that first time shooting, I discovered something I knew absolutely nothing about: gun enthusiasm. That Tuesday evening at the range we met a lot of people who were there for essentially one thing: to shoot guns. For the most part, they were friendly people who were ready and willing to talk about their interest in guns and their enjoyment in shooting. Eventually Michael and I dropped the militia project, but my interest in gun enthusiasm continued. It has proven to be a very fruitful avenue for research.
As for the superficial text, I believe Kohn did an excellent job of exposing herself to the “gun enthusiast” community and developing a personal understanding of our thoughts, beliefs, and political positions. Particularly compelling is that Kohn selected particular people she interviewed and informs the reader with selected portions of the interview, letting the interviewee speak directly to the reader. To the best of my knowledge, Kohn’s work may be the only instance of a liberal academic allowing a diverse group of gun enthusiasts to speak for themselves, rather than imposing misconceptions and stereotypes on gun enthusiasts as a whole (i.e. that we all wear camouflage and sport confederate flags on our vehicles). Although the book was copyrighted 2004, it is still very much relevant.
It is abundantly clear that Kohn fully appreciates that there is no single “gun culture” in America and that our reasons for gun enthusiasm are diverse. Kohn seemed to almost go out her way to make sure that the reader is exposed to the normal, everyday people that we “gun enthusiasts” really are, and she never cherry picked any stereo-typed portrayals. She took up shooting herself, debunking yet another liberal myth about guns, and especially about guns and women.
That said, the book is not what I would call an easy read. It is an academic treatise, and reads as such, including extensive footnotes. Gun enthusiasts may find that much of the book states the obvious in tedious analysis and prose. Which brings me back to the subtext, as I believe this is an excellent book to give to an open minded academically oriented liberal, because it was, after all, written by one. As we know, sometimes the packaging of an idea is as important as the idea itself. There is something about a message from the NRA that will always offend liberals. Kohn’s book, on the other hand, speaks their language, delving deep into nuance and theory, but ultimately articulating a positive message about “gun enthusiasts.” Foreigners studying American culture would also greatly appreciate the book, as it does present an excellent portrait and explanation of our “gun enthusiasm.”
Kohn’s book may be especially appealing to some because it does not approach the gun culture with logic, statistics, law, facts or reason. Instead, at its core, the book is about people. The book humanizes gun enthusiasts and exposes us for who we really are: perfectly normal, fully functional human beings with normal jobs, normal lives, and normal views of the world. One gets the sense that Kohn’s book shouts to the intellectual elite to set aside their fears and stereotypes of the gun culture and approach the subject with an open mind. It is as if Kohn, as “one of them” vouches for the “rest of us” as decent human beings with whom a dialogue can (and should) be had.