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.
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.