S3E3 / Guns & Honor / Dov Cohen, Eric Ruben, Ryan Brown, Rory Miller

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What is honor? When is it OK to use violence? And how do these ideas influence regional attitudes about guns and our nation’s laws?

Note: This season of American Diagnosis was originally published under the title In Sickness & In Health. 

This podcast was created by Just Human Productions. We’re powered and distributed by Simplecast. We’re supported, in part, by listeners like you.


Eric Ruben: There’s a lot of evidence… that gun culture and the view on the right to keep and bear arms has varied from region to region. The Second Amendment looks different today depending on where you are in this country. … The question and the challenge is, how to preserve the local and regional gun culture with the need to also impose some nationwide standards.

Celine Gounder: Welcome back to “In Sickness and in Health,” a podcast about health and social justice. I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This season we’re looking at gun violence in America. Last episode we looked at how guns were used in colonial times, and how that shaped the drafting of the Second Amendment. This episode we’re going to look at how gun culture has varied — and continues to — across the country. We’re also going to look at ideas about when violence is OK… appropriate… even… socially mandated. We’re going to complicate our understanding of gun use, which is important to do for two reasons. First: Regional gun culture informs legal rulings… that affect us all nationally. And second: If we want to include law-abiding gun owners in solving the problem of gun violence, we need to acknowledge the nuances of gun use in America. To start we’re going to pick up where we left off, in the first few decades of our country’s history.

Celine Gounder: One of the first changes to our nation’s gun laws came in 1846, in the Georgia Supreme Court decision Nunn vs. Georgia.

Eric Ruben: It has to do with an 1837 state law that banned carrying of pistols and certain specified knives.

Celine Gounder: That’s Eric Ruben.

Eric Ruben: I am a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. I’m also an adjunct professor at New York University School of Law where I teach a course on weapons regulation and the Second Amendment.

Celine Gounder: And as he explains, in 1837, the Georgia legislature passed a law banning the open carry of certain types of weapons — including handguns. And a man named Hawkins Nunn was caught carrying one.

Eric Ruben: Most courts, including the Supreme Court of the United States, did not think that the… Second Amendment or any other rights in the first Ten Amendments applied to it at that time. The Georgia Supreme Court held that they did. The Georgia Supreme Court struck down the law saying that it violated Hawkins Nunn’s Second Amendment right.

Celine Gounder: It was the first gun regulation to be struck down on the basis of the Second Amendment. And even though it happened almost 200 years ago…

Eric Ruben:The Supreme Court nonetheless looked at Nunn and other 19th century cases in order to decide the 2008 decision District of Columbia v Heller.

Celine Gounder: Columbia v Heller. It’s one of the most important recent decisions about gun regulation, and one that has shaped the gun rights debate. We’re going to look at it more closely…  just… not quite yet. First, we’re going to look at why it wasn’t a coincidence that such a decision about gun use came from the South. And to do that, we’re going to talk with Dov Cohen, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois.

Dov Cohen: If you look at a number of different laws related to things like gun control…to a corporal punishment… one of the things you’ll find is that all these laws and policies tend to be much more accepting of violence in the South.

Celine Gounder: Huh… why would that be? Some of it has to do with what we talked about in our last episode… like the fear of slave insurrections in the South… But to say it’s just about slavery… would be a vast oversimplification. A lot of other factors were at play… factors that still affect us today… even though slavery has been abolished, and the western frontier, settled.

Celine Gounder: One of those factors is something sociologists and historians call “honor culture.”

Ryan P. Brown: There are a lot of different kinds of honor cultures. They take on different flavors and nuances all around the world…

Celine Gounder: That’s Ryan Brown. He’s a social psychologist, and The Managing Director of the Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University. He studies honor culture, and how it relates to gun use and gun violence.

Ryan P. Brown: …but probably, the defining feature of honor cultures… is their intense emphasis on the protection of reputation. In an honor culture, people build reputations very deliberately as a way of protecting themselves from… social threats.

Celine Gounder: Here’s Dov Cohen again:

Dov Cohen: …Your honor becomes important as a matter of reputation, because if you establish that you are not to be messed with on small issues, seemingly small issues like insult, then that means people won’t mess with you on bigger issues like stealing your stuff or assaulting you and hurting your family…

Celine Gounder: OK… but where does honor culture come from? Is this just a southern thing? Or something bigger?

Ryan P. Brown: Honor cultures exist all over the world, and… are thought to develop in places where, for a long period of time, you have a combination of two things. First, resource insecurity… It’s not the same thing as poverty, but it often goes hand in hand with poverty… The other factor is weak, unreliable or altogether absent law enforcement. … you combine that with resource insecurity, there’s a social vacuum that exists there and… One of the ways that people tend to fill this sort of a social vacuum is by developing the norms, the beliefs, the values, the priorities, typical of honor cultures.

Celine Gounder: Honor culture isn’t isolated to the South in the US — it can be found elsewhere, too.

Dov Cohen: The same thing happens in an inner-city gang culture. In inner-city gang culture, there’s an expression ‘call for the police, call for an ambulance, call for a pizza. See which gets there first.’ In places where the pizza beats the ambulance and the police, those are cultures where people have to let it be known that they’re not to be messed with. Among inner-city gangs, you also see this honor culture.

Celine Gounder: The important thing in an honor culture is, you have this reputation. The reputation is what guarantees that you’ll abide by the local norms. It’s what guarantees you’ll behave appropriately. The untrustworthy people in an honor culture are the people who don’t have a sense of their own honor, who can be shamed and who aren’t worried about their reputation and their status in the eyes of other people. But in the South… with its rural communities… decentralized state power… and large slave populations… the balance of power was precarious. In other words… it was a textbook setting for honor culture. But it wasn’t just those power dynamics. The development of honor culture was also the result of geography… and economy. As Dov explains:

Dov Cohen: These were often herding cultures. In a herding culture, your wealth can be stolen instantly. If you’re like a crop farmer, no one’s going to come on to your land, harvest all your crops and sell them, they can’t do that. But if you’re in a culture where you have a herd… that’s grazing out in an open area, your wealth has little legs on it, and your wealth can be rustled away from you instantly and you could lose everything… In these environments, it’s incredibly important to establish that you’re not someone to be messed with, that someone who messes with you is in for trouble.

Celine Gounder: Even the agrarian, plantation economy depended on robbable wealth: slave labor. Slaves were, themselves, extremely valuable commodities… They could — and did — escape. It was a form of property theft… they were robbing their masters… of themselves. Southern honor culture might go back even further than…  that southern way of life.

Dov Cohen: The people who settled the South came from a particular region of Britain… from an area that was between the borderland of England and Scotland, and for hundreds of years, this was contested territory.

Celine Gounder: Even to this day, there exists more of an honor culture in these parts of the UK.

Ryan P. Brown: I did a comparison a few years ago on three key outcomes related to honor dynamics… One was homicide rates, another was suicide rates. Suicide is also elevated in honor cultures. … We compared Scotland to Ireland and England and Wales… and we do see, in fact, elevated rates of homicide, suicide and death by accident in Scotland even today. This is important because the circumstances of life in Scotland today are nothing like they were 300 years ago, 400 years ago. They’re very, very different. There’s a rule of law. The resource and security now is not what it was three or 400 years ago.

Celine Gounder: This culture made its way… to the Southern colonies. And that culture… has diffused through the rest of the country. This is one reason why studying culture is so fascinating… and challenging. Some explanations for how a culture develops can be pretty clear, pretty rational. Others… less so.

Dov Cohen: Cultural norms often persist past the point where you’d say, they’re functional or adaptive… norms become expectations. It’s like the story of the woman who always cut the ends of her meatloaf off, and she taught her daughter to always cut the end of the meatloaf off… so the daughter always cut the end of the meatloaf off and someone said, “Mom, why do you cut the end of the meatloaf off?” “That’s the way you do it, that’s how I learned it from my mom.” They asked the grandmother, “Why did you cut the end of the meat loaf off?” “Well, that’s the way you do it, that’s how you cook meatloaf.” They took it one step further and they asked the great-grandmother and she said, “Well, I cut the ends of the meatloaf off so it would fit in the oven.”

Celine Gounder: Whatever the reasons… honor culture can help explain certain behavior we see… from the micro — how people interact with each other — to the macro — like how violence is legislated. Take, for example, an escalating conflict between two strangers in a public place. Maybe you’ve seen something like it before… or maybe you’ve seen it on TV.

Ryan P. Brown: What started out as a strange look, which might not have even been a look at you, turns into a brawl out in the parking lot, somebody pulls a knife or a gun… It’s this escalating pattern of violence and retaliation, all to protect your reputation.

Celine Gounder: To some of us… the idea that a dirty look would start a parking lot brawl… well, that’s just stupid. But in honor cultures… that same calculation… can yield a different result.

Ryan P. Brown: Probably the best examples of those kinds of laboratory studies are done by Dov Cohen.

Dov Cohen: In one study, we sent out letters to employers in the north and the south of the United States. In these letters, the person wrote to the employer and said, “Hi, I’m relocating to your area. I’m a hard working 27 year-old man. I’ve got good references. I’m eager to work.” There’s one thing you should know though, and that is, “I killed someone.” In the letter, the person goes on to describe the circumstances of the killing. The circumstances were that the person was in a bar when he was taunted by someone who alleged that he had slept with the man’s fiancé. The person keeps taunting them, keeps insinuating bad things, it’s taken outside, they get into a fight. The writer of the letter… punches the person who had been taunting him. That person’s head smacks against the wall, and freakishly they died. … What you find when you send these letters to employers in the north and the south, is that…. Southern employers were more likely to include an application and send back a nice note including some notes saying, “Well, gosh, anyone could have been in the situation you were in. You did the right thing.” Southern employers give a much warmer reception to the person who had killed in defense of their honor than northern employers do.

Celine Gounder: So what does this all have to do with gun laws? Honor culture makes using violence socially acceptable… even necessary.

Dov Cohen: Any system, there are different ideas about when violence is legitimated. Violence is legitimated in honor cultures in self-defense and in response to insults and affronts. Sometimes, in honor cultures…you have to preemptively demonstrate your toughness as a matter of reputation, but for example, in the southern culture we’ve studied, southerners don’t approve of violence more in the abstract, and they don’t approve of violence more in a number of situations. But after an insult or when it comes to protecting themselves or protecting their family, southerners are much more likely to say that violence is legitimate and appropriate.

Ryan P. Brown: They display very strong politeness norms in the South, but if someone crosses a certain line and crosses over into disrespecting you in a way that you can’t easily brush off, you can’t easily ignore, then, the beliefs and values and priorities of an honor culture dictate that you have to respond aggressively…and you’re expected to respond, you’re expected to retaliate and it’s best if you do so by raising the stakes…

Celine Gounder: And in a world with guns… this need to raise the stakes and defend your status… has made gun ownership pretty widespread in honor cultures.

Dov Cohen: Places where the culture of honor also tend to be places with looser gun control laws. They tend to be places that legitimate self-defense… rather than the rule that says you need to retreat until your back is to the wall… We did surveys of rural places in the northern Midwest and in the South — everyone had guns, but the southerners were more likely to say it was for self-protection rather than sport, and that’s sport meaning hunting in this case.

Celine Gounder: This idea — that guns are crucial for self-defense — has become a huge part of the gun rights argument in the US. And it’s become very much a part of our legal understanding of the Second Amendment today. In the 2008 case District of Columbia v Heller, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment allows individuals to carry arms for self defense. Here’s Eric again, from the top of the show:

Eric Ruben: When the Supreme Court decided the Heller decision in 2008… it did not have a slow buildup of federal case law on which to rely on that decision…it looked to state case law and it looked to case law in the 1800s, and those cases arose predominantly out of the South.

Celine Gounder: Southern honor culture and gun rights are inextricably intertwined, and have affected our entire country’s outlook — and laws — on guns. Honor culture doesn’t explain everything, of course. Eric made this clear when talking about the evolution of gun restrictions.

Eric Ruben: I wouldn’t want this to come across as putting too much emphasis on southern culture.

Celine Gounder: We don’t just see honor culture in the South. We see it out West… the inner-city… really anywhere the conditions are right. But one thing is clear: if we want to stop gun violence in America, in addition to changing laws and policies, we need to know the role culture plays in these debates… and not just in the South.

Eric Ruben: The question and the challenge is, how to preserve the local and regional gun culture and views on regulation, and… balancing gun rights and that regulation with the need to also impose some nationwide standards.

Celine Gounder: As Jay Dickey and Mark Rosenberg believed, we can dramatically reduce gun violence while still respecting cultures of gun use and ownership. In fact, gun safety advocates need to learn about more than honor culture. They need to learn more about violence itself.

Rory Miller: It’s just this hugely broad field… there’s so many different kinds of violence, and so many different types of violence that look exactly the same but come from widely different motivations.

Celine Gounder: That’s Rory Miller. He’s the author of Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training and Real World Violence, among other books. He also has some experience with the subject first-hand.

Rory Miller: I spent a long time working in jail and a little bit of time in Iraq.

Celine Gounder: I spoke with Rory about violence — how to avoid it, how to manage it, and what to do when you encounter it. We talked mostly about what Rory calls social violence: non-military… non-domestic. This is the kind of violence you might encounter in public. It’s the kind that inspires some people to learn self defense. And it motivates some… to buy a gun. As Rory explains, there are a few different types of social violence.

Rory Miller: First… where young men gather in groups. Young men are stupid, there’s a lot of testosterone, they’re trying to work out their status, and bad stuff happens there…. Or territories are in dispute… the edges of gang territory far more dangerous than deep inside gang territory. … Some violence happens when you don’t know the rules. Every group has rules, they have ways you are allowed to behave, ways that you aren’t, and they’re always enforced. If the group is tight, everyone knows what the rules are, they agree. If someone violates a rule, they can usually fix it just with a look or a word. If someone doesn’t agree on the rules or doesn’t respect the rules then society on some level will band together and teach a lesson.

Rory Miller: For most civilians, the only time that they really have to worry… is when they go to a place where they don’t know the rules — unless they’re pathological assholes. For most normal people it’s when they don’t know the rules, they try to act like they’re at home when they aren’t. All of those are social, those types of violence. They’re working out status or territory or teaching a lesson.

Celine Gounder: Rory thinks everyone would benefit from being prepared for violence… even if they’re not expecting to encounter it. And some of his reasons sounds a lot like honor culture reasoning.

Rory Miller: I like strong people way better than I like weak people. When everybody’s strong, there’s a mutual respect, that doesn’t mean someone’s not strong or someone couldn’t beat you. If you’re strong, and you’re willing to use your power, and there’s no consequence-free way to abuse you, to exploit you, or to hurt you. In that sense, in a larger sense, self-defense is about not letting anyone exploit you against your will.

Celine Gounder: This probably doesn’t come as a surprise, but Rory’s a gun owner.

Rory Miller: Firearms, it might be incredibly important for two reasons. For me personally, they extend my sphere of influence. If I see someone killing a child 20 meters away without a handgun I can’t do anything about that except to watch and that would hurt… The other incredibly valuable thing about firearms is… humans are tool-using creatures, and you would remove those tools then we revert very quickly to might does make right, to the biggest and the strongest just takes what they want. Tools allow the smaller and weaker to have their own say in that equation. They’re a huge equalizer.

Rory Miller: Do you ever carry?

Celine Gounder: I don’t. I’m actually going for my first course in a couple weeks from now.

Rory Miller: I would really love… after you’ve… Just carry it for a week and just feel the weight of the responsibility and how it makes you think, because it’s…  I know a few people that carried enough over time that they forget that they’re carrying, but very few. It is an immense responsibility. It tends to make people mature very quick.

Celine Gounder: Rory wants for people to feel empowered and in control of their environment…

Rory Miller: If I could create a gift in the universe, it would be that people understand that they have that ability and that right to make their life go the way they want it to, and if they’re smart enough, strong enough, adaptable enough, to influence everything around them. They’re not pawns in this game, they’re players.

Celine Gounder: It’s just that… what feels empowering… what it means to feel safe… and feel in control of your environment… can mean something different for gun rights and gun safety advocates.

Celine Gounder: Whether it’s because of local culture, the economy… or your own psychology… there are many reasons to own and use guns. Many gun owners are safe and responsible. And they can be part of the solution — if we respect what makes them want to own guns in the first place. But… there are also… many gun owners who aren’t responsible. That’s why we’ve got a gun violence problem.

Celine Gounder: Next week we’ll focus … on how guns are used today. We’ll look at how people’s opinions can change about gun rights and regulation… and where we might find… some common ground.

Celine Gounder: Today’s episode of “In Sickness and in Health” was produced by Dan Richards and me. Our theme music is by Allan Vest. Additional music by The Blue Dot Sessions. You can learn more about this podcast and how to engage with us on social media at insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com, that’s insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com. If you like what you hear, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps more people find out about the show! I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This is “In Sickness and in Health.”


Dov Cohen Dov Cohen
Eric Ruben Eric Ruben
Ryan Brown Ryan Brown
Sgt.Rory Miller Sgt.Rory Miller
Dr. Celine Gounder Dr. Celine Gounder