Why do people own guns and how do they use them? What do guns mean to the people who own them? and to those who don’t? And is there anyone who can help bridge those worlds?
Note: This season of American Diagnosis was originally published under the title In Sickness & In Health.
David Yamane: We really have two different social worlds as concerns guns. We have people for whom guns will never be a problem, and we have people for whom their only experience of guns is as a problem.
Kevin Creighton: If we’re going to have this conversation about guns, let’s do it from a position of respect and understanding, and if you’re going to have a conversation that starts off, “Let me explain to you ignorant… rednecks, why everything you believe about guns is wrong… I’m not the world’s greatest conversationalist, but even I know that’s not how you start a good talk.
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 our history and culture has affected how Americans use and regulate guns. This episode we’re going to look at gun culture in America today. We’re going to speak with people who own them, collect them, and shoot them. We’re going to talk to people whose minds have changed about guns… some in ways you might expect… and some in ways you might not.
David Yamane: Hi, I’m David Yamane. I’m a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Celine Gounder: David Yamane studies gun culture in America. He’ll be one of our main guides in this episode… not just because he studies gun culture… but also because he’s a gun owner… and a gun enthusiast… himself. But for all of his familiarity with guns, David didn’t actually hold one until he was an adult. Growing up, guns weren’t part of his world.
David Yamane: So I grew up in what I like to characterize as a blue bubble outside the San Francisco Bay Area. Went to UC Berkeley as an undergraduate, so the blue bubble obviously followed me fairly closely. Then I went to graduate school at the Berkeley of the Midwest at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and even in places like Wisconsin, where there’s clearly a strong tradition of hunting, because I was in Madison, not in the outlying areas of the state, I managed to successfully avoid firearms through my seven years of graduate study…
Celine Gounder: But in 2005 he moved to North Carolina… and one day… outside of Winston-Salem:
David Yamane: So I was driving along and just looking out the window at this field, and I noticed this wooden structure, and I commented that I thought it was interesting that someone had built this wooden structure… I thought it was maybe a tree house or something out in the middle of the field, and my girlfriend at the time, soon-to-be wife, just thought I was one of the dumbest human beings she’d ever met because it was obviously a deer-stand. … And, for her, having grown up outside of Winston-Salem in that rural area, everybody knows what a deer-stand is and that people hunt.
Celine Gounder: To David, it was a wake-up call.
David Yamane: I think it’s one of those things where… if you have never heard of a word and then someone uses the word, then you see the word all over… I started noticing … quarterly gun shows … gun shops and gun ranges…
Celine Gounder: David started to notice that in his community in North Carolina,
David Yamane: …signs on street corners advertising concealed carry classes.
Celine Gounder: …guns were everywhere.
David Yamane: And then, just talking to some of the people that I play tennis with about guns and coming to find out that one of them has… rifles that were handed down to them, one of them has a couple of pistols in their basement that they have brought with them through life. The normality of guns… struck me, that it wasn’t something that was frightening, it wasn’t something that was scandalous, that it was just a normal part of life…
Celine Gounder: After a while, David realized something.
David Yamane: I was actually very afraid of guns… I thought, “I need to know how guns work in order to make them safe if I were to ever come across a gun.” So I arranged through a friend to go out and try shooting a 9mm pistol with… a gun trainer for the North Carolina Highway Patrol, and he gave me some very basic instruction on how to hold the gun, and how to stand, and how to pull the trigger. And about five shots into that experience, I found myself having a good time and being challenged to try to put the hole in the target where I was aiming. And from there I became much more interested in guns as a personal hobby.
Celine Gounder: But it wasn’t just his personal interest that drew him to studying the topic. It was also that he’d seen how guns were often studied in academic settings. He felt like there was disconnect between how researchers viewed the topic, and how Americans who own and use guns did.
David Yamane: I would tell my sociologist colleagues that I was studying American gun culture and they would typically respond, “That’s great. Somebody needs to be doing more work on gun violence” … So that connection is very natural in sociological mind, but my own experience was of people who were law-abiding, legal gun owners who used guns for fun and for protection. The study of gun culture is the study of those people, the people for whom guns are a natural and normal part of social life, and most of whom will never have any negative outcome associated with their own firearms or in their own lives.
Celine Gounder: Put another way:
David Yamane: There’s 70 to 80 million gun owners in the United States and 300 million guns, and in any given year, we’re talking about problems with guns that are more in the range of the… tens of thousands… So, again, most people who are gun owners will never have a problem in terms of crime or any sort of physical injury or death as a result of guns, and yet the entire social scientific approach to the study of guns begins with those negative outcomes.
Celine Gounder: If we want accurate, nuanced research about guns, David felt, we need to study all of gun culture… not just the instances when it’s illegal, or violent. Guns gone wrong. So let’s dive into it: what are the different cultures of gun owners that David and other researchers have found?
David Yamane: Really there are a variety of subcultures within American gun culture, and those would include people who are hunters, people who are recreational, target or sport shooters, and people who are collectors. Those are historically the three main sub-cultures.
Celine Gounder: One person who can speak to all three… is Kevin Creighton.
Kevin Creighton: My name is Kevin Creighton, and I am, in order of… inverse importance, online marketing person, a writer, a father to two sons, a husband to my wife and a Christian, servant of the King.
Celine Gounder: He’s also a gun owner. He hunts, collects and shoots for sport. And unlike David, he’s been around guns since he was a kid.
Kevin Creighton: I spent my summers on my farm working with my uncles… On a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, there’s not a whole lot to do, when you’re 13 years-old, you’re not going to go drive yourself into town. You grab a 22 rifle, and you go clean out a field of gophers. If the ducks are flying overhead and it’s in season, you take a couple of those for Sunday dinner. … Yeah, part of was recreational, part of it was utilitarian, part of it was, “wow” you can’t believe you made that shot. It was just what you did.
Celine Gounder: Kevin didn’t even have to use them to admire them.
Kevin Creighton: … and as a piece of mechanical engineering, they’re absolutely fascinating. If you ever you take one of them apart, some of these are literally built like a Swiss watch.
Celine Gounder: Kevin could talk about guns for a long time. Kevin actually grew up in Canada. When he was 19, he moved to Arizona with his family. Two things happened when he first moved to the States that started to change the way he viewed guns. The first had to do with being exposed to a whole new type of gun ownership.
Kevin Creighton: I got a job working retail… I’m standing behind the counter, and this guy walks into the shop. He’s got a classic Colt Peacemaker, and, quite honestly, a nice leather holster strapped to his waist. And I thought to myself, “I’m not in Canada anymore, am I?” Because to me, a handgun was something you only saw on the hips of a policeman or in a museum. I grew up with 22 rifles and deer rifles and shotguns, but handguns? Never happened. That was incident number one.
Kevin Creighton: Incident number two happened at about the same time. The church that I was going to had a college group that I was attending, and we decided to go on a camping trip up to the rim country of Arizona… About an hour after everybody went to sleep, the campground next to us started up a really big bonfire, and they started shooting shotguns in the air. And I thought to myself… if those guys… decided to come over and do us harm — we had a hatchet. That never entered my head up to that moment that the dangers of the world that could… possibly affect me directly.”
Celine Gounder: For Kevin, guns stopped being just pieces of art to admire, or a way to pass the time. They were tools for self defense. David actually had a similar experience.
David Yamane: One of my neighbors was in a physical confrontation… with a man where she was trying to prevent the guy from getting into her car from the driver’s side… And so I just stepped over to ask if everything was okay, and the person who was trying to get into the car sort of gave me a hard look and told me just to mind my own damn business, that it was his girlfriend. It was a very disturbing moment for me at the time because I had my kids with me, and I sort of realized that I was bringing them into a situation that I didn’t have any good solution for if it had escalated. So, we just moved on into our apartment. And then the next afternoon the woman showed up frantically pounding on our apartment door and had said that the man she was in the confrontation with earlier had threatened her with a knife and stolen her phone and car. And so, that was something…
David Yamane: … again, it didn’t immediately make me think, “Oh, I should go to the gun store and buy a gun,” but in combination with my sensitivity to the fact that normal people do own firearms for various reasons… shooting a gun for the first time… and realizing that that was something that was pretty fun and interesting. And then I started putting the pieces together of really realizing that had that moment escalated… that I really had no reasonable solutions to those problems … so from there I went ahead and took the North Carolina concealed carry course and got my concealed carry permit, which I’ve had for the past seven years.
Celine Gounder: This evolution for Kevin and David — it actually kind of mirrors an evolution that’s occurred in our entire country. Here’s David again:
David Yamane: The center of gravity of American gun culture has moved towards self-defense… but there still remains a vibrant, if smaller, hunting sub-culture and collecting sub-culture and recreational shooting subculture… the most recent evolution of American gun culture puts self-defense much more at the center.
Celine Gounder: According to David and others… in the 20th century… up through the 1960s… hunting and recreation were the primary types of gun culture.
David Yamane: And the 1960s was a very outdoorsy time in American history. If you look at the number of people who were fishing and the number of people who had RVs and did outdoor activities in general increased, and so I think hunting was part of that boom as well.
Celine Gounder: But then….
David Yamane: Coming out of the 1960s, you have a great deal of social disorder, a rising crime rate, and so a lot of the fear that’s associated with that.
Celine Gounder: High profile assassinations gripped the country. Violence was entering the mainstream in ways it hadn’t in decades. And at the same time…
David Yamane: You also… have the Gun Control Act of 1968, which really lights a fire under gun owners recognizing… that some of the rights that they historically enjoyed might go away.
Celine Gounder: Just as people were starting to think of guns more as tools for their safety, the government began to restrict them. It galvanized gun owners. In his academic research, David’s tracked this change in a pretty interesting way.
David Yamane: So I needed to find a common metric over time, and I decided to look at the advertising that was done in the American Rifleman magazine, which is the official magazine of the National Rifle Association because it’s been published continuously for over a hundred years.
Celine Gounder: So I looked at a hundred years of advertising in the American Rifleman, looking at the themes in the advertisements for gun and associated gear and found that there had, in fact, been a shift away from… hunting and recreational target shooting and collecting toward a gun culture… focused on self-defense and concealed carry. And that change started to take place in the 1960s or so, into the 1970s surely… and sort of crossed over in the last few years so that now, you’re much more likely to see advertising for guns for self-defense and concealed carry than you are to see advertising for guns for hunting or sports shooting.
Celine Gounder: What David and others have noticed: gun culture has transformed dramatically in the last few decades. And gun enthusiasts… are more ardent… than ever before.
David Yamane: …the time period that we’re living in really is quite remarkable for that liberalization of carry laws and of course, obviously also the new interpretation of the Second Amendment and the Heller decision. I think that we’re living in a very different time compared to the majority of American history as concerns the right for individuals to keep and carry firearms for self-defense.
Celine Gounder: It’s probably unrealistic to think this culture of self-defense… will just go away. Given that… how do we make sure guns are still used safely and legally? We could turn to a different gun subculture for answers… a bedrock for American values… a group that’s always thought about guns as tools. The military… and our veterans.
Celine Gounder: Chris Marvin is a former army officer, Black Hawk helicopter pilot, and combat veteran of the war in Afghanistan. And military service… it runs in his blood.
Chris Marvin: My great grandfather served in World War I, I had two grandfathers in World War II, my father was in Vietnam, and… my military family history actually goes all the way back to the Revolutionary War…
Celine Gounder: Chris was injured in a helicopter crash in 2004. Since then he’s become a strong advocate on a wide range of veterans’ issues. Chris thinks the military has a lot to teach us civilians about how to use guns safely and responsibly.
Chris Marvin: …if the civilian gun culture could even begin to align itself with military gun culture, then we would see a marked decrease in gun violence in this country. If we focused only on the three major tenants of military gun culture — which are safety, training and accountability — and we passed certain laws… that allowed for civilian gun culture to embrace safety always, training always, and accountability for your weapons, what we would have is a society where guns were allowed, but they’re in the hands of the right people, at the right time, for the right purposes.
Celine Gounder: So let’s look as those three elements. First: safety and training. Obviously, to use a gun in the military, you go through a lot of training. You’re also tested and vetted — a background check, if you will. To many veterans, these are no-brainers when it comes to owning and using firearms.
Chris Marvin: One of the most interesting experiences I’ve had in my work is talking to veterans, who feel like they are staunch pro-gun advocates in their civilian or post-military capacity, and you’ll talk to them and you’ll understand why they are pro-gun advocates. It’s because they have a lot of experience and a lot of training with a firearm, and for many of them a firearm was part of their identity, and so they justifiably have this relationship with firearms that they want to continue in their post-military life.
Celine Gounder: In a sense… for a veteran… giving up a firearm… would be like me… as a doctor… giving up the prescription pad.
Chris Marvin: It doesn’t take long, though, to explain to them that while they may have purchased the firearm from an authorized gun dealer, they may store it safely, they may use it exclusively at the range, or they may have other weapons that they use for hunting… and they go about their gun ownership in a very methodical, safe way… their next door neighbor doesn’t have to do any of that. And they’ll say, “Yes, yes, yeah, sure he does. He has to do exactly what I did. Training and safety and accountability — all the things that I did to get a firearm.” No, he can go a gun show and without a background check, make a person-to-person purchase, and bring his gun home — a gun that he never used before, he’s never been to the range with, doesn’t know the parts of, doesn’t know how to take it apart or clean it or whatever… and all of a sudden the veteran says, “Well, that’s stupid. Why shouldn’t he have to go through all the things that I went through. Maybe, even, not the military training, but all the rest of the stuff to get a weapon in his hands as a civilian, why shouldn’t he have to go through that?” And now what you have is you have a gun owner who is a veteran, who has a lot of experience, and who’s all of a sudden saying, “Well, I’m going advocate for common sense gun laws because everybody should do it the right way.”
Celine Gounder: Another key aspect of quote “doing it the right way”: accountability.
Chris Marvin: In the military, if you lose one bullet, one piece of ammunition… one shell casing… people will scour the range until they find it. If somebody lost a weapon on a military base, a handgun we’ll say, that went missing, the base would essentially shut down until it was found because it is so important that the military knows where every single firearm, every single weapon they own, where it is, and who has it, at what time, and to make sure that, that’s in the right place at the right time and in the right hands.
Celine Gounder: We don’t come anywhere close to doing that in civilian culture. This lack of accountability — it’s one of the most devastating aspects of gun violence in America.
Chris Marvin: When you look inside a home, most of the gun violence that we’re talking about, the deaths that occur aren’t occurring in mass shootings, they’re not occurring from automatic weapons… At some point we have to be, as Americans… if we value human life the way we claim to, we have to be accountable to the individual that possessed that firearm originally and failed to store it safely. That’s one of hundreds of examples of how nearly a hundred people everyday are dying of gun violence in this country.
Celine Gounder: Chris has found that folks from across the political spectrum are interested in what he and other veterans have to say about guns.
Chris Marvin: It’s obviously wishful thinking to think like this, but we have 21 million American veterans, give or take, but if all of us had a conversation with somebody about what gun violence prevention and gun safety means to us, in the context of our military training, you’d have 21 million non-veterans who are better educated in how to deal with their own firearms, and it wouldn’t take long for us to reach a lot of people… It would make our communities safer and really reduce the numbers of gun violence incidents in this country significantly.
Celine Gounder: And how does Chris use firearms in his post-combat life? It might… surprise you.
Chris Marvin: I choose not to own weapons because of the experiences that I’ve had in training and in combat. I don’t have any desire for the rest of my life to take a human life. … If somebody comes into my home, and I need to protect my family, then … I’d prefer to defend my family with the Louisville Slugger. But that’s my personal choice… and by the way, I’ve stored that Louisville Slugger very safely. I didn’t have to have a background check to get it, but if I had, I would have gotten one. I respect the rights that anybody has to own a firearm as long as you’re doing it safely and accountably, and they should respect my opinion as a veteran to not own one…
Celine Gounder: And many gun owners — including the ones we’ve talked to in this episode — agree that responsibility, training and accountability should be encouraged among gun owners. As Kevin puts it:
Kevin Creighton: Concealed carry is America’s martial art… But in a Dojo, you’ve got that dedicated model of I’m a white belt, I’m a brown belt, I’m a purple belt, I’m a black belt… That ethos hasn’t penetrated into the firearms community yet. It’s slowly getting there…. The really good firearms traders, the ones that I work with, the ones I spent the weekend with earlier this month up at a tactical conference, take hours and hours and hours of training for firearms from other firearms instructors in order to teach their students better. They are the exception, not the rule.
Celine Gounder: David, too, has experienced the weight and responsibility of being a gun owner.
David Yamane: So the interesting thing is sort of changing mindset that goes along with being a self-defense gun owner that ironically makes it so that the gun isn’t the first solution to every problem that you encounter. And I think that to the extent that gun owners who have concealed carry licenses increasingly think in that manner, then you should see fewer and fewer issues of mutual escalation… But I think that overall we don’t hear very many stories of a legal concealed carriers doing those sorts of things, and in fact, they tend to be quite law-abiding when they are carrying their firearms in public.
Kevin Creighton: The responsibility of owning a gun is… literally the most adult decision you’re ever going to make in your life because, you have decided that it is you yourself that is going to be the first responder to a violent incident that might cost you your life. So it is literally you taking your life in your own hands. In the words of Marty McFly, “That’s heavy.”
Celine Gounder: Reporting this series and talking with folks like David and Kevin… I decided to familiarize myself with guns and shooting…. but not because they made it sound like a fun hobby.
Chris Marvin: I believe that anybody who is having a public discussion about gun violence prevention should have some experience with firearms. But, when we’re talking about policy makers or people influence policy, the fact that they’ve at least held a gun in their hands, they know how it feels and what it’s like to go to a range and understand the training and safety that really should be such a part of gun culture, that’s probably enough…
Celine Gounder: So one weekend… I took a six hour-long “Intro to Handguns” course. We were taught basic handgun anatomy. We learned about single action… double action… and striker action handguns… centerfire and rimfire cartridges… revolvers and semi-automatics. I got hands on training on the range… learning how to load and unload… stance… grip… sight alignment… and trigger control. I have to admit… it was kind of fun to shoot a gun. Kind of in the same way that it’s fun to go to the batting cages… shoot pool… or bowl.
Celine Gounder: Many gun owners take guns very seriously. And many of them do think firearms should be regulated. As Chris puts it, background checks are something that have broad, broad support.
Chris Marvin: And this is not a question. This is not a question of whether or not Americans believe in this. 94% or 95% of Americans believe in universal background checks, and that includes three quarters of NRA members, believe that we should have these checks. And the reason is because those NRA members went through those background checks themselves and got those guns.
Celine Gounder: So why can’t we find more common ground when it comes to policies? One of the biggest reasons: a lack of trust. Many gun owners don’t feel respected by those who want to regulate guns. And many gun safety advocates don’t trust that gun owners will use them safely and responsibly.
David Yamane: We really have two different social worlds as concerns guns. We have people for whom guns will never be a problem, and we have people for whom their only experience of guns is as a problem.
Celine Gounder: These two worlds rarely interact and don’t understand each other. As a result, they have trouble talking to each other.
David Yamane: One of the problems with stigmatizing gun owners is that it makes it so they will not feel themselves part of a solution to a problem that they also see as a problem… It’s hard to approach even something that seems like a very simple solution, like universal background checks, when there are people who feel like that’s just a kind of a Trojan horse to get a bunch of other more penal sorts of regulations in place. … And when they see some of the people who are bringing forward those proposals as looking down on them… There’s not a level of trust there for people to say, “OK, I can see that you are bringing that proposal forward in an honest and genuine way… “
Kevin Creighton: That R word there, that respect is just missing so much from this whole conversation about guns that we’re having…
Celine Gounder: So how do we establish that respect… and that trust? One thing Chris, Kevin, David… and many others believe may help: if gun safety advocates would take a step back and try to learn about the complicated, nuanced culture of guns in America. While it might be good to know how to fire a gun, you don’t have to become some sort of firearms expert to have an informed, respectful conversation. In fact, just connecting with responsible, law-abiding gun-owners might be the first step. After all, it was the first step for David: it happened when he met his future wife.
David Yamane: She’s one of those stereotypical people who went to a rural high school, and the boys had gun racks with guns in their trucks that they parked in the student parking lot… So, that was very much a normal part of her life. … And then she was in the Coast Guard for a number of years, and so she carried a service pistol with her on a daily basis… Seeing someone who I liked, who I thought was a normal person, who also thought that guns were normal and sane, really helped to convert me to the idea that it’s not just homicidal maniacs and deviants who use these things, that there’s actually this whole other world…
Celine Gounder: There are still two worlds when it comes to guns. And there’s something that makes understanding gun violence even more challenging: the line dividing those two worlds… isn’t always so clear. In our next few episodes, we’ll examine how someone’s identity — especially their race and gender — can influence why they own guns… how they use them… and what rights they have when it comes to guns.
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.”