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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Goffman and Guns: What Kind of Gun Person Are You?

I grew up in California, and didn't have any firsthand experience with guns until I was 30.  I didn't grow up in a military family and wasn't "packing heat" as a kid.  In fact, before moving to Philadelphia, most of my gun knowledge came from gangsta rap music and/or Xbox 360 games like Call of Duty.

COD introduces the mass public to guns
In this respect, my time in Philadelphia was quite eye-opening.  I first became interested in guns while talking with gunshot victims at the University of Pennsylvania hospital.  Many of the victims I met had guns and/or were looking for ways to get guns.  Although some were able to get guns via legal channels (i.e. at a store), others had criminal marks that prevented them from buying guns the legal way.  Through their experiences, I learned about the sometimes not-so-subtle ways in which racial profiling unfolds at gun shops; I also learned about the underground economy for guns; and I also gained insights into the more subtle ways in which guns become extensions of one's social identity.

Which brings me to the motivation for this posting.  I'm lecturing on guns and gun culture tomorrow and have found that the sociological and criminological literature on guns is quite thin.  Although there are countless studies on the causes/consequences of urban violence, there isn't a whole lot out there about gun culture.

There are some exceptions, of course.  Bernard Harcourt's book, "Language of the Gun" describes the symbolic meanings of owning and carrying guns.  Harcourt reveals the seductive nature of guns to young, racial-ethnic minority men who are incarcerated.   Guns are exciting things to own and young men feel empowered by owning/carrying guns.  Paul Stretseky and Mark Pogrebin's, "Gang-Related Gun Violence: Socialization, Identity, and Self," makes similar arguments with a similar population.  They show that young incarcerated men have strong attachments to their guns, and that young men like carrying guns because they anticipate everyday situations in which they may need to use them for self defense.

From my cursory reading, sociologists and criminologists have focused much of their attention on urban, poor, racial/ethnic minority populations at the expense of a HUGE population of while, middle class gun owners who are not victims of violence, and who rarely (if ever) have much reason for using their gun for self-protection.  What are the attractions to guns for this population?  What is at stake for these gun owners?

Lee Ermey at his best
While writing my lecture for tomorrow, I came across an interesting Youtube clip of Lee Ermey, a former Marine, die hard gun enthusiast, and Hollywood actor in movies like Full Metal Jacket.  In this interview, Ermey talks about why he prefers Glock manufactured guns and why he thinks that the military and police officers should carry .45s instead of 9mms.

Much of what this short interview resonates with my conversations and interviews with people I met at a gun shop/gun range in Philly.  When I was in the market to buy a pistol, I met a couple of NRA shooting instructors who introduced me to one of the bigger symbolic divides within the pistol market.  In the words of one of these instructors, "If you're buying a pistol, you're either a 9 or a 45 person." After my shooting lesson that day, I went home and found that the 9mm vs. .45 debate is quite a big thing amongst gun enthusiasts.  In some respects, the 9 vs. .45 debate is one of those moral divides in gun culture that tells other people "who you are" and "what you are about."

Glock 19: A favorite amongst 9mm people
In Sociology speak, the 9 vs. 45 divide is an example of how material things become extensions of our social identities.  Gun enthusiasts--like enthusiasts of any culture--make moral inferences about one another based on the make/caliber of gun that someone owns/carries.  This is at the crux of Erving Goffman's writing on identity and the self.  In fact, much of his writing focused on the social and symbolic materials out of which we craft a social identity.  Guns could be an interesting foray into how this unfolds in a unique social context.

So, what are the arguments on both sides?  I'm summarizing here, but fans of the 9mm claim that it is usually smaller, lighter weight, and carries more rounds.  Since the round is smaller, 9mm enthusiasts also claim that it is more accurate and easier to shoot.  As a former owner of a Springfield XD 9mm, I can say that 9mm rounds are quite easy to shoot with accuracy, even for a novice.

Colt 1911: An American classic and favorite amongst .45 people
Then, there are folks who swear by the .45 caliber pistol.  Some are fans of the old, military-style 1911 model, which was used a sidearm for soldiers in combat; others prefer the newer and lighter versions of the Glock, like the model 30, which is praised for being lightweight and for never jamming (like most things Glock).  Fans of the .45 argue that the round is larger, stronger, and has more stopping power.  When justifying the 45 over the 9, enthusiasts claim that it can take multiple 9mm rounds to achieve what 1 single round from the 45 can achieve: Stopping someone dead in their tracks.

In any event, I think that gun culture is vast and interesting.  As social scientists, we have lagged considerably far behind the mass public's appreciation for gun culture and should recognize the broader appeal that guns have for populations that aren't always on our radars.


  1. I have a similar background to you -- Californian, UC-Berkeley grad ('91), sociologist, newly immersed in gun culture since my move to North Carolina. Agree with your assessment of the sociological literature on guns, and thinking of ways of rectifying that myself. So, enjoyed this post.

    Was curious to know how the lecture went, and if you have any plans to post it here or on your personal website?


  2. Hi Big Time,

    Thanks for your comment. I would love to hear more about your research on guns. What kinds of issues interest you?

    The lecture went well, but I found that many of my students weren't too familiar with guns and gun culture. I think a lot of it has to do with the Canadian context. My sense--and I could be wrong--is that many young people in Toronto don't grow up immersed in gun culture. I imagine that the gun scene is much more thriving in a place like North Carolina. Anyways, I look forward to hearing about your interests!



  3. Prof. Lee --
    I am an attorney in a Public Defender's office in the San Francisco Bay area. I'm very interested in communicating with you about the sociology of the urban youth gun culture. In particular, I'd like to find out about any experts in this area in California. I would very much appreciate it if you could email me at: laurie.mont@pd.cccounty.us