Nov. 6, 2003
Vol. 23 No. 4

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    Lectures analyze America’s gun culture

    By Peter Schuler
    News Office

    Nationally recognized experts are examining key issues on gun crime, a widespread and growing problem, in a three-part lecture and discussion series, titled “Guns, Crime, and Punishment in America,” at the University’s Law School. Bernard Harcourt, a Professor in the Law School who helped organize the series, is the editor and a contributing author to a recently published collection of essays, Guns, Crime, and Punishment in America.

    The three-part series includes presentations on how differences in comparative rates of burglaries in the United States and Canada should influence ongoing litigation against gun manufacturers; how cultural beliefs affect people’s opinions on gun issues and the risks of gun possession; and how the language of guns among young males detained in a correctional facility in Tucson, Ariz., should make people rethink gun policies. The first of the lectures was held at the Law School Monday, Oct. 27, with upcoming lectures scheduled for Friday, Nov. 14, and Friday, Dec. 5.

    At the second session on Friday, Nov. 14, professor Dan Kahan of Yale University Law School and Yale University anthropologist Donald Braman will discuss Kahan’s ongoing research, demonstrating that individuals’ positions on gun control derive from their cultural world views rather than from empirical studies.

    Kahan and Braman argue that individuals of an egalitarian orientation who believe in the mutual interdependence of members of society have a tendency to support gun control, while individuals of a hierarchical or individualist orientation tend to oppose it.

    As a result, empirical studies have little effect on personal views about gun control: when individuals evaluate the empirical evidence, they tend to credit or dismiss the empirical evidence based on their cultural values.

    Kahan and Braman conclude that academics should work to develop new expressive idioms to address gun issues and help citizens to debate the cultural issues that divide them, rather than focus on quantifying the costs and benefits of guns.

    Cass Sunstein, the Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor in the Law School and author of Risk and Reason: Safety, Law and the Environment, will comment on Kahan’s research and relate it to insights in behavioral law and economics.

    The Friday, Dec. 5 session will feature a presentation by Harcourt, who will discuss his research on the symbolic dimensions of gun carrying among male youths.

    Working with juveniles incarcerated in Arizona, Harcourt conducted in-depth interviews of youths in a Tucson correctional facility to explore their experiences with guns and the meanings and associations they have of guns. He discovered that the juveniles had a rich symbolic language of guns, ranging from the commodification and disgust of guns to deep sensual and emotional attractions to handguns.

    “I believe we need to insert the voices of youths, who are usually ignored in the debates about guns,” Harcourt said. “We need to understand how they talk about guns, what guns mean to them, what are the symbolic dimensions of guns for them, and why so many young people are fascinated by guns.” He explained that youths are silenced in the debate simply because of their age.

    In his research, Harcourt has developed a method that integrates his in-depth qualitative interviews with a free associational component, map analysis of the interviews, and correspondence analysis, to more rigorously measure and evaluate how these qualitative, “social-meaning” variables relate to legal practices and public policies.

    Correspondence analysis, a method that is relatively unknown in sociolegal scholarship in the United States, despite its acceptance in other disciplines in other parts of the world, allows researchers to visually represent the relationship between structures of social meaning and the contexts and practices within which they are embedded.

    This method opens up structures of meaning in a more accessible and rigorous way than was previously possible, and Harcourt argues, can significantly aid in the analysis of legal and public policy.

    Harcourt’s research raises the question of whether cracking down through enforcement really solves the problem, or “whether we need a much better understanding of the culture of guns in our society-a culture of guns that is so seductive to young people, as it is to adults,” Harcourt said.

    “When you actually start listening to what young people say about guns, however, it starts sounding a lot like what adults would say,” Harcourt explained. “Just like adults, youths use guns for protection, as a tool to secure money and drugs, and also for recreation and fun.”

    Harcourt said his new book is an effort to present the most current and cutting-edge research from a wide spectrum of perspectives and with a wide variety of methodological approaches.

    He explained that gun-related policies can be grouped in five different categories: firearm tracing; police and community strategies to reduce gun availability and gun violence; the approach taken by Congress in 1993 with the Brady handgun Violence Prevention Act, which imposed on federally licensed firearms dealers the requirement to conduct background checks on buyers; aggressive federal enforcement of existing gun laws; and civil litigation against gun manufacturers.

    “Recent policies have seen the legislative approaches shrink, with an increased emphasis on federal law enforcement,” Harcourt said.