On Sunday April 6, Vassar students and faculty joined forces with the Poughkeepsie community to explore the roots of gun violence in present-day America. The discussion, titled “What’s Up With Gun Violence In The United States?” featured three panelists: Professor of Sociology of and Women’s Studies Diane Harriford, Professor of Sociology Eileen Leonard and Professor of Political Science Sidney Plotkin. Visiting Political Science Professor John Wallach moderated the discussion. The event was sponsored by the Social Action Committee of the Congregation Shir Cadash of the Hudson Valley and the Vassar College Political Science Department.
One of the co-chairs of the Social Action Committee explained that the congregation’s decision to host this panel fits in with its aims as a congregation. “[The congregation is] very committed to programs about current issues that offer a forum for learning and respectful discourse. It is in that spirit we are so happy to sponsor a panel discussion about a very critical issue we face in the United States today: gun violence.”
Professor Wallach connected Vassar with the congregation. Normally a professor at Hunter College, Wallach is teaching a seminar called “Human Rights and Democracy” at Vassar this semester and previously worked as an assistant professor here from 1984 to 1990. Wallach has also been an active member of Congregation Shir Cadash since 2000, and formerly served as chair of the Social Action Committee.
Professor Harriford opened the panel discussion by placing gun violence within the larger historical context of gun ownership in the United States. She explained, “I know that one of the reasons we were able to have the revolution from Britain was because we had guns; and one of the reasons we were able to keep the Native Americans under control…was because we had guns; and one of the reasons we able to make sure that enslaved communities stayed enslaved was because we had guns. I think that guns are very much a part of American culture.”
Harriford went on to connect the fundamental value of gun ownership with societal definitions of masculinity. “If they have a deep resonance in American culture,” Harriford noted, “they must have something to say about American masculinity…it seems to me that when masculinity comes into crisis, that’s when you pull the gun out to reassert your masculinity.”
Harriford then compared the profound importance of firearms in America’s formative years to that of European nations. She noted that, while technological advances brought guns into the forefront of America’s revolutionary era and forever cemented them in how we remember earning our American citizenship, the foundation of other Western nations did not include guns because they had yet to be invented. Thus, Harriford explained, “We believe that to be American is to have a gun.”
Harriford framed her discussion of masculinity in the context of her own research. Harriford co-authored the book When the Center is on Fire: Passionate Social Theory for Our Time, which devotes a chapter to the Columbine High School mass shooting in 1999. Using the two young white males shooters to talk about the motivations of a white shooter, Harriford explained how men in modern times feel slighted by eclipsed social privilege. “We see these two young men who are on the margins, you also see a situation where we’re noting that white males, in this society in particular, are not really able to have the dominant position they had in the past,” Harriford explained. “They are not likely to have the jobs that they thought were going to be theirs…There will be competition with women and men of color.”
Harriford continued, “So given this gun culture, we see these two young men using guns to assert a certain kind of masculinity.”
The professor then discussed another kind of crisis of masculinity experienced in African-American communities. “At the same time we have young black men in Chicago standing on the corner shooting each other right and left,” Harriford noted. “So there’s another crisis there. They essentially don’t have the resources that would create a certain kind of masculinity for them in society…The way they respond is not by mass shootings, they respond by shooting each other over very personal issues.” While Harriford distinguishes the crisis in the black community as coming from a place of a historical marginalization as opposed to a newer sense of insecurity experienced by white males, the speaker noted that both forms produce deadly results.
Harriford concluded, “But it seems to be that whether or not we are in the suburbs or whether they are in the cities, whether they are black males or white males, there seems to be some kind of crisis of masculinity.”
Professor of Sociology Eileen Leonard used her allotted time to discuss the issue of gun violence through the perspective of criminology. Leonard’s area of expertise has been a sociological study of crime, and has even prompted her to teach a joint class for Vassar students and inmates at the Taconic Correctional Facility.
Operating outside of the paradigm of mass shootings, Leonard illuminated a variety of statistics about both America’s ownership and firearms-related deaths compared with other industrialized nations, and the damage they cause Americans.
Leonard cited a Harvard School of Public Health study from 2010 that stated firearms are owned by 89 of 100 hundred Americans, whereas the second highest number was 31 per 100 people in Norway and Canada. She also showed that America’s annual gun-related fatality rate is 10 people per 100,000 while Japan, the nation with the lowest number in the industrialized world, has one per two million deaths.
Leonard explained, “According to the FBI, firearms account for two-thirds of all US homicides. So if you don’t own a gun, the chance that you are going to kill somebody else is really negligible.” The professor noted that the second most common murder-weapon, cutlery, is used in roughly 13% of homicides.
The speaker noted that, while both mass shootings and lower-fatality instances of gun violence are equally tragic, Americans have clung to examples of mass shootings like the one at Newtown only to obscure a larger problem of gun violence in America. “We shouldn’t let [mass shootings] erase the problem of chronic violence we have in the United States,” explained Leonard. “And often times it’s violence that we barely pay attention to.”
In fact, Leonard highlighted that individual incidents of gun violence, and not mass shootings, are both more likely and more lethal. She explained that Americans are most often killed by an acquaintance or family member in altercations in the home than by a stranger. According to Leonard, a study from Emory showed “For every one act of self defense…there were seven assaults or homicides, four accidental shootings, and eleven successful or attempted suicide.”
Leonard cited inequality as a driving factor in causing gun violence and in how the American people view the issue. Like Harriford, she noted that inner city youth experience higher rates of violence due to their diminished opportunities for growth; these too small windows of hope allow violence and crime to permeate the community.
The sociologist also challenged the narrative that places the mentally ill as the main danger to Americans when it comes to gun violence. Leonard explained that, while many of the shooters that have been guilty of mass shootings also had mental health issues, individuals without mental illnesses commit the vast majority of gun related violence and homicides in America.
Leonard also took aim at the media’s willingness to almost uniquely lament mass shootings without discussing daily gun violence. “I am convinced that if young white men in the suburbs of New York City or the suburbs of Chicago were dying from gun violence at the rate of young black men in Chicago, that we’d be declaring a state of emergency,” she observed. Leonard also noted that America remains an outlier in its gun control laws. “We’ve seen in other countries similar kinds of rampages, people going out and killing a lot of other people, but what typically happens is those countries respond quickly by imposing laws and stricter gun controls.” Leonard then cited the 1996 Port Aurthur, Australia mass shooting and the Dublane, Scotland, a school-massacre,
as examples of how governments responded to gun violence. Within this context, Leonard showed American politics to be unwilling to address its exceptional status in this area.
Professor Plotkin then discussed how this unwillingness has taken root in American politics, in what he called the politics of regulation. Plotkin argued that the both the structure of the American political system, specifically the legislature, and the fanaticism of gun-enthusiast movements like the National Rifle Association (NRA) inhibit any chance of better gun control laws.
“Truth is 90 percent of Americans are prepared to support universal background checks; over half of the NRA is prepared to support universal background checks,” Plotkin noted. “After all that, the chances of a new law passing are at best uncertain in the Senate, and maybe slightly north of zero in the House of Representatives.” For Plotkin, this signals a problem in the execution of the political system because the legislature, especially the House of Representatives, was created as the way to best represent the will of the people; given the polarized nature of the people and the legislature on this issue, Plotkin sees ours as a failing system.
Plotkin then pointed to the NRA and similar groups as fostering this political schism. “It’s not so much the opposition to this control or that control. It’s [the NRA’s] ability to reshape the very definition of the issue in American politics, to the point where the great fear among many gun owners, who otherwise support gun controls, is that the federal government is coming to take your gun away.”
The political science professor pointed to instances where members of the NRA openly dramatized the potential of federal seizure of weapons in order to gain support, as well as the NRA’s political clout with some representatives in Washington. Plotkin noted, “The NRA has come to stand not simply for the rights of gun owners, it proclaims its service as chief defender of American liberty against its main enemy, the federal government.” The professor explained that, by casting the federal government as an institution aiming to control and attack the American way and its citizens, the NRA and similar interest groups have halted what would have otherwise been popularly supported legislation.
While the panelists could offer no simple solutions to the problem of gun violence, they maintained that with hard work, America could eventually become safer. Leonard explained, “If we want a good reality of safe communities, we are not going to get that with more guns in our homes, the evidence is clear. We are not going to get that with more guards in our schools…We are not going to be doing that by criminalizing the mentally ill. None of that is going to make us safer. What’s going to make us safer is [that] we move toward a more equitable society with fewer guns.”