Book Review: Shooters by Abigail A. Kohn

By Jewish Marksman

This review originally appeared at the Jewish Marksmanship blog and is reprinted here with permission

I recently finished reading Shooters: Myths and Realities of America’s Gun Cultures by Abigail A. Kohn. In the book’s first chapter, Kohn describes her methodology: “In the fall of 1997 . . . I set out to conduct an anthropological study of gun enthusiasm. To collect data, I used the traditional anthropological method of participant observation, which basically entails joining the designated group in question, making friends with its members, observing and participating in community events, and engaging in group activities with the community . . .

For fourteen months, I spent time at shooting ranges, gun shops, and shooting competitions . . . [and] conducted in-depth interviews with thirty-seven male and female gun enthusiasts and spent hours hanging out shooting with dozens more.

According to Kohn, anthropologists call this method “ethnography.” As a trained economist and lawyer, I call it journalism. Either way, Kohn tells us “… [e]thnography fills in the gaps and provides a window for the social world of any given group” and her goal is to inform her readers as to “what gun enthusiasts really think and do.”

The book tells another, perhaps unintentional story: Kohn’s transformation from a liberal intellectual to a gun enthusiast (or at least gun-tolerant). While Kohn doesn’t discuss this personal metamorphosis in the book, her article at reason.com tells the tale:

I didn’t expect to study guns. But after several years of studying and living in Berkeley, I found that my interest in my original topic of inquiry — culture-bound psychiatric syndromes — was waning. So I slowly began looking around for other research topics, hoping to find something current and interesting. Around that time, I met a fellow anthropology graduate student named Michael (his and all subsequent names have been changed), who was writing his dissertation on Moroccan tourism.

Michael was a fascinating person. A highly educated secular Jew from New England, he was pro-choice and pro-feminism — and he liked to ride motorcycles. Most intriguing of all, Michael was a hunter. I found this last facet to be particularly odd. I felt that I had a lot in common with Michael, but I didn’t expect a man who was so liberal and so urbane to be interested in guns. Unlike me, Michael had grown up around guns. He hunted with his father and brother, and he owned several guns, including a rifle, a shotgun, and a starter pistol that he used to train his dog to hunt.

We began by studying the right-wing militia movement of the early 1990s. Our first foray into the subject would have been comical if it hadn’t been so naive. Our initial attempt to meet local militia members took us to a shooting range in the Bay Area, where we assumed local militia meetings would be held. We went on a Tuesday night, fully expecting the range to be seething with radical political activity. Why else would people congregate at a shooting range, if not to meet other like-minded, potentially dangerous right-wing gun nuts? It never occurred to us that they might be there for the simple enjoyment of target shooting.

It embarrasses me now to recall that trip. We went expecting to find militia members milling around in camouflage gear, holding signs, and handing out radical pamphlets. Needless to say, we didn’t meet anyone during our visit who fit that description. There may be isolated ranges across the U.S. that do cater predominantly to shooters involved with the militia movement, and even ranges that covertly sponsor “radical political activity.” But there were no militia meeting schedules to be found at the range we visited, even though we did see a radical bumper sticker or two: “Gun control is hitting your target.”

After we realized that we probably weren’t going to accomplish our original goal of establishing contact with the militia, we starting paying attention to what we could learn at the range. And that first time shooting, I discovered something I knew absolutely nothing about: gun enthusiasm. That Tuesday evening at the range we met a lot of people who were there for essentially one thing: to shoot guns. For the most part, they were friendly people who were ready and willing to talk about their interest in guns and their enjoyment in shooting. Eventually Michael and I dropped the militia project, but my interest in gun enthusiasm continued. It has proven to be a very fruitful avenue for research.

Kohn did an excellent job of exposing herself to the “gun enthusiast” community and developing a personal understanding of our thoughts, beliefs, and political positions. Particularly compelling: Kohn uses copious excerpts of transcripts from her interviews, letting the interviewee speak directly to the reader.

To the best of my knowledge, Kohn’s 2004 work may be the only instance of a liberal academic allowing a diverse group of gun enthusiasts to speak for themselves—rather than imposing misconceptions and stereotypes on gun enthusiasts as a whole (i.e. that we all wear camouflage and sport confederate flags on our vehicles).

Kohn fully appreciates the fact that there’s no single “gun culture” in America. Kohn goes out her way to make sure that the reader is exposed to the normal, everyday “gun enthusiasts.”

Shooters is not what I would call an easy read. It is an academic treatise, and reads as such, including extensive footnotes. Gun enthusiasts may find that much of the book states the obvious in tedious analysis and prose.

Even so, it’s an excellent book to give to an open-minded academically-oriented liberal; it was, after all, written by one. Kohn’s book speaks their language, delving deep into nuance and theory, but ultimately articulating a positive message about “gun enthusiasts.”

Kohn’s book is especially appealing because it doesn’t approach the gun culture with logic, statistics, law, facts or reason. At its core, the book is about people. It humanizes gun enthusiasts and exposes us for who we really are: perfectly normal, fully functional human beings with normal jobs, normal lives, and normal views of the world.

Shooters joins my growing library of gun-related books by Jewish authors. I’m waiting to lend it to an open-minded, academically oriented anti-gun Jewish liberal.