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.

19 Responses to Book Review: Shooters by Abigail A. Kohn

  1. avatarensitu says:

    Journalists who “Become part of the story.” are commonly referred to as self absorbed narcissistic hacks.
    So much for your 8 years of university education.
    Or is that what you were inferring?

    • I did not mean to criticize Kohn on that point, as I am not trained in anthropology and thus, am in no position to evaluate the legitimacy of her methods. I can just say as a lay person, I did not see a tremendous difference between her methodology and investigative journalism. On the other hand, the difference may lie in the manner through which the work is analyzed.

      And why should it matter? As an outsider, you can’t understand gun owners by analyzing opinion polls or any other form of statistical data. You have to jump into the community. Now, once you’ve gained that understanding how do you relate your findings to your colleagues? Well, I guess that’s where her anthropological training came in to provide a framework for her analysis and communicating it.

      Might some of her colleagues condemn her for having “gone native” and lost objectivity? Possibly.

      • avatarIdahoPete says:

        I am trained in anthropology (MA, Cultural Anthropology, UC Berkeley). Kohn’s description of her methodology is completely correct: “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 . . .”

        To conduct an anthropological study of any group of people, you have to speak their language, get to know individuals in the community, and participate in their lives as much as they will allow. If you want to conduct an unbiased study of the “gun culture”, you have to conduct that study the same way you would study the fishing communities of coastal Peru – or whatever group you are studying.

        Sounds like a good book.

  2. avatarJordan says:

    As noted in this book, one of the best ways to bring people to the fold is to invite them to the range. I’m a liberal-leaning guy getting back into firearms and having spent time at local ranges and reading smart blogs like this one has really affected my thinking about gun control and issues of that nature. The vast majority of ‘gun people’ I’ve dealt with have been very nice, logical people who enjoy the fascinating history of firearms or plain fun of tagging clay birds with a .22 or AR. A lot of academic-types (myself included) just need a few trips to the range to understand that.

  3. avatarST says:

    Excellent review.

    Folks, we have to wake up to an unpleasant fact. You know that insufferable liberal at work? Guess what , there’s more of them than there are of “us”. With time that situation will only become more dramatic. Leftism is here to stay, and indeed if the current demographics are correct it will “live long and prosper” in America.

    While there’s nothing we can do about the inevitable takeover of progressive culture in America, we can take steps to ensure gun control doesn’t run roughshod over our rights. Put simply we need to learn how to convince liberals to shoot and value firearms, because like it or not the beret-wearing hippies represent America’s future. Either we adapt or live to watch our treasured hobby get crushed under the wheels of “progress”, and this book helps establish some talking points we can use to convert the other side.

  4. avatarAlphaGeek says:

    “Liberal intellectual” and “gun enthusiast” are not mutually exclusive.

    It’s ok to be liberal. It’s ok to be intellectual, and frankly, anti-intellectual rabble rousing is one of the greatest threats to America’s future. Keep going down that road and we will end up like the Muslims — a formerly great scientific culture in decline.

    And, of course, it’s more than ok to be a gun enthusiast. Happy Thanksgiving, Armed Intelligentsia.

    • avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      In my experience, most of the people who think of themselves as “intellectual” aren’t very well informed. They possess a surfeit of hyper-articulate self-esteem, usually conferred by their letters and credentials from academia, but they don’t engage in any actual deep thinking or analysis of issues. Most of the time, they’re quite innumerate, which makes it impossible to discuss issues with them where statistics and mathematical reasoning are involved.

      A big part of the problem in the political conversation today in America is the substitution by ‘intellectuals’ of credentials for competence. A degree from an Ivy League school is not evidence of either a high IQ or any penetrating insight, and calling this deficit to the public’s attention is not evidence of ‘anti-intellectualism.’

      • avatarnonnamous says:

        +1

        everyone I know who is good at math would never call themselves an intellectual.

      • +1

        John Paulos’s book “Innumeracy” should be required reading in every high school or college. The book is a plain English explanation of the poor decisions that result from an inability to understand numbers, and especially probability theory and statistics.

        He discusses, for instance, the classic example of illogical fear of flying because of the media attention given to plane crashes, and the inability of many (most?) people to put such incidents into statistical perspective. Sound familiar to the gun control debate?

    • avatarg says:

      +1

      Gun right advocates do no favors for the 2A by setting up “us versus them” arguments painting anyone with liberal/progressive politics (hippies! baby killers! gay lovers! pot smokers! tree huggers!) as an enemy.

      Invite a liberal friend or co-worker out to go with you the next you hit the range. Be friendly and show them that they have nothing to fear… you’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll win them over. Sure, maybe you won’t agree 100% with their views, but at least you can educate them that guns are no different than any other man-made tool and possess no inherently evil/corrupting properties in and of themselves.

  5. avatarspeedracer5050 says:

    One more added to the group!! We need to keep up this good work ad convert more an more!
    Very glad to see that she woke up so to speak and realized we are just normal human beings!’

  6. avatarJerryboy says:

    “open minded… liberal” ahHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAA!!!!!! ROFLMFAO!!!!!

    lol.

  7. avatarBC; MT says:

    “According to Kohn, anthropologists call this method “ethnography.” As a trained economist and lawyer, I call it journalism”

    Cavalier disregard for the social and behavioral sciences is one of the great shortcomings of economics. Though it claims to study a reified market that obeys rationalist laws, it is in fact an aggregation of the behaviors of people who are often times “irrational” in the traditional economic sense.

    There are at least three differences between journalism and ethnography. Ethnography, unlike journalism, has the luxury of long periods of study. It’s collection of data is systematic and grounded in explicit theory that may be defended or critiqued, rather than merely implied or assumed. The most obvious difference of course is audience.

    • BC; MT –

      First and foremost, let me say that it was not my intent to criticize ethnography, especially because I don’t really know what it means! To the contrary, I think my review reflected my view that Kohn’s work and methodology was informative in ways that statistics or surveys could never be. That said, to someone with only 101-level college psychology and sociology courses under his belt, it is difficult for someone like me to see the book as strongly differentiated from investigative journalism. I hope that anthropologists do not find that insulting–I see no reason they should. Indeed, Kohn does cite to theories and models, with citations…but of course this level of analysis is lost on someone like me. To the extent her work paralleled investigative journalism, she did a great job. As to how the work rates in her academic field, obviously that is for others besides me to decide.

      Secondly, your critique of economics is correct, to some extent. However, although it is hard to pinpoint an exact date, about a decade ago interest in factoring in “irrational” behaviors exploded. That is not to say the old models are being thrown out, rather, there is greater recognition of the need to account for economically irrational behaviors, or to simply better recognize that people attribute real value on inefficient and unproductive activities (such as going to the shooting range…).

  8. avatarBrian says:

    That linked article at reason.com is a great read.

  9. avatarBrian P. says:

    Ensitu, from your misuse of the language, I infer your illiteracy, was that your intended implication?

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