Firearms, research, and controlling the narrative

I was happy to see the Wall Street Journal write a staff editorial about my recent paper with Patrick Warren, “Firearms and Lynching“.

I was made aware of the editorial on Saturday and I’ll admit I was a little nervous when I first clicked, only to be relieved to find an accurate summary of the research and a relatively restrained commentary.

But why was I nervous, you may ask. Isn’t media attention something scholars want? Yes. Earlier in my career, that was an unqualified “yes”, but I’ve been doing this long enough now that I appreciate just how little control a scholar has over the conversation that can happen around their work. I’ve had a couple papers get non-trivial media attention over the years and each time it’s a reminder that the research itself is not just the subject of a conversation, it’s a prop that gives people an opportunity to have the conversation they already wanted to have. The findings of the research in question can prove quite immaterial to that conversation.

When I posted a thread about the paper two weeks ago, I was happy to see enough retweets to pass the paper around and get it some attention.

What was less fun was the predictably over-reductive quote tweets and comments excitedly parading the paper as evidence of “guns are good.” Not unlike people excited to reduce a paper to “minimum wages are good” (or “this paper is bad because minimum wages are bad”), it can be frustrating to try to make a nuanced contribution towards understanding a complex context, only to see it reduced to a television debate chyron.

The key to surviving this process is accepting that a scholar, even those of tremendous standing inside and outside of the academy, has little to no control over the narrative that emerges around their work. Holding strong preferences over the surrounding narrative is folly varying only in consequences. You can try to fight the narrative, which typically results in the world either ignoring you or, worse, joyfully inviting you to wrestle in the mud. [Good rule of political discourse: never wrestle with a pig. You can’t win, you end up covered in mud, and the pig loves it.] Some scholars, though not as many as the more skeptical fear, prefer to shape the research to serve a narrative from the outset. This, of course, is no longer research, it’s advocacy masquerading as science. Don’t do this. And lastly, some create great research, only to apologetically bear the burden of the unintended narrative that emerges around their work. If you recognize yourself in this description, my only advice is a) don’t apologize and b) go easy on the sauce.

For what it’s worth, my view of “Firearms and Lynching”, in the context of the broader literature on firearms and public safety, is that things have to be horrifyingly bad before greater availability of firearms make for a safer public. Foreign invasions, institutionalized segregation, pogroms, lynch mobs, these are all contexts where an armed population can make for a better outcome. Probably not a happy ending, but maybe a less tragic one. The Jim Crow South was such a context. That’s how bad it was. That’s the takeaway.

If you want to translate this piece of historical research as evidence that a greater saturation of firearms in modern American society will make for better and safer lives, then I’ll admit that I think you are too pessimistic about the current state of the world. You’ve spent too much time reading about burning cities that actually aren’t burning. If you think that a greater taking up of arms by Black Americans will make their lives safer and better, then I’ll admit I still think that is probably wrong, but maybe less wrong. Black Americans have brought their reality to the eyes of broader America and that reality questions whether or not the police serve their communities or threaten them. It is certainly a legitimate question whether they can rely on police protection to secure their homes and their communities.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to make the next logical leap here. If police can’t be counted on, we’ll protect ourselves, and firearms are a tool to do that. That sort of thinking, however, is exactly why making leaps from history to contemporary contexts is so fraught. As bad as things are today, even in the most violent districts with the most contemptable police departments, it’s not the Jim Crow South. Lynch mobs are not roaming the streets and selling photos of their victims as postcards. Groups of young white men are not wandering into homes and stealing from them without fear of retribution. Firearms are tools of death, and their presence bring benefits and costs. To exceed the costs of broadly deadlier conflict throughout your community, the benefits to other dimensions of public safety have to be significant.

And we’ve haven’t even confronted the additional reality that an armed Black man in the United States should probably not feel safe in the presence of a police officer, no matter if that firearm is licensed, registered, and transparently revealed to the officer. In a land of no-knock raids, where police are bursting into homes under cover of night with fingers on triggers, I’m not sure a more heavility armed Black America leads to fewer men and women being killed by police.

I’m sorry, did you think that I was going to close out this post with a solution to modern violence and policing in America? With an answer? The world is complex and difficult, policy for it doubly so. My colleague and I wrote a paper that tried to answer the question of whether a minority living under an indifferent regime that condoned terrorism could better live their lives armed. That’s the question we made a contribution towards answering, and our results point towards “Yes”. If you want me to make big claims about what that means today, well, get used to disappointment.

2 thoughts on “Firearms, research, and controlling the narrative

  1. capitalistfirst September 19, 2022 / 9:54 am

    The attempt to find a silverlining in raising the minimum wage is pathetic. It is a price control, contributes to inflation and reduces entry level jobs.


  2. StickerShockTrooper September 19, 2022 / 12:11 pm

    A scientist’s job is to find data and test hypotheses; any statement that starts “It is” rather than “Data shows” is punditry, not science.

    A statement like “A more heavily armed Black America leads [or doesn’t] to fewer men and women being killed by police” seems to be a totally legitimate hypothesis that can be tested right now, doesn’t it?


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