A Common Sense Guide to Gun Violence

Sociologists study common sense because what we take to be common sense does not always match reality. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores the ways in which common sense about gun violence differs from the realities of gun violence.

Hand Gun

Sociologists often study common sense. Common sense refers to those things that everyone knows are true. Think about all of those warnings on many products. For example, a coffee cup with the warning that it is hot. Common sense tells us that coffee is hot. We shouldn’t need this warning, but it remains. These warning labels are in place because somebody once was harmed by the product. We often assume that they were harmed due to a lack of common sense (or lapse in judgement), rather than the product or manufacturer is at fault. So what does a warning lable on a coffee cup have to do with sociology?

Sociologists use research to access the accuracy of common sense because much of what we take as common sense is actually either incorrect or just a bit off from reality. Take gun violence, for example.

In recent months, gun violence has taken center stage as a focus of concern. Due to tragic, mass shootings, we have once again become occupied with what we perceive to be increasing gun violence (we were concerned with it in the late 1990s due to Columbine and other school shootings). Mass shootings, once again, appear to be on the rise. When school teachers and children, movie goers, and mall shoppers are gunned down at seeming random, we are reminded of what we believe about gun violence, that it is random and unpredictable. Any one of us could be an innocent bystander. The reality is that most gun violence is not all that random and innocent bystanders are newsworthy because they are typically rare.

Gun violence can take the form of homicide. Our perception is that they are increasing and we are all potential victims. Pew Research Center (as reported by NPR) found that:

  • 6 percent of people believe the number of gun crimes is higher than it was two decades ago. Only 12 percent said they think the number of gun crimes is lower, while the rest said they think it remained the same or didn’t know.

The reality is that gun homicides are dropping. Yes, dropping. Gun homicides have fallen between 39 and 49 percent since 1993 and non-fatal crimes with guns have fallen 70 percent. Like our perception on teen pregnancy, our perception on how common gun homicides are is skewed. In this case, newsworthy gun violence (think mass shootings involving white, middle class children), becomes a recurring segment on the news. Our perception becomes skewed. We begin believing that it is happening more often and we are all risk.

Our common sense belief about gun violence is reaffirmed that it is increasing and we are all potential victims. Our mythology of gun violence is that it is random. The reality is that gun violence victimization is socially structured. We all do not have the same risk of being a victim of gun violence. Some of us have a much greater risk of gun violence victimization compared to others.

In fact, our race, age, and gender are correlated with different types of gun violence. Pew Research finds that

  • America’s pattern of gun deaths is split across black and white, with the vast majority of whites dying from suicide and a similar proportion of blacks dying from homicide.

Blacks are more likely to die due to gun homicide and whites are more likely to die due to gun suicide. In other words, our race is correlated with the type of gun violence we are likely to experience, if we experience gun violence at all.

Though most Americans will never be impacted by gun violence and gun violence is decreasing, this does not meant that all is well. The United States, afterall, continues to have higher rates of gun violence compared to other western nations (e.g., France, Germany, Australia).

Dig Deeper:

  1. In your own words, what is common sense? Why do sociologists study common sense?
  2. If gun violence is decreasing, why is our perception that gun violence is increasing? Read about our perception of teen pregnancy. Why is our perception different from reality? What are the potential implications (i.e., consequences) of our perception being different from reality?
  3. Take a look at this diagram on gun violence victims in Chicago during 2012. What is the relationship between income, race, education, and age with risk of living near a murder?
  4. With a classmate, choose one of the following “common sense” notions to research: (1) Bicycle helmets make us safer or (2) Walking while drunk is safer than driving while drunk. Before you begin, write a paragraph on what you think the research will show. Now, find at least two sources that either support your common sense explanation or contradict your explanation.

Suggested Reading, Listening, and Viewing:

  • Culture of Fear
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined
  • This American Life: Harper High School, Part One and This American Life: Harper High School, Part Two
  • Bowling for Columbine