Research Communications

The Story of the Gun 

Sociologist paints new portrait of American gun collectors

July 20, 2009

Gun owners have been stereotyped in the media as passionate defenders of the right to bear arms, suspicious of the government, vigilant about protecting their families, and, at worst, potentially trigger-happy. And while sociologists argue that guns appeal to many collectors for their masculine symbolism, “no one has really explored that,” says Ohio University researcher Jimmy Taylor. “Are gun owners indeed using them that way, to exhibit some kind of textbook, Clint Eastwood masculinity?”

Taylor, a sociologist who specializes in masculinity studies, started investigating the world of gun collectors to find out. In his new book, “American Gun Culture: Collectors, Shows, and the Story of the Gun,” published by LFB Scholarly Publishing in July, he discovers that gun owners have a much more complex relationship with their weapons than popular culture portrays.

Over the course of three years, Taylor, an assistant professor at Ohio University’s Zanesville campus, spoke to 130 gun owners, conducting 52 formal interviews primarily with middle-class men between the ages of 30 and 60. With the nation’s second largest gun advocacy group, the People’s Rights Organization (PRO) located nearby in Columbus, Ohio, Taylor easily found gun enthusiasts at local shows and shooting events. He also traveled to one of the world’s largest gun and knife shows in Texas for the project.

Though the subjects were easy to find, they weren’t always open to talking to Taylor about their collections, as many argued that academia and the media have stigmatized gun ownership. That’s surprising, Taylor notes, because a vast number of Americans—about 100 million, or about 40 percent of all U.S. households—report owning guns, making them a rather large minority. Most subjects started the interview with assurances that they were just average Americans.

“About 90 percent of the people I approached would say, ‘I’m not nuts; I don’t have any screws loose,’” Taylor says.

Though gun owners are proud of their firearms, they’re also subdued about showing it. As one subject from Cleveland explained, you can be a deeply spiritual person who spends every Sunday morning in prayer at church, but you don’t necessarily come to the office Monday to evangelize. Gun collectors may be similarly discreet.

“You may not want your co-workers or neighbors to know that you have a basement full of weapons,” Taylor says.

When Taylor asked why these men collect guns, he found that some of the conventional reasons such as self-protection or hunting hold true. But gun owners also collect weapons as keepsakes from relationships with fathers or grandfathers. In fact, Taylor found that handling or cleaning the guns offered an emotional connection to meaningful people in their lives. Men with tough exteriors often would get choked up while reminiscing.

“I can’t overstate enough how surprised I was about the emotional intensity they felt about the guns,” Taylor says. “They were caressing them like the guns were babies— in a very meticulous, loving sort of way.”

Owners often maintained those guns differently, too. A weapon with sentimental value might be proudly on display in a living room case, while guns with less symbolic value were typically stowed away in basements or in locked gun safes. 

“That has some interesting implications for making blanket policies about gun ownership,” Taylor says, “as each gun owner may see each individual gun differently – as an object of death, a piece of art or a family heirloom.”

Many of the gun collectors stressed that they aren’t interested in using guns for violence, he says. Taylor, who developed the sociology of masculinity course for Ohio University, adds that he’d like to see other sociologists conduct further research on that issue.

But for now the professor is deep in research for his next book, which will explore masculinity in another iconic segment of American society: the world of rodeo cowboys and bull riding.

By Kelly Kettering and Andrea Gibson