Locked, Loaded, and… Liberal?

REVIEW: 'Gun Curious: A Liberal Professor's Surprising Journey Inside America's Gun Culture' by David Yamane

(@davidyamane X)
June 23, 2024

David Yamane is, by his own description, a "'card-carrying liberal' Asian American sociology professor from the San Francisco Bay Area who, for the first forty-two years of my life, never saw, touched, or fired a real gun." The first time he saw a deer stand, he remarked to his companion that it seemed like a "weird spot for kids to build a fort."

A lot has changed in less than 15 years. He now owns 13 firearms and has made a career out of studying American gun culture. He brings together his personal story and his academic work—not to mention the basic journalistic practice of getting out and talking to lots of people, from renowned trainers to everyday shooters—in the new book Gun Curious.

Things started to shift for Yamane when he separated from his first wife and moved into an apartment complex. While his children were visiting, he saw a neighbor pleading with her boyfriend not to take her car but was powerless to do anything beyond ask if everything was okay. The next morning, she knocked frantically at his front door, he hid his children before letting her in, and she said the man had "threatened her with a knife and taken her cell phone and car." He urged her to call the police, but later found a report saying she'd stopped cooperating.

The experience was just one factor that eventually drove him to gun ownership. Another was a love of the reality show Top Shot, and yet another was a friend (eventually his second wife) who had carried a gun in the Coast Guard and set up some range time. Shooting a gun hooked him.

Part of Yamane's experience is timeless—an enjoyment of shooting has always been a key ingredient of gun culture. But in other ways, Yamane is part of a profound shift in recent decades. As the country has urbanized, hunting and sport have declined as reasons for gun ownership, while self-protection has risen. Meanwhile, the ranks of gun owners have diversified, concealed-carry laws have loosened throughout the country, and sales have shifted from long guns to handguns. The new state of affairs is sometimes called Gun Culture 2.0, which also happens to be the name of Yamane's blog.

Yamane's sociological work explores that culture without pathologizing it. While most academics studying guns tend to treat these items' owners—something like 40 percent of the adult population—as little more than an obstacle to progress, Yamane has adopted a motto of "guns are normal and normal people use guns."

Yamane notes that, while gun violence is a crucial public-safety issue, there is much to be learned about the vast majority of gun owners who use guns for legitimate purposes. How are they seen by the broader society? Why do they own guns? How do they connect with their guns, and with each other through guns? How do they think about risk? In the answers to these questions lie a better understanding of American society—and, for those focused on policy issues, the path to making gun owners allies rather than obstacles.

Yamane points out some interesting aspects of the stigma gun owners face, and not just from his fellow lefty academics. Alcohol kills more Americans than guns, for example, but lawful gun owners face far more opprobrium these days than responsible drinkers.

In one study measuring attitudes on a warm/cool "feeling thermometer"—0 is ice-cold; 100 is toasty—non-gun-owners ranked gun owners a 49, similar to the 50 they gave atheists and the 53 they gave Muslims, two of the most stigmatized religious groups in the country. Members of the National Rifle Association, specifically, got a 42.

Yet humans' attachment to projectile weaponry is hardly new or unusual, Yamane explains. It's arguably a big part of what makes us human to begin with, as our unparalleled throwing ability contributed to our survival and evolution. Seen through this lens, guns are merely the continuation of hundreds of thousands of years of improvement in projectiles, tapping deep into human nature, and a healthy hobby for many of the people he meets. Yamane also makes abundantly clear that guns are a way for humans to connect with each other, by depicting many shooting events and training sessions throughout the country.

What about the risks? They are certainly real, even for those not likely to commit suicide or homicide, the dominant drivers of gun fatalities.

Yamane tells of the time, during his novice period, when he prepared his handgun for storage by racking the slide, removing the magazine, pointing the gun at the floor, and pulling the trigger to drop the hammer. Gun owners will see where this is headed: If you rack the slide before removing the magazine, you leave a round in the chamber. (Also: If you're new to guns, get one that doesn't require you to pull the trigger after unloading it.) It turns out that while fatal gun accidents are rare, with Yamane putting the number at 549 in 2021, routine screwups and emergency-room visits are not so uncommon.

But these risks must be balanced against the benefits, including the potential of armed self-defense, which is much debated as a statistical matter but certainly happens.

Yamane also writes in depth about trainers who try to minimize negative outcomes and stress the responsibilities that come with owning and carrying guns, as well as efforts within gun culture to prevent suicide. And he relates some thoughts from Aaron Haskins, a gun owner and risk-management professional, who puts self-defense as only the eighth most important way to reduce risk—well behind getting in shape and seeing a doctor—and chides those who live in unhealthy ways while carrying a "gun-shaped safety blanket."

Gun Curious covers a lot of ground in not too much time, and it certainly won't resolve this country's long-fiery debate over gun ownership and gun control. But it will prove especially valuable to people like, well, David Yamane 15 years ago—those who have little familiarity with guns or everyday gun owners and would benefit from a richer understanding.

Gun Curious is an excellent overview of who gun owners are, how they think, and why they act the way they do. It acknowledges and discusses the downsides of guns without losing sight of how fundamentally normal guns are.

Gun Curious: A Liberal Professor's Surprising Journey Inside America's Gun Culture
by David Yamane
Exposit Books, 213 pp., $19.99 (paperback)

Robert VerBruggen is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.