Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Gun panic

Sociologist Stanley Cohen theorized about "moral panics", and I think that Fairbanks might be in one right at this moment. The US House of Representatives introduced a bill that would strengthen existing gun control laws. The bill would require vendors at gun shows to conduct background checks like retail stores are currently required to do. The bill would also require gun owners to update their permits when they move. These two items seems reasonable to some Americans. In fact, I would predict that the majority of urban Americans would find these new restrictions to be reasonable. But not Alaskans.

Alaskans have a unique relationship to their guns. Perhaps it's because there are so many hunters here. Or perhaps it's because there are so many military folks here, both current members and retired. Or perhaps it's because of our frontier collective identity. In any case, as soon as anything is ever mentioned that hints "gun control", a significant portion of Alaskans freak out. Cohen would say it's a moral panic.

A moral panic can be said to exist when there is no logical or rational reason for so many people to be so worried about a social phenomenon. Back in the 1980s, a moral panic about kidnapped and exploited white children led to the famous milk carton pictures asking, "have you seen me?" In the 1970s, a moral panic broke out when white middle class college students started smoking marijuana. There are so many moral panics going on now that I've lost count. But this gun issue... now here's a moral panic that is unfolding right around us!

What do you think? You can read about it here: http://newsminer.com/news/2009/feb/10/fairbanks-group-says-no-gun-legislation/ There was also an earlier thread that was a response to a letter to the editor (referred to as a LTTE in blog talk). You can see that one here: http://newsminer.com/news/2009/feb/08/gun-rights-threat/


  1. It was interesting for me to look up and see the origin of the Second Amendment. Basically, as I understand it, the bill is to give citizens social power to protect themselves from vicious people and corrupt authorities. Possession of arms, guns in particular, is “the distinction between a freeman and a slave”.

    As we always say that we should look at objects from a sociological view; in this case we should consider the historical back ground. The amendment was first announced hundreds of years ago when the society was pretty unstable in its own way. Ensured rights of arms gave citizens power to defend themselves. But now that we are living in a different society, we need to provide reasons for the right of arms to continue or to be infringed. A research done on the relationship between number of guns owned privately and the crime rates would certainly help the legislature to make better decisions. Statistical results may draw a better picture for us to see the situation in stead of arguing against each other using “common laws”, “the way it is”, or “this is Alaska”.

  2. I think it interesting that both the article and letter to the editor featured some part about Hitler and implied that such a thing lead to the Holocaust, never mind that there were other issues going on during this time other than just people not owning guns.
    That aside, I do have to agree that the fact that Alaskans cling to their guns, screaming no to gun legislation is probably a good mix of the frontier mindset, the number of military folks up here, and the number of hunters. It could also be in part because of a lack of cohesion with the lower forty-eight. For instance, secluding them from Alaska by calling it the "lower forty-eight". Perhaps this seclusion allows Alaskans to forget how things are socially different in Alaska compared to the majority of the United States....

  3. Historically speaking, those who migrated to Alaska from the "lower 48" and other countries depended heavily on the use of modern firearms for food and income (animal pelts). Alaska's recent history is rich with stories of conquering nature and its animals by force. Perhaps the reason why many Alaskans are fearful of firearm legislation is due to the (relatively recent) Alaskan's history of self-reliance through the use of modern day technology such as guns and metals: hunting, trapping, homesteading, cabin-building etc. They see the legislation as taking away part of their culture and heritage.

    Eternal Student brings up a good point about the military influence in Alaska, especially in Fairbanks. Although the military does indeed use weaponry, those who consider themselves "true Alaskans" consider their firearms and traps as a way of survival (mainly for food). Although many who hunt for moose during season are capable of surviving off of imported food from "the lower 48," the process of catching, killing, skinning and processing the animal is in itself cultural and brings the hunter and beneficiaries the sense that they are closer to nature instead of being far removed from their food.

    I also want to bring up a question: If it were required by law to register ALL firearms with the state, this costs money, right? Like all other registration, does one have to renew it every year or every few years? If so, how are the economically disadvantaged going to afford to buy or keep guns if their primary source of food is through subsistence hunting (particularly rural Alaskan residents)?

    I think this once again shows how unique Alaska is.

  4. P.S. I forgot to mention that many rural Alaskans will have minimal accessibility to information about the registration/penalties etc. They will also have even less accessibility if the only mode of transportation to a town/city that will have this service is by plane (expensive!). If guidance is not provided by someone who can explain the complicated procedures, attendance will be unpopular. So...what? They'll be jailed and fined because of an oversight of the institutions that create these requirements?

  5. One of the men interviewed in the article stated that no one is going to take his guns. His opinion matches the tone of the article and the tone of the chat room. This issue is definately creating somewhat of a morale panic in Fairbanks. For the people that are panicking, tougher gun laws = their guns being taken away. They see this issue as directly attacking them as Alaskans. Instead of asking why lawmakers feel this is important for our country, people immediately panick as if someone is coming in minutes for their guns. Maybe this is due in part to Alaska being so far away from the rest of the country as Eternal Student has suggested. The collective identity of being in the "last frontier" and being an Alaskan takes precedence over the identity of being an American and what would be good for the entire United States as a society. It would be interesting to see what people in other states or regions of the country are saying about this issue.

  6. What keeps popping into my conscience is a picture of the gestapo and the civilian police entering my home and looking for guns that are not registered. From what I understood, this bill that is being considered, is a front for this type of control.

    Being uneducated in gun laws, I went to a forum during Joe Nava's Friday gun talk show, and asked what the hubub was all about. The locals in this forum basically told me in laymens terms that this picture of mine regarding the gestapo are 75% accurate. That our guns will be taken away if they are not registered. Another type of an attempted government control among many others. We have the right to bear arms to protect ourselves among enemies or domestic. *second amendment*

    The National Rifle Association who lobby for the second amendment is fighting this bill and we have to wonder why, why when it seems reasonable to register your guns and keep things legal.

    I asked some avid hunters, and resoundingly, control .. too much attempted government control was their answer. Interestingly, the attempt to put chips into our childrens skin to keep tabs on them that Nancy Pelosi proposed surfaced.

    Too much control by the government. Thomas Jefferson, who is a founding father of our constitution, helped the United States secede from Europe and their overwhelming need to control it's people from afar.

    The future of our government? History does repeat itself in many many cases.

  7. Alaskans and guns is like New York and cigarettes. They go hand-in-hand with one another. People identify themselves with these objects, and to threaten to take it away or put strict laws on them makes people feel like it is a direct attack on them and their society/culture. This is why moral panic is shown throughout Alaska, I agree with Eternal Studnet's comment as to why one reason might be for the panic which may be related to the fact that there is this seclusion from the "lower-forty-eight" and whether it is Alaskans and/or people from the lower-forty-eight saying that it is a different society here compared to there. I mean I have lived outside of Alaska and when someone tells another( a person from the lower-forty-eight) that you are from Alaska or live there, they assume you live in an igloo!! Many other people dont understand the Alaskan Society.
    Alaska is a different lifestyle, though there is hunting elsewhere and military, Alaska identifies with these as their society and culture. Tanabata makes a good point, what about the rural areas? They surivive on their use of firearms. I think legistations should take in account the different social norms in Alaska compared to the rest of the United States. And until they dont I think moral panic will continue in Alaska!
    I agree with Shopaholic, that it would be interesting to see what other states are saying and/or having the same moral panics as Alaskans??

  8. Nutty Haze, consider the sources of your information before you believe what you were told is fact. As a fledgling sociologist, especially consider the effects of ideologies on people's beliefs. Think about the social location of your informants. Your informants were concerned--that is obvious from the news article and also your discussion with the folks at the meeting. But what facts underlie their concern? How much of their concern is based in fear-mongering used as a social movement strategy to rally the masses? Think of the scary words that you heard tossed around--The Gestapo, chips implanted into children, Second Amendment under siege, government control. And think back to the social movement class and how social movements strategically deploy fears to build their base and to rally their supporters.

    The "chips" program that Nancy Pelosi talked about was not implanting chips into children to keep track of them as your informants told you. CHIP is a children's health insurance program sponsored by Pelosi and others in Congress two years ago that would have offered health insurance to poor children. Now, sociologically speaking... which is more inflammatory, which more outrageous, which more atrocious for people worried about gun control and the regime shift in DC? A kid's health insurance program... or... chips being implanted into children so they can be controlled? I'd say that the implantation fear can be manipulated by fear-mongerers to great political effect. Of course, I'm Persnickety and also a conflict theorist ;)

    The fear of chips being implanted into people so the government can keep track of them has been used by both the radical right and the radical left for at least twenty, maybe thirty years. Instead of believing what you hear at meetings, do some sociological nosing around, especially checking about sources. Find reliable sociological sources to make sure that what you hear at meetings like that are factual, and not hyped up propaganda designed to build support for a social movement.

  9. Shopaholic, you made a great typo! You talked about "morale panic" instead of "moral panic." And I think you are onto something important!! The gun issue is certainly not a "moral" issue in the way that Cohen described. But it sure is a "morale" issue! Even though your sociological insight may have been accidental, it's a good one.

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  11. Unruly Ones--several great posts. This comment section is now closed.