on “Waiting for José”, and Harel Shapira

In “Bowling Alone”, [Robert] Putnam’s diagnosis of America’s decline is rooted in the loss of civic engagement and the decline in associated life. What America has lost, Putnam argues, are institutions – ranging from churches to book clubs – in which people can come together and do things as a part of a collective, as members of a shared community; what America has lost are Americans who seek institutions; what America has lost is the spirit that is at the heart of our democracy. It is the spirit that Alexis de Tocqueville noticed in the eighteenth century and claimed as the source of America’s strength. The Minutemen agree. And the Minutemen have that spirit. What they lack is not a democratic ethos. They are what people like Putnam and de Tocqueville and our whole liberal democratic political tradition want out of citizens; engaged, active, concerned.

From “Waiting for José” by Harel Shapira.

I met Harel about a year ago. He was a student in a class I was teaching at KR Training. As far as I knew, he was just another student. Turns out that’s not quite the case. 🙂 He’s also an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Austin.

Harel’s sociological interest is in guns, gun culture, firearms education, the culture of armed citizens, and the people within. He wants to understand why people join social movements, and a large part of that is the “doing” of those movements – and so, he seeks to immerse himself in the movements and “doing” them as well. He’s still an observer and tries to remain as such, but yet he must also participate. It’s quite interesting.

Harel wanted to speak with me (beyond class) on some topics. In part because of my role as Assistant Lead Instructor at KR Training, and also in part because of the incident I was involved in on January 5, 2015. More recently, we’ve started talking again regarding phase 2 of his research (which I don’t believe I can disclose at this time, but it’s a logical progression of his research). I have maintained I will always speak about that incident, because in doing so others can learn and perhaps the world can become a little wiser, a little better. We’ve had a few long lunches, talking at great length about all manner of things (and I truly enjoy our talks). But that’s not why I write today.

Harel’s PhD dissertation became a book: “Waiting for José – the Minuteman’s Pursuit of America“. Harel gave me a copy. On a long flight to Seattle I was finally able to read it – and I’m so glad I did.

The book is thought-provoking. It caused me to reflect. It made me think deeper, not so much about The Minuteman movement or guns and gun culture – but about modern society, and our humanness. For this alone, I think this book well worth reading by anyone, and hopefully they too can step back from the specific subject matter and consider the grander implications of modern society in the USA as well as that strange thing we call “human nature”.

The Minutemen

Briefly, the book chronicles a lengthy period of time Harel spent with the Minutemen. These are people who volunteer to sit at the US-Mexico border, watching for “José” to cross illegally, and work to assist the Border Patrol in their capture.

In the pages of everything from local to international newspapers were photographs of camouflaged men prowling the desert, seemingly a moment away from committing violence. You have probably read these articles and seen these images. The liberal media describes the Minutemen as “sorry-ass gun freaks and sociopaths,” while the conservative media characterizes them as “extraordinary men and women… heroes”. In some accounts these people are patriots; in others, they are lunatics.

One thing is certain, these men and women, whatever their given labels suggest, have come to play an enormous role in our country’s debates about immigration. The problem is that our standard judgements, whether damning them or praising them, sidestep the complex dynamics of who these people are and what they do on the border.

Liberal media accounts suggest that when it comes to immigration, what the Minutemen and their supporters lack is sympathy. If only they understood the plight of the people coming across the border, they would change their minds. But if we are to understand the Minutemen, we need to understand how anger and sympathy can coexist.

Harel writes direct from his experience – he’s the one telling the story. He tells of his experiences: his first arrival, his getting thrown out, his return and initial gaining of trust, the times going out on patrol, sitting in the comms room, and other stories of his experiences with these men and women. He works to analyze and understand why these people do what they do, and become the people they become as a part of this movement.

For example, he tells the tale of Gordon. Gordon was a man without the same background as so many other Minutemen – no military, no law enforcement. Just someone who felt a pull to the movement, had no idea how to participate, but had a burning desire to do so. Then how seeing Gordon over the course of two years, how Gordon grew, how he changed, and how being a Minuteman defined his life and gave him solid purpose.

It becomes very easy to dismiss these people because they are different from you. It’s not a movement you’d join, and it seems a little weird, right? So that must mean these people are weird too. And so, they are dismissed as weirdos and written off.

But what Harel works to do? To find and show their humanness.

Because they are human, just like you.

They want to belong. They want to feel worthwhile. They want to contribute. They want to make a difference. They want to be meaningful.

Just like you.

Sure, the specifics will vary – and they even vary within this grouping. But what I found compelling about Harel’s research – and remember, that Harel is very much an outsider in almost every way – is his desire to understand. Sure, he can’t totally remove his own bias, his own filters, but it’s that very lens that makes the book the worthwhile read. Harel is naive, green, ignorant of this world, with his own preconceived notions. Sure it’s interesting to read the picture painted about The Minutemen, but it’s also worthwhile to watch Harel’s own evolution through this experience.

For me, it was especially interesting to watch because the Harel I met and know is not the same Harel as in the book. So for me, it was neat to see that further backstory to enable me to better understand where Harel is coming from, and where he’s trying to go to with his continued research.

It all boils down to a simple thing: to understanding. Why people are as they are. What makes us human. And you will find that they may not be like you, yet you are more like them than you could ever imagine.

Beyond José

To that, Harel’s latest research (as of this writing) has been published in the March 2018 issue of Qualitative Sociology, entitled “Learning to Need a Gun”. I was a participant in the research, I’ve read his paper, and while sometimes it was a hard read, I felt it was an accurate picture. Hard read? Because there are aspects of modern gun culture that are hard to accept, but to me that just means there’s work ahead towards improving how things are.

If you want to go forward with Harel, I suggest you go backwards a bit. Here’s an interview he did with the UT Sociology department back in 2013 that explains a lot about where he’s coming from.

And for the record, there’s a number of things Harel and I do not agree on. But I’ve found him to be fair and honest, and earnest in his research. I’ve also found that I really enjoy our lunches together. He’s engaging, thought-provoking, and open. I greatly enjoy talking with him, even if we may not agree (what a concept these days, eh?).

I know a lot of people are into the work of David Yamane and his “Gun Culture 2.0” research. Harel and David know each other, and Harel presented at Wake Forest back in 2016. If you dig what David is doing, you should also be following what Harel is doing.

And a great place to start? Reading Harel’s book, “Waiting for José“.

Understanding Lethality

…the intention of a person to do lethal harm to another may be key to understanding different outcomes, rather than the mechanism used (at least when comparing different types of firearms…)

For additional context, read his prior post: “Revolvers Kill! (May Be Even More Lethal Than Semi-Automatic Handguns)”.

Because people apparently love science and data, so here’s some.

Beware Simple Answers

Beware simple answers. They are reassuring but may not achieve the desired results given our framework of government, practical realities, and the flawed nature of human beings.

I’ve been following David’s writing and research for some time. It’s compelling and interesting.

Concealed Handgun Licensing: Asset to Texas

My friend, researcher Howard Nemerov, just published a  new paper: Concealed Handgun Licensing: Asset to Texas. The abstract:

Collating conviction data reported by Texas Department of Public Safety, crime data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and census data, it’s possible to determine relative criminality of handgun carry licensees to their equivalent non-licensee population. This paper analyzes Texas carry licensees versus non-licensee Texans over age 21 to determine relative criminality, and also cites research enabling a comparison between police officer malfeasance and carry licensees.

For the tl;dr crowd: license holders are overwhelmingly more law-abiding than non-license holders (as a group/demographic).

A few points from 16 years of data:

  • Non-licensees committed FBI major crime felonies 20 times as often as carry licensees.
  • For all non-FBI crimes—other felonies and misdemeanors—non-licensees committed crime 11 times as often as carry licensees.
  • Since 2006 (last 10 years) non-licensees committed non-FBI crimes 14 times as often.

Why might that be? Howard’s paper discusses it, and it’s something I wrote about over 8 years ago, because to hold a carry license in Texas says a lot about a person.

Everyone seems to worship facts, at least when facts suit their cause. Funny thing about facts: they continue to hold when they don’t suit your cause. Give Howard’s paper a read – it’s full of facts.

Tiffany’s thoughts on BLM

Whatever your feelings, biases, persuasion – take a few minutes and read Tiffany Johnson’s thoughts on Black Lives Matter.

Since it may affect your choice to read or not: Tiffany is a black female. And if knowing that affects your decision to read or not, keep that in mind as you read it (and yes, it’s even more reason why you should read it).

No Fear

Politicians know that the gangs are reason for the deaths. Calling it “gun violence” is much safer, especially in wards where gangs often provide political muscle.

“Have you ever heard a Chicago alderman call out a street gang by name?” O’Connor asked. “No? Me neither.”

Statistics, data, numbers — they’re nice, but without context you can’t properly interpret them. As well, you can certainly twist numbers to suit whatever end you wish to satisfy. It’s important to look deeper (or at least take raw numbers for what they are).

The Chicago Tribune takes a deeper look at “gun violence” in its own city.

“The shooter was typically a male black between the ages of 17 and 23,” O’Connor said. “And the victim was typically a male black between the ages of 17 and 23. So what’s changed since the ’90s? Not much, the same social pathology, and the police are expected to clean it up.”

Some call it “gun violence,” a definition greatly appreciated by Democratic politicians like those at City Hall. They can point to guns and take that voter anger over homicide numbers and channel it into a safe space.

But there are plenty of guns in the suburbs, and suburbanites aren’t slaughtering each other.

It’s the gang wars.

So where is the real problem? Is it merely “gun ownership”? Will “gun control”, “gun bans”, and the like solve this problem? Or are we identifying the wrong problem – perhaps for political reasons – and thus chasing the wrong, and thus ineffective, solution?

Making it worse:

Police were investigating reports of a shooting in bloody Englewood when about 10 young men confronted them, harassed them, mocked them on the street, hurling epithets, angry, defiant.

“Every cop saw that video,” O’Connor said. “One big difference is that now, on the street, there is no fear. Even in the ’90s, with all the killing, the gangs feared the police. When we’d show up, they’d run. But now? Now they don’t run. Now, there is no fear.”

Make of it what you will.

But at least when searching for Truth, dig deeper. It may uncover uncomfortable or ugly truths, but it’s how we will find real solutions.

Cocks and Glocks – they CAN coexist

Brian Bensimon, [Students for Concealed Carry] director for the state of Texas, commented, “If carrying a phallus to class helps you express yourself, go for it. We welcome this demonstration that freedom of speech and concealed carry of handguns can coexist on the same campus.”

Today marked the first day of classes at the University of Texas, Austin. As well, today marked the official start of the “Cocks Not Glocks” protest of the recently enacted laws in Texas that permit some level of the carry of a concealed handgun by licensed adults. Apparently some 4000+ fake penises were handed out to whomever wanted them, to carry around campus in protest.

“Take it and come” was their tag line.

Frankly, the whole thing amuses me. I gotta admit it’s kinda clever.

Weird thing tho. That lawsuit brought by those 3 UT professors that claimed permitting guns on campus would stifle free speech? I think passing out 4000+ dildos – in apparent violation of University policy (civil disobedience!) – is pretty demonstrative that if anything the topic of “guns on campus” has generated a LOT of free speech and free expression. I see no stifling here; in fact, I see a lot of creativity!

And I must admit, the original premise of the movement has a solid point (which I think has gotten lost in the the hoopla). They were originally trying to make a point that something’s not right when University policy prohibits someone from bringing a big black (fake) cock on campus, but now Texas law permits one to bring a big black (real) gun on campus. And I agree with their point. The sad part is they don’t seem to see nor make effort towards trying to improve this supposedly progressive University’s puritanical policies.

Does Sweden have the answer to America’s gun problem?

A friend of mine posted the following article on Facebook: “Sweden may have the answer to America’s gun problem”, from Vox.

As we face a firearm crisis in America today, it’s time for hunters to stop hiding behind the Second Amendment and claim the moral high ground as our nation’s responsible gun owners.

The nation demands some action, and we, more than 13 million gun owners who hunt, are in a unique position to lead the way. Firearm registration as part of our normal licensing process could both strengthen our hunting tradition and at the same time help break the national logjam of inaction.

I started writing a response and it got too big for Facebook. So, blog post it is. 🙂

So… many interesting things about this article.

First, the underlying premise of this article is about hunting. The thing is, the Second Amendment to the US Constitution has NOTHING to go with hunting. And trying to relate Sweden’s hunting culture to the US – where, frankly, hunting culture is fading away – and the article’s premise fails because the author really fails to understand the totality of the circumstance.

It’s speaks about how guns and hunting are a healthy part of Sweden’s culture. Great! But here in the US, hunting is still alive, but today’s social standing frames hunting as evil. I mean, look at how hunters are routinely vilified, doxxed, and generally their lives destroyed by the “social warriors” these days! That’s not a healthy Sweden-like culture. As well, for most people in the US, their ONLY exposure to guns is in the news, in movies, and video games – and those things RARELY present firearms in a healthy manner. So is it any wonder that so many in the US have the viewpoint they do? So how can you really compare this to Sweden? There’s a large cultural rift, and without that underlying cultural foundation, the author’s proposal really can’t work.

As an aside, I’m not sure the author understands his own gun laws. He makes statements saying “in Sweden you can’t own a gun if…” and implies that in the US you can. I wonder if he’s ever looked at a Form 4473 before. I digress.

But really, the key premise of the article is — registration and licensing.

What the author fails to demonstrate is how this will actually solve the problem.

Because we all know that Chicago gang members are into licensing and registration…. right?

And they all use deer hunting rifles and duck hunting shotguns too, after they’ve come back in from the field (I see all sorts of gangbangers wearing blaze orange saggy pants). So the author’s desire to “start with hunters” seems to be… curious. What WILL this accomplish, apart from perhaps someone feeling good like they are “doing something”? and are somehow then morally superior (the author makes it clear that moral superiority is a desired goal), while effecting little true improvement in the problem? I mean, the author spells out that the hunters registering their hunting rifles will be checked by the game wardens, and if it’s not registered they lose their hunting privileges. Gee… that really takes a bite out of that inner-city Chicago crime.

In fact, registration schemes such as this fail to do anything useful (witness Canada’s recently dismantled system). They do waste a lot of time and money tho.

Remember: ultimately we all want the same thing: peace. None of us want innocent people to die. Where we differ is in how to achieve that end. Me? I’d like us to consider solutions that might actually achieve something, instead of trotting out the same failed solutions or solutions that have no demonstrable ability to progress us towards the desired goal. Ideas like “registration” mean nothing because CRIMINALS – you know, the people that are actually doing all this killing – will NOT abide by registration and licensing. So how will such a scheme actually help? I mean, maybe it’s just the engineer in me, but when we have limited time, limited money, limited resources, I want to pursue ideas that actually could solve the problem. To pursue known failed solutions (that will just fail again), or solutions that have no reasonable ability to affect the problem, that’s just irresponsible – because while you chase these useless solutions, people are still dying. Please, stop.

However, one place I strongly agree with the author? that knowledge and demonstrable skill are important. Of course, I’ve spent the past 8 years of my life as a professional firearms instructor. I have hundreds upon hundreds of hours of training, many certifications, thousands of hours of teaching and thousands of students taught – so I deeply understand the value and importance of knowledge and skill. I see LOTS of people whose basic firearms handling skill scares the shit out of me (I’ve had many guns pointed at me, and no it’s never fun), and what’s worse is they all say the same thing “I haven’t shot anyone”… yeah… yet. They all think they are awesome and safe, but you know… Dunning-Kruger.

Name me one place in life where more education is a bad thing, where more knowledge is a bad thing, where more skill is a bad thing! I would LOVE people to get lots of training, demonstrate proficiency, etc. (and not because it would generate revenue for me, but because ignorance kills). And frankly, a lot do that. Here in Texas, to get your hunting license you must pass a hunter education course which covers lots of useful things AND has a shooting test for proficiency demonstration. And of course, here in Texas to get your Handgun License (to allow you to carry a handgun in public, openly or concealed), you must take a class that covers topics like the law, and non-violent dispute resolution, and again you must pass a shooting proficiency test and a background check (complete with much fingerprinting). So hey, these things do exist.

But it walks a tightrope, because self-defense is a human right. And when you start to do things like mandating training, mandating licensing, etc. you create a poll tax, and we determined long ago that’s a bad thing.

I’m all for the increased responsibility the author speaks about. But to do that, we’re going to need to revisit the underlying tone of his article – one of culture. If he thinks Sweden has the answer, then we need to get closer to a Swedish culture in this regard: one where hunting is respected and a part of everyday life. If education is to be so important, then we should do things like bring hunter safety and firearms safety into our K-12 schools. Help people understand how to be safe with firearms. It may not address the criminal aspects (that’s another topic), but if we want to fulfill the author’s premise, I think it’s going to have to start with a change in the US’s cultural outlook on guns, not as bad things, but just as things.

Everyone keeps expecting gun owners to compromise on this issue. Well, compromise involves both sides making concessions.

What are you willing to concede?

Two arguments

Whenever a violent tragedy occurs, two arguments emerge – one side says that everyone should be made equally harmless, while the other side says that everyone should have the choice to become equally capable.

Guess which argument I prefer…

Phil Wong