Happy 25th Birthday, Indiana Academy

This past weekend, I revisited my high school – a publicly-funded (meaning: FREE for the students) boarding school called the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics & Humanities, set up by the state on the campus of Ball State University. There was supposed to be a Gala celebrating the 25th anniversary of the school…or…something…but when that got cancelled, my high school BFF and I decided to go down any way (or was it “anyway”? Ms. Foltz, help?) to say hello to the teachers that changed the rest of our lives for the better – much to Mr. Rajca’s surprise. (He even said we turned out “somewhat normal.” Wow!)

The Indiana Academy was exactly as we remembered it: curious, excited students (we thought highly of ourselves, I guess!), inspiringly quirky teachers, and of course….awkward PDA in Wagoner Lounge.

Here are some action shots to prove it really happened…

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Exceptions or the Rule? On the Topic of African American Gun Carrying

A growing point of debate among pundits and scholars alike is the intersection of race and pro-gun sentiment, particularly the embrace of guns among African Americans. While white men dominate pro-gun America at the bottom (in terms of gun owners and carriers) and at the top (as leaders of the gun lobby), high-profile examples of armed Black groups, such as the Deacons for Defense, the Black Panthers and the more recent Huey Newton Gun Club, raise questions about the overlap between “white America” with “armed America.”

In my research on gun carriers in Michigan, I found that African Americans are licensed at per-capita rates that are on par with white gun carriers. Parity in terms of rates, however, does not mean that guns are attractive for the same reasons for whites versus African Americans: while white gun carriers tended to see themselves as supplementing a police force they saw as generally benign if inefficient, African American gun carriers tended to discuss police in the context of racial profiling and unwanted harassment. Jason, an African American Detroiter whom I profile in my book, even used his openly carried gun as a way to stand up to police.  Furthermore, African Americans were more likely to have more direct exposure to crime than whites – and thus the pragmatism of guns may well override the politics.

This helps to explain, at least in part, why African Americans in Michigan – a place where the overpolicing/underpolicing paradox is particularly acute – are turning to concealed carry licenses, even as African Americans tend to be far less supportive of loosening gun control laws as compared to whites.  Nicholas Johnson in his tome, Negroes and the Gun, references a similar paradox – noting that even as aggregate data suggest apprehension toward gun rights agenda, many African American communities, at the neighborhood level, may embrace guns for the purposes of protection at rates on par with whites.

I was initially surprised by my own findings – and the findings of scholars like Johnson for a couple of reasons. First, gun ownership is tied to felony status – felons can’t possess guns or obtain a license to carry concealed – and African Americans, thanks to decades of “tough on crime” politics and investigatory policing, are disproportionately represented among felons. Second, there is a long legal and cultural legacy of keeping guns out of the hands of African Americans (e.g., the discretionary licensing laws that predated today’s “Shall-issue” system were famously used in the Jim Crow era to ensure that Blacks would not be able to carry firearms concealed) – and as we see with the persistence of racial profiling in a “post-racial America”, old habits die hard.

Finally, there is good reason to believe that just as race relations, policing and crime are subject to distinct regional dynamics, so too might the racial politics of guns be distinct as well. For example, a recent story on the racial politics of concealed carry in Texas shows that African Americans are licensed at almost half the rate at which their population would suggest – they make up 7% of concealed handgun licensees but 12% of the state’s population.

At the same time, Texas is also home to the Huey Newton Gun Club – a group of African Americans who formed as an armed group in support of Mike Brown. So, I decided to check out the Texas data in more detail; as Harel Shapira has noted elsewhere, African Americans are denied CHLs in Texas at disproportionate rates – from 2001 to 2014, African Americans are denied at 2.8 times the rate of whites. Another noteworthy piece of data: with the exception of a dip in 2013, the proportion of African American applications and issued licenses seem to be on a slightly upward trajectory over the same time period. CHL Statistics for African Americans, 2001 - 2014

Right now, it is clear that some states – Michigan is certainly one of them – harbor vibrant African American gun cultures. Perhaps other states – such as Texas? – do not, although the statistics from Texas, given their trajectories over time, certainly do not settle the debate. No doubt, this calls for a distinctly sociological intervention in the American gun debate: an analysis of American gun culture not as a monolithic whole but as a set of gun cultures organized not just around the lines of race but also region, political ideology and policing.

A few things ‘Nashville’ got wrong – and right – about guns

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I am a huge fan of the show Nashville. Last week’s episode ended in Sadie fatally shooting her former abusive boyfriend, with this week’s episode focusing on the legal aftermath. Here’s what Nashville got wrong – and right – about Nashville the state and its gun laws.

First, “unregistered firearm.” There are few states, believe it or not, where this phrase means anything sensible. That’s because most states don’t have registration systems – and Tennessee is not one of them. In Nashville, there’s no such thing as an “unregistered handgun,” which makes another term used  in this week’s episode – an “illegal firearm” also confusing. Although certain alterations could turn a handgun “illegal” (e.g., effacing the serial number, turning a semi-automatic to fully automatic) and it’s possible the gun was stolen, there’s no evidence that any of these apply to Sadie’s gun.

What the episode writers probably meant was that Sadie was carrying her gun without a permit to carry. In Tennessee, residents need a permit to carry openly and concealed (although that might be changing). But that’s a permit that licenses a person – not a gun.

Beyond legal technicalities, however, the show does a better job capturing the law enforcement response to women who shoot and kill their abusers in self-defense. Research shows that women who kill their abusers tend to be judged more harshly than men who claim self-defense (Think: Marissa Alexander). However, Sadie’s shooting exhibits a pattern that follows a more “conventional” self-defense scenario (at least as imagined by gun-carrying men): Sadie is a pretty and petite woman who shoots someone already established, on national media, as a “bad guy” when he confronts her in a “dark alley” (well, a dark parking lot) after a period of estrangement. My research suggests that this is a pattern that tends to rouse the sympathy of gun proponents and police alike. Gun laws in some states reflect this: Kentucky, as one example, makes expedited gun carry licenses available to women leaving domestic abuse – after all, one of the most dangerous moments for women facing intimate partner violence. As far as I can tell, Tennessee is not one of these states, and there is plenty of room for debate on these laws. Nevertheless, the producers of Nashville got it right – in a broader, cultural sense – when they decided to write in that the District Attorney dropped Sadie’s charges and slapped her with a misdemeanor.

The Takeaway: Nashville captured the spirit, though not the letter, of contemporary American gun laws in pro-gun states like Tennessee.

Tip of the Cap

I’m the editor for a new series on the policing blog Anthropoliteia called “Tip of the Cap:

The series ‘tips the proverbial hat’ to the major works and big ideas that inspire established and up-and-coming scholars alike. In it, we’ll showcase these scholars and the classic works that shaped them.

The first contributor in this series is Randol Contreras, sociologist and award-winning author of The Stickup Kids. Check out his post here.

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Buying in Bulk, Detroit Style

Why Don’t We Own This? just released a map of over 6,000 foreclosed properties in Detroit that you can buy – at once. It’s known as the “Blight Bundle,” and Mayor Duggan thinks this will “facilitate the demolition of severely blighted properties, the redevelopment of properties with such potential” and “provide a better process for getting [the properties] back on tax rolls.” But who is going to buy 6,000 properties scattered from the edge of Dearborn to the border of Grosse Pointe?

(Thanks to Curbed Detroit for covering this.)

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Capturing US/Canadian Difference in Two Road Signs

What motivates people to change their habits and behaviors – for better or worse? Sociologists – most notably Barry Glassner – have spent a great deal of effort analyzing how American news media, policy-making, and moral politicking are fueled by aMDOT_DMS-TrafficDeaths_427552_7 “culture of fear” that uses fear to persuade Americans to vote for particular policies, change particular behaviors and – very often – buy particular products….or else.

My Canadian students often talk about American culture as “punitive.” Every time I drive from Ontario to Michigan, I am reminded of this punitive ethos in a mundane road sign that is updated through out the year that publicizes the number of traffic deaths on signs posted on interstates like I-75. Here, fear — fear of being another statistic of traffic death on a billboard somewhere in the highways of Michigan — becomes the motivating factor (or so MDOT presumably believes) to changing people’s bad driving habits (whatever those may be).

Okay Canadians, so what’s the alternative? On my last Michigan-Ontario drive, I found out. A society with a deep family-oriented ethos, Canada take a different approach, captured in road signs just a few hundred miles (or, if you must, kilometres) away: “Children are precious.”

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More Canadiana here.

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America’s cautionary tale of mandatory minimum sentences

As the Supreme Court of Canada decides whether to consider the Harper-backed mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, Canadians, especially Canadian conservatives, should take a cue from Americans who have already suffered the fiscal and social consequences of mandatory minimum sentencing.

There are few things that conservatives and progressives in Washington, D.C., can agree on. From health care to welfare to immigration reform to the national debt, U.S. politicians prefer dissension over concession. But there’s one exception: politicians on the left and the right are becoming unlikely allies against a bloated criminal justice system. One of their major targets? Mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for drugs, guns and other offences. 

Read the rest of my op-ed at The Toronto Star here