The Lives of Guns ed. by Jonathan Obert, Andrew Poe, and Austin Sarat
Edited by Jonathan Obert, Andrew Poe, and Austin Sarat. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. 232. Hardcover $34.95.
Today, the subject of firearms is highly controversial, permeating conversations of culture, society, law, violence, and politics. In their collection of essays representing an array of beliefs and opinions on The Lives of Guns, Jonathan Obert, Andrew Poe, and Austin Sarat attempt to highlight the complicated nature of firearms use and ownership in the United States from an interdisciplinary standpoint. Through an academic exercise, the essayists animate the inanimate, examining the material culture of guns as moral agents rather than objects with no power or influence over human factors.
Such a task is no easy feat, as the number of directions one can go is nearly limitless and scholarship on the materiality of firearms in the field is lacking. Obert, Poe, and Sarat focus these essays on potentially violent affiliations with firearms and divide the conversation into three sections, or "lives," of the gun: the political, social, and private. In the "political," scholars discuss politically relevant topics and their opinions on such, including ideas about gun ownership and the desire for individual sovereignty, [End Page 1119] new technology in relation to future control of manufacturing, and the perception and reality of AR-platform firearms. The "social" explores the concept of "who 'shoots' and who is 'shot'" (p. 9), looking at multiple facets of weaponry from drone warfare to urban violence, lethality and the myth of "dum dum" bullets, and the use of force by law enforcement. The "private" looks at gun ownership and the culture of carry from product lines to the physical task of carrying a firearm every day.
These essays take several close looks at firearms and ammunition in terms of the materiality of violence. The success of the book lies in the fact that it does not seek to be comprehensive but rather to highlight the complexities and subsequent "stalemate" of the gun debate. The editors recognize that "by identifying the multiple lives of the gun, this problem becomes even more complex" (p. 17). By starting to expose the complicated arguments, readers will realize that in terms of modern politics, known talking points and rhetoric on each side of the debate are oversimplified and in need of much more research.
The strength of the book lies in its refreshing desire to tackle the complex aspects of gun-related issues and values; however, that goal is also a potential source for weakness in the book. By only tackling certain ideas of violence, including mass shootings and African American deaths by law enforcement—a tragic but small number in comparison to the overall gun homicide statistic listed in the introduction—it doesn't examine larger contexts of violence with firearms in the United States (p. 1). Furthermore, as Timothy Luke states in his essay, "Many experts assert 'gun violence' amounts to a social tragedy, a national plague, a recurrent epidemic, or a male curse. . . . Beyond violence are [these experts] fully aware of the multiple American subjectivities shaped by shooting, owning, handling, or appreciating guns? These questions are well worth bearing in mind as one examines 'gun culture'" (p. 75).
To Luke's statement, several articles focus on the former analysis of violence. The last section, however, does the best at considering these additional subjectivities with the materiality of firearms in a subset of gun culture—concealed carry. The "Private Lives of Guns" provides the most straightforward analysis of firearms ownership and use. While a very brief section in comparison to the other two, this is the most refreshing in terms of analysis as the scholars put themselves into this culture as participant observer, getting a sense of the people they encounter rather than analyzing it from the outside.
An additional area for improvement throughout is the usage of firearms terminology. While arguably pedantic, as complex artifacts of technology, the misuse of terminology reveals a lack of understanding of the objects being discussed, which could influence larger conclusions drawn about their existence in culture. [End Page 1120]
In an America divided over guns, books like this are important to permit different perspectives a voice, whether in agreement or not, and to promote diversified scholarship and public discourse into the future.
Ashley Hlebinsky is the Robert W. Woodruff Curator of the Cody Firearms Museum, managing over 30,000 artifacts and recently serving as project director on a full-scale renovation of the museum that sought to educate on the complex histories of firearms.