teaching citizenship by teaching about guns

(Concord NH) While traveling up and down the East Coast and talking about civic education, I opened the New York Times to find that the gun industry uses the same language of “citizenship” that my colleagues and I employ:

The N.R.A. has for decades given grants for youth shooting programs, mostly to Boy Scout councils and 4-H groups, which traditionally involved single-shot rimfire rifles, BB guns and archery. Its $21 million in total grants in 2010 was nearly double what it gave out five years earlier.

Newer initiatives by other organizations go further, seeking to introduce children to high-powered rifles and handguns while invoking the same rationale of those older, more traditional programs: that firearms can teach “life skills” like responsibility, ethics and citizenship.

The people I’ve been hanging around with–from Georgia to New Hampshire–argue that deliberation and debate, community-service, and political participation teach “life skills,” ethics, and citizenship. We cite evidence that these organized forms of civic participation are related to psychological well-being, writing skills, academic success, and employment (among other good outcomes).

Is it possible that a shooting club could also bring such benefits? Before you say “no,” I would direct you to the National 4-H Shooting Sports program, which is billed as “Skills for Life–Activity for a Lifetime.” 4-H has one of the best overall civic development models in the country, and its Shooting Sports program aims to:

  • teach decision making, teamwork, self- discipline, self-confidence, and problem solving;
  • promote the highest standards of safety, sportsmanship, and ethical behavior;
  • encourage an appreciation and understanding of natural resources;
  • develop leadership abilities;
  • build character and willingness to assume citizenship responsibility;
  • furnish enjoyable, positive relationships with peers and adult instructors;
  • strengthen families through participation in lifelong recreational activities;
  • build awareness of related career opportunities.

(This all comes from a 4-H brochure entitled “Point Kids in the Right Direction.”) I am suspicious of efforts sponsored by the gun industry to get young children shooting (and buying weapons). According to the Times, an ad in Junior Shooters magazine says, “Who knows? Maybe you’ll find a Bushmaster AR-15 under your tree some frosty Christmas morning!” The motive is transparently commercial and the product is an assault rifle. But 4-H has a well-deserved reputation for actually developing young adults’ leadership and civic skills. And 4-H offers Shooting Sports.

I don’t think anyone conducts comparative research on shooting clubs versus community service programs. We don’t ask which is a better way to teach responsibility and life skills. Of course, the answer might depend on how one defines the goals. If “citizenship” is essentially about caring and non-violence, then community service will have a leg up. If “citizenship” includes a readiness to bear arms in defense of the country or the community, then gun clubs will have the edge. In that respect, the debate is essentially normative–concerning values.

Empirical claims are also relevant. 4-H asserts that Shooting Sports “teach decision making, teamwork, [and] self- discipline.” That could be true (or false). Scholars who investigate community service and political engagement are unlikely to study the possible benefits of gun clubs–or stop-and-frisk policies, or boot camps, or high school football. I assume this is because they do not like these activities very much and are not hoping to find evidence in their favor. Meanwhile, on a different moral planet, Americans who like guns are now positing empirical links between shooting clubs and “life skills.”

Studying things that you hope will work is fine–but your hope is as important as your data. You should have moral principles as well as causal hypotheses. I prize “discursive accountability”: saying what you value and why. I am frustrated by social science rhetoric that bypasses the basic moral questions, and also by the kind of discourse prevalent in the humanities that merely poses moral questions. As I have written in a different context, “Stop problematizing; say something.”

For instance, if you don’t like the idea of 10-year-olds shooting assault weapons, explain why not. Don’t depend on an empirical claim (shooting clubs could make some kids into mass murderers) unless that is your true objection to the shooting clubs. If it is your only objection, be prepared to drop it if the evidence disproves the empirical link. But if you dislike the idea of 10-year-olds with Bushmasters for some other reason, you should be able to say what that is.

Similarly, if you prefer community service, you should be able to justify that preference. I actually have trouble endorsing “service” per se; it rings too much of charity or apolitical altruism. I’d rather see the citizen as a nonviolent fighter for justice. But there is scant evidence that a struggle for justice promotes “life skills” or success on the job market. On the contrary, real political activists sometimes pay a heavy price. So empirical evidence won’t take us where we need to go; the deeper questions are inescapable:

  • What is a good life for you (or me)?
  • What is a just society?
  • How important is your own well-being in comparison to the pursuit of social justice?

Having made that long statement in favor of normative explicitness, I ought to practice what I preach. So, my view of gun clubs as civic education …

Hunting is sustainable and ethical as long as one hunts safely and humanely and uses the meat. Firing at targets is an acceptable pastime. Learning to use a deadly weapon may teach an important lesson about our capacity to kill and thus our profound need for self-control. Owning guns is deeply embedded in some American subcultures. Hunting and target-practice are properly social activities that often involve due respect for peers, adults, and nature. 4-H mentions careers in law enforcement and the National Guard; those are honorable and valuable callings.

On the other hand, in civilian life, it is almost never acceptable to employ either violence or the threat of violence. Even when threatened by a gun, using a gun is almost never the right response. The market for legal guns drives the production of guns used in murder and war. Thus anyone who learns to use a gun should learn not to use it on people. A gun program that presents itself as a citizenship program ought to include lessons about not firing on people and not purchasing or using a weapon more deadly than the legitimate purpose requires. Students should also learn the arguments for and against second-amendment rights and be encouraged to form their own independent views.

I am not saying that these features of civic education are absent in today’s gun clubs, only that they must be present if gun programs are to promote good citizenship. Again, a promising example may be the National 4-H Shooting Sports programs.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.