DYamaneInterview by Gila Hayes

Gun owners make up a unique community that embraces people from all walks of life, a fact that’s illustrated by the many and varied backgrounds of Network members.

One Network member has been building bridges between people of differing opinions for over a decade and has written a book that will challenge the prejudices of gun owners and those favoring gun control alike. We met with author and sociology professor Dr. David Yamane last month and discussed his new book, Gun Curious. Because our backgrounds and politics are so different, it was quite a conversation, and one I think Network members will enjoy, either in the edited version that follows or the longer video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5TaIWj0Od4

eJournal: This interview takes place at the NRA Annual Meeting where we are privileged to talk with Dr. David Yamane, author of Concealed Carry Revolution and now, a new title, Gun Curious. When is this, your latest book, due to be released?

Yamane: Gun Curious will come out officially on June 1.

eJournal: That coincides nicely with this edition of our eJournal, also released on June 1. I appreciate being able to talk with you in person today. While reading an advance copy of Gun Curious, I couldn’t help but think of the final line of that ironic Robert Burns poem that wished for the ability to see ourselves as others see us. I think I’m fairly open-minded, but your book showed me my blind spots and some big divides between my beliefs and those of others. Your background is a lot different than mine! Can we work together across that chasm?

I ask that, because the week I read an advance copy of Gun Curious, I also read a long feature in the LA Times about a man who built his firearms instruction business exclusively for progressives. He stressed how he did not want the stereotypical gun owner in his classes. I’m going to read his description calling out the “male-dominated gun world” because it hit me so hard: “Conservative, nationalistic, right-wing, homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic” I thought, “Oh, my, I don’t think that’s the world I live in!” It was awful how badly put off that gentleman and apparently his clientele are by the milieu that I’ve moved in my whole life. Does his experience mirror your own?

Yamane: While I see that element within the gun culture, I don’t think it’s the main element. Chapter one of my book is called Guns Are Normal and Normal People Use Guns. This came from a podcast several years ago when the interviewer asked, “What’s one of the surprising things you’ve learned about guns and gun owners in your time and your studies?” I said, “Well, probably the biggest thing I learned as someone who came from outside of gun culture, is that gun owners are people, too.”

Gun owners have families, they care about the country, and they want to have a strong society. They care about safety, and they want to protect children. All the things everybody wants for their families and their communities, gun owners also want.

If you come to the gun culture from the outside as I did, and as I think Tom Nguyen from LA Progressive Shooters does, often times you tend to see the worst in other people. I feel much more comfortable in gun culture today than I did 12 years ago, but there are still parts of gun culture that I just am not going to fit into and that’s okay.

eJournal: That hurts my heart.

Yamane: There are probably parts of gun culture where you’re not totally comfortable either and that’s alright. I’m drawn to people and organizations like Armed Citizens’ Legal Defense Network, which I think represents the best of gun owners, the best of gun culture. I focus a lot on defensive gun culture and what it means to be a defensive gun owner in a morally, ethically, and legally responsible way. Coming from outside of gun culture is useful. I have one foot in the gun culture, the other in my everyday life, sitting in my university office, teaching in my classroom at an elite, private university, which is basically synonymous with liberal.

eJournal: Please tell us about your career at Wake Forest University, your profession, and the many other books you’ve published on topics that have nothing to do with guns.

Yamane: I’m a professor of sociology. I’ve been doing sociology since 1988 when I was an undergraduate, then I went to graduate school and right afterwards, got a job as a professor. Sociology is the systematic study of society. We look at all sorts of different things. I used to study religion.

I was looking for a new project around the same time I met my wife Sandy, who carried a gun as a member of the Coast Guard. Many other people in North Carolina were gun owners – people I played tennis with, IT professionals, and my real estate agent. I thought I must be the only person in North Carolina that didn’t own a gun or know anything about guns!

That was my entry into the field, both personally and professionally. Gun Curious in the title really is speaking to the personal curiosity I had about guns and also to my professional curiosity to know more about guns. It really is sociology.

I saw some recent data that 99% of all sociologists identify as Democrats if you ask them, “What’s your political party affiliation?” In my everyday life, the people I know and work with are pretty liberal, probably weighted toward those who consider themselves progressive. I consider myself liberal, meaning center left.

Coming to the issue of guns from that perspective, I shared a lot of the misunderstandings of who gun owners were, what gun ownership was about. My book tells the story of how I became a gun owner and matured and continue to mature as a gun owner.

eJournal: It is a story of personal growth. At the university, do other professors share your enjoyment of shooting?

Yamane: When I came out as a gun owner, people from the university would contact me very quietly, off the record, who’d say, “Oh, by the way, I’m a gun owner, too,” or who said, “I’m really interested. I’ve been thinking about getting a gun. Can you advise me or take me to the range?” It was very much on the downlow. There are good reasons for people in the university setting not to openly identify as gun owners.

When I started my project, I had tenure. I was almost fully promoted, so I was in a very safe position. When I advise graduate students who are thinking about studying guns, I say, “I don’t think writing anything not critical of guns is a good idea if you’re a graduate student or an untenured faculty member.” I have a student who took my sociology of guns class as an undergraduate. She’s a graduate student now, doing a project on gun shows. She submitted an application for research funding and one response to her proposal was, “This isn’t critical enough.” I was sorry, but I wasn’t surprised.

It’s very unfortunate because we need more scholarship that looks at the full spectrum. People should study violence and negative outcomes that involve firearms. That’s a very small but important part of the whole overall reality of guns in America.

eJournal: When you started studying guns, you were already a published author. What was your focus before guns?DrYamane

Yamane: I studied American religion. My first job was at the University of Notre Dame, so I have some work on American Catholicism. I had published, edited, or co-authored six or seven books and was editor of a couple of major journals in the field of the sociology of religion. I was known and respected and that helped when I transitioned over to studying guns.

I had been working as a sociologist for 20 years and my first publication was in 1994, but I had no standing in the gun community. I was fortunate that the first gun training course I took was Massad Ayoob’s MAG-40. After the course, Mas was good enough to write a letter of introduction for me. When I contacted Tom Givens at Rangemaster or Ken Campbell at Gunsite, I sent Massad’s letter. I’m sure they did their own due diligence, but Massad’s letter opened a lot of doors. At some point, I didn’t need to continue sending the letter because I got a reputation as someone who was going to treat people fairly.

eJournal: Then, you, a published, respected sociologist, wrote Gun Curious and the publishing industry wasn’t exactly welcoming. Do I remember from reading the advance copy that one publisher called your manuscript reprehensible?

Yamane: “Irresponsible” and the other word they used was “repressible.” I thought it was actually a typo until I Googled it! Repressible is the opposite of irrepressible, so if something is irrepressible, you can’t put it down, but if something is repressible, it means you can and should put it down. The word was very carefully chosen. What basically followed was that my work was built on the lives of children who were sacrificed. I don’t think all of th acquiring editors thought that, but it captured the sentiment among part of the New York publishing industry.

That was the 33rd rejection of Gun Curious and I had one of the best non-fiction agents in New York at one of the biggest literary agencies. This guy is not used to rejection at all. He said, “I’m really sorry. There’s nothing more I can do.” I said, “Okay, well, I either have to redo the whole project along the lines of what these editors are looking for, or I have to self-publish.” As I was reviewing my options, I got a LinkedIn message from an editor at McFarland, a family-owned independent academic publisher. She’s a Wake Forest University graduate and she wondered if I’d written a new book.

I told her I had, and what the book is about and that there’d been a lot of bias against it. She said, “Well, look, I’m from North Carolina, my grandparents are gun owners, my parents are gun own owners, I’m a gun owner, everybody around here is a gun owner and we don’t have any problem with a book that isn’t fundamentally critical about guns. We just want a book that is interesting, that tells the truth and that we can sell.”

eJournal: As a published academic, it’s got to be really different to bare your soul in this book. You tell us about your boyhood in Northern California, about yourself as a liberal professor and other personal things. How did it feel, writing so frankly about yourself?

Yamane: It was very different. When I first tried to publish this book, a long time before this last series of rejections, I thought I was going to write another academic book and 400 people would buy it and it would go into some libraries. That’s contributing to your field and is something with which I was comfortable.

Shortly after that, in 2019, I was invited to present at the NRA National Firearms Law Seminar. I thought, “I have to talk to a bunch of gun lawyers on their lunch break. How can I keep their attention?” I decided to just tell the story of how I became a gun owner and what I learned in the process. The reception was so positive that, at that moment, I thought, that’s what the book has to be!

It was not comfortable. I had to learn how to write in a different way. There are things as a writer that I just can’t do that professional writers can. I hope people feel the authenticity.

eJournal: Speaking for myself, I certainly did. Gun Curious is not an autobiography but contains autobiographical elements. Sometimes, the sociologist surfaces and teaches lessons, which I loved. Reading it made me nervous for you because it opens you to personal criticism. Have there been personal attacks against you?

Yamane: The thing that is most disappointing to me comes from the gun side. Some see “liberal” in the title and that’s the end of it. There are people from the gun side who don’t want to hear anything about how a liberal professor became a gun owner. At the same time, people outside the gun culture are fine with the “liberal professor” in the title; they’re just not happy about the “gun” part. I’m trying to appeal to my gun skeptical friends and colleagues and invite them to be curious to learn something that they don’t know about guns. It is frustrating when you’re trying to be a moderate voice, to speak the truth, to invite people into a conversation and people don’t want to engage. That’s probably the biggest frustration I have.

eJournal: [chuckling] I admit, I, too, have questions about “liberal!”

Yamane: We went back and forth about putting either “liberal” or “professor” – that might be redundant – in the subtitle, but I wanted transparency. I wanted truth in advertising on the cover. I didn’t want someone to pick up the book and go, “Whoa! Wait a second! That’s not what I thought this book was going to be about.” It really is the story of how a liberal professor became a gun owner.

eJournal: I see Gun Curious as an extension of your Gun Culture 2.0 blog which has for many years publicly chronicled your journey. I also follow your Light Over Heat videos, but the book made a deeper impression.

You wrote that you’re not necessarily pro-gun; you’re pro-understanding. I confess that made me think of the many ways I wish the people who want to take away my self-defense rights would understand me. Now that I’m over that knee-jerk reaction, I wonder, what do armed citizens fail to understand about the gun skeptic?

Yamane: Having come from outside of gun culture, one thing I know is how much we just don’t know about guns or self defense. We outsource our violence to law enforcement. If we have a problem, we pick up the phone and call 9-1-1 and hope someone comes to help us.

A lot of misunderstanding about what it means to be a defensive gun owner comes when terrible instances of criminal violence are cast as self defense. It becomes the standard model for self defense when it really is the exception. Most defensive gun owners don’t want to use their firearms to defend themselves and are judicious about the use of lethal force. They have ethical concerns about taking human life. I’m trying to convey all of those things to people who really have no idea or visceral sense that they might have to harm another person to help themselves or a loved one.

One of my pivotal changes came when I tried to be a Good Samaritan and step in and help my neighbor who was being accosted in a parking lot. I put myself in the middle of something that could have gone horribly wrong, and I had my two little kids with me! I fortunately got out of the situation unharmed, but inside, I had a visceral feeling that I would do anything to protect my kids. I never before in my life thought that I would ever use violence.

I was in my 40s and I really never had any experience of violence in my life. I lived the peaceful life most Americans do: we don’t look for trouble, we don’t get in trouble, and trouble, fortunately, doesn’t come to us. You can live a lot of your life in the United States without ever having to confront the real potential for violence. That’s one of the things I try to appreciate about people who don’t understand defensive gun culture. They don’t have any need for violence until they really do and then it may be late.

eJournal: Frank Rizzo, a cop who became mayor of Philadelphia, was credited with saying, “A conservative is a liberal who got mugged the night before.” I don’t wish a violent experience on anyone, but I wonder if we know the meanings of the words we use. When I think “liberal,” I envision the opposite of how I oppose the heavy hand of government, opposite of my fiscal conservativeness, opposite of the work ethic that’s driven me to accomplish what I have done, such as it is, so I have to ask what does it mean to be a liberal professor?

Yamane: There are many definitions of liberal. There are libertarian forms of liberal, with which people we think of as conservative would probably be more comfortable. For me, part of liberalism is the impulse to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and welcome the refugee. I do see a role for the government to help do some of those things. I see “liberal” as being a very big proponent of defending our civil rights. We have the court system to defend our civil rights when the government overreaches. For me, those are the keys to being a liberal.

Probably the biggest difference between you as a conservative and me as a liberal would be the role of the government. Where do we draw the line for government involvement? I think we would agree on a lot of things, especially on civil rights, about wanting to have a better society, right? We all want to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and be welcoming to the stranger, but we have different ways of realizing it.

eJournal: Our paths to accomplish the same good might be wildly different.

Yamane: … which is okay! Having come so far in my own life with respect to guns helps me realize we don’t all have to agree on everything. Part of being an American, one of 340 million people from all sorts of different backgrounds in a pluralistic democracy, is that we’re never all going to agree on everything. We have to agree on certain fundamental rules of the game, but sometimes we have to say, “Hey, it was great talking to you. We don’t agree, but I respect the fact that you’re a fellow citizen; you respect the fact that I’m a fellow citizen and that’s okay.

eJournal: Respect! That’s the ideal I was looking for. Obviously, I very much feel respect for you. In other circumstances, if I feel misunderstood, if another feels that I do not act understanding, I need to look for common ground. Maybe that’s the bridge across the chasm of our different beliefs.

Yamane: If we start our conversations with what we have in common rather than where we differ, it sets a different tone. When I speak to diverse groups of people, sometimes I’ll just start by saying, “Everybody who’s in favor of gun violence, raise your hands. Whoever is opposed to gun safety, raise your hand.” We are all for gun safety; we’re all against gun violence. How we may get there differs, but we may also find points of agreement if we start by recognizing that we have many of the same desires.

Tony Simon said it first: instead of trying to meet people halfway, go 60%. Say, “Hey, I want you to try to understand why gun ownership makes sense to me; I want to understand why guns don’t make sense to you.” Empathy can be a healing balm in the sense that there are many people who are opposed to guns because negative things are all they know about guns. If guns tear apart your community and harm your children, why would you have positive feelings about guns if that’s your entire experience? I say, “I understand that you don’t like guns, but please understand why guns make sense to literally tens of millions of people who are gun owners and whose guns will never hurt anybody.”

eJournal: Another problem is one of language. I am deeply troubled by the term “gun violence.” I firmly believe that there’s an awful lot of human violence and has been for millennia and will be long after I no longer walk this earth. How is “gun violence” not inflammatory?

Yamane: I use it as shorthand to refer to negative outcomes that are committed with firearms. I totally understand there are many ways that you can commit violence. The other side of me recognizes that guns are particularly good at doing it and, as Tom Givens said, if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be of any use to us. Guns are particularly lethal for good and for bad. It is not accidental that most people who are murdered are murdered with guns. A lot of people who commit suicide, commit suicide with guns.

I would never tell someone that they were wrong for objecting to the term gun violence, but those reasons are why I haven’t stopped using it. It is common ground for me to engage people who are outside of the gun culture because that is a term they use. If I started every conversation with those people by saying gun violence isn’t a thing, we’re not going to get anywhere. Homicide by any means is terrible, and guns are a lot of that. Suicide with firearms is terrible; it’s a very effective means. Children accidentally shooting themselves or someone else is terrible and you don’t often see children knifing each other to death or accidentally bludgeoning each other to death. If I accept those terms of the debate with those who are skeptical about guns, maybe they can come at least some of the way or maybe they’ll come 60% of the way and they will hear me.

eJournal: I have a hard time getting past it, but I know you are a deep thinker and that you dig deeply into what separates us.

Yamane: I think it’s a totally fair question. This is like my book’s chapter on the AR-15, which was really wrenching for me to write because it’s such a fraught issue in our society. I ended up saying that I just don’t believe we would not have mass shootings if we banned and eliminated all AR-15s. Mass shootings would continue. If we took away all the guns, then we’d go back to mass bombings or driving trucks into crowds. If you think that controlling guns is going to reduce or eliminate all these problems, you’re just wrong.

eJournal: That’s the hard thing about compromise: one thing I’m really sure about is that violence would continue even if all the guns were thrown in the ocean. There are so many ways to do violence. I appreciate your kindness about the issues on which we differ because I’m not a debater, I’m not an academic and I stumble and bumble over words …

Yamane: Hold on, I don’t mean to interrupt you, but if we think of us ourselves as being in a debate, that’s a dead end, because in a debate someone wins and someone loses. We should always enter thinking we’re in conversation because you can’t win a conversation, you can only try to gain understanding.

eJournal: That is a principle our listeners, readers, and I, myself, will take away and into conversations wherever we are exposed to people who don’t think as we think.

Yamane: With the political polarization we have – and social media makes it worse – we often have anger or frustration or want to win. We get much further if we try to understand rather than try to win. I have a certain level of understanding based on the work I do, and there are things that you know better than I know, and we come to appreciate both.

eJournal: It is a great privilege to share knowledge, and your book shared a lot of very cool things with me – things from the social sciences to which I would have never been exposed. Now, I have curiosity! You wrote an interesting few pages about the role of projectile weaponry in dominant societies that really piqued my interest. Now I’ve got to find more reading on that because that was fascinating.

Yamane: I talk about the normality of guns in contemporary society, but it really is deeply rooted in human history, rooted in Homo sapiens history. If we didn’t have a proficiency with making tools and making weapons and using weapons, we would not be the dominant species on the planet. There has to be projectile weaponry to maintain society as a coherent entity. If you take away the projectile weapons, then the strongest people who have the impact weapons are going to take over society. That reality is pretty significant.

When people say, “We can just get rid of guns,” they almost never mean to get rid of guns entirely. What they really mean is getting rid of civilian ownership of guns and a government monopoly on guns. Voluntarily or not, most countries in the world have taken that option. The uniqueness of the United States is that we’ve never had that government monopoly.

eJournal: Gun Curious is a fascinating book. What would you like us to take away from the time you’ve so generously given us today?

Yamane: You didn’t ask me to say this, but I’ve been a Network member since June of 2012. I’ve been a gun owner since 2011. I was fortunate to take MAG-40 with Massad Ayoob and he emphasized the importance of having some sort of legal protection or legal defense in the terrible and unlikely event that you have to use lethal force to defend yourself. I appreciate the work you do, and I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you and your open-mindedness. You are a gun owner and you’ve always been a gun owner, but you want to understand what it’s like to be a gun skeptic.

There are a lot of gun curious people who don’t currently own guns, but they’re interested. Since 2020, we’ve seen a lot of those people go from being gun curious to being gun owners. Hopefully, people like that who are thinking about guns or who are new gun owners can see what it takes to go from being a new gun owner to being what I like to think of as a more mature, but still growing, gun owner.

eJournal: I hope we are all still growing. When growth stops, we stop asking these questions and we stop bridging what divides us. I just had an idea listening to you. If our listeners and readers have family members that are skeptical, share this video. Dr. Yamane, thank you so much for this time and for your book.
Dr. David Yamane’s latest book is Gun Curious: A Liberal Professor’s Surprising Journey Inside America’s Gun Culture, published by Exposit Books, an imprint of McFarland & Co., Inc. A 213-page paperback, it retails for $19.99 at https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/gun-curious/ or on Kindle for $13.99. Follow Professor Yamane on https://gunculture2point0.com/ and on Twitter at @davidyamane. In 2022, he launched a YouTube channel, “Light Over Heat with Professor David Yamane,” on which he posts weekly short videos about issues related to his scholarship.

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