To some, the gun is a symbol of a society crumbling into violence and chaos. To others, it’s a necessary tool to protect society from crime and disorder. It’s a subject that is almost guaranteed to invite fierce debate, and, on the Amherst College campus this year, close scholarly scrutiny.
For this year’s Copeland Colloquium, a perennial gathering in which invited scholars spend the year examining a theme in detail, the theme is “The Social Life of Guns.” Alongside the colloquium, Amherst’s Department of Law, Jurisprudence & Social Thought (LJST) will present “Guns in Law,” a series of lectures that examine the legal implications of the idea that individuals have a right to bear arms.
“People are talking about guns a lot, but they’re only talking about guns in certain ways,” said Jonathan M. Obert, assistant professor of political science and member of the colloquium’s proposal committee. “They are talking about them as objects to be regulated, or as a public health concern.”
“These are very important debates, but we wanted to ask another set of questions,” he said. Those questions include:
- What do guns mean to people?
- Why are guns so important in today’s political debates?
- Why are people so fascinated with guns?
The interest grew out of a faculty reading group that has been devoting the past two years to questions of violence and inequality.
“The urgency of recent mass killings and social upheavals, and the centrality of the ‘gun’ within these recent events, pose fundamental questions to us as a community,” the committee wrote in its proposal.
“Rethinking violence … allows us to ask new questions about when political or domestic violence is likely to occur or how such notions of protection and threat are reinterpreted through technological change.”
The Copeland Colloquium offers small groups of scholars, artists and performers the opportunity to explore a common theme in residence at Amherst College. The colloquium committee selects four Copeland Fellows, who spend the year on campus, attending programs with sponsors, other faculty and students, and then each submit a brief report at the end of the year.
Meet this year’s Copeland Fellows:
Chad Kautzer is an associate professor of philosophy at Lehigh University with interests in social and economic justice and critical methodology, as well as postcolonial, race and feminist theory. As a Copeland Fellow, he will be working on his book, tentatively titled Good Guys with Guns: Whiteness, Masculinity, and the New Politics of Sovereignty, which analyzes the roles of armed self-defense and absolutist notions of freedom, how the law can enable forms of racial and gender oppression, and the ways in which armed self-defense can counter this.
Nathan Shelton is a student in the doctoral program in sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. He is working on several ethnographic projects that center on guns in interaction. He is currently finishing a project on the work of managing shooting ranges. At Amherst, he hopes to begin writing about the civilian interpretations of gun law and to start a new project about the gun market.
Jennifer Yida Pan is a doctoral student in the Department of English at the University of Chicago and a doctoral fellow with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Her primary interests center on technology and science in literature, film and music from the 18th century to the present. Currently, her work investigates fictional firearms and narrative form.
Alex Trimble Young is a scholar of comparative settler colonialism and the literature and culture of the United States. In 2015, he completed his doctorate in English at the University of Southern California. His research explores how radical subcultures in the United States and other Anglophone settler colonies have been shaped by the ongoing history of settler colonialism and Indigenous resistance. His research on the social life of guns investigates the anti-statist rhetoric of right-wing gun culture and that of many radical leftist movements.
Scholars have been invited to write about the social life of guns, and each will present a lecture on their conclusions. These lectures will be gathered and published in a collection edited by Austin D. Sarat, Amherst’s William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, and Andrew Poe, assistant professor of political science.