Ethnography of gun shooting: framing and modeling of an American cultural practice

For a research project on hunting in Arizona (HUNT-AZ, OHMI Pima County), getting initiated into gun shooting quickly seemed a prerequisite to any ethnographic study of hunters and their activities. According to several articles in hunting magazines (1), there are five typical-ideal stages that a hunter will go through. The first one is the “shooter” stage, where the joy of hunting is in using the gun and getting better at handling it. So, for a hunting novice, learning to handle a firearm with real bullets is necessary, which meant we had to do a trip to the shooting range for our ethnographic study of hunters.


On March 16, Sebastien and I went to the shooting range in the north of Tucson. The day before, we had met Travis, a tattooed African American with piercings, who had recommended we go on “Wednesday, Ladies Day”. When we got there, whitehaired “Master Bruce” welcomed us. He was a white man, about 70 years old and rather round, with hearing aids and glasses, who had left Chicago to enjoy retirement in Arizona. After two months of inactivity, he decided to start working again in 2006 seizing the opportunity of the opening of a new gun shop and shooting range. He implied that he returned to work to stay active and not be bored, but knowing how minimal the American healthcare and social security systems are, it’s likely that his economic needs weighed in on his decision.


Bruce checks on our knowledge of firearms and recommends we start with two 22mm handguns: it’s “easier” to handle and even experienced shooters use them for “warm-up” purposes. Bruce suggests we first use the LCR22 revolver, easy to grasp, before trying the semi-automatic Ruger. A half hour of “theory” is sufficient to “train” us. He teaches us rudimentary techniques, basic safety rules as well as the three keys to a perfect shot.


After this short but clear training, without checking our IDs or even our age, we just need to pay for the equipment to start shooting. So, we rent the firearms ($8 for women reduced from $15) which gives us access to any gun, one after the other, for the whole day. However, we have to purchase our own bullets: we follow the salespeople’s advice who are quite relaxed and used to handling these objects and take the cheapest small 100 bullet box at $15. For an initial session for two people, $50 does not seem expensive to me. However, in discussions with other shooters who are regulars, do 2 hour sessions and easily shoot 100 to 200 bullets each time, the monthly cost for a once a week session would come to a hundred dollars in bullets, on top of the rental or purchase of firearms. 


Another employee gives us safety earmuffs and glasses – he uses the opportunity to pull out the pink glasses, happy to see a woman at the range. Indeed, only two men are in the room, both above 60, with white hair, classic t-shirt/jeans/tennis shoes.

We enter the shooting range, following Bruce who is holding in one hand the mallet carrying the gun and in the other, the bullets. My hands are clammy, and barely in the room, my whole body is shocked by the loudness of the shots, despite the soundproof earmuffs. I jump, but continue forward. The following shots keep me in an alert state, but this time my feet stay anchored to the ground. Little by little, my attention is focused on my own space and on the instructions and advice Bruce is giving us, ignoring the noisy environment to which my senses have surprisingly so quickly gotten used to. 


Being the woman, I load the gun first, putting each bullet in the holes as I’d seen in the movies and war video games. I get in position and Bruce shows me several times how to “control the firearm” to avoid being pulled back by the strength of the shot.

After the first five bullets that we shoot in turn, I commit to a specific relationship with shooting which allows me to overcome my nervousness. On the one hand, I listen closely to the teacher’s advice and try to apply it as best I can. According to our neighbor, my attentiveness and respect of the instructions would be a very feminine trait and would explain why women succeed more, shoot very well and progress faster than men. He tells me about his wife’s expertise and congratulates me at the end, having seen how many bullets had hit the mark. On the other hand, I hope to aim good and be able to push the target further, remembering the gestures I had learned in my high school gym classes where I did biathlons with laser rifles. So, the activity changes purposes and becomes more of a school sports refresher. Little by little, this reframing enables me to feel more comfortable and improve. Conversely, thinking about the real reason behind this activity such as it is conceived by the shooting range employees and users (being able to hurt or kill a living being, and a fortiori a human who was putting me in danger) would have been counterproductive.


Our neighbor is retired from the police force, now volunteers at the outdoor shooting range and is training for a shooting exam. His whole outlook is geared to defend himself. At the end of our session, he takes the target full of bullet holes and lifts it up to Sebastien to see “how well” we’ve done: all the holes are in the body zone that “keeps danger at bay”. He said he’s training to shoot while lying on the ground – in case there’s a night break-in while he’s sleeping – and with both hands – in case his strong arm is hurt and he must still be able to defend himself. He is not the only one wanting to defend himself, his family and friends since his wife joins him sometimes with the same objective. In fact, Bruce asks me at the end what it felt like to shoot a gun and whether I feel empowered, especially after shooting the semi-automatic that I could empty with less effort than the revolver.


In fine, this experience helped reduce my misunderstanding of the American gun culture. The first thing I noticed was that my body and my senses adapted while immersed in a seemingly hostile environment. In just a few minutes, no matter which gun used, it’s incredible how my body got used to the sound of shots, the smell of the gunpowder and the handling of dangerous objects. Only the tiredness that was felt quickly showed how much effort we had expended because of having to concentrate, the emotional work to reframe the activity as a sport or a new skill, and needing to distance myself from the possible dangers of being close to armed people, who could take a life in the blink of an eye.


My second awareness was the relative familiarity I had with firearms. In France, I had never seen or held a firearm that had real bullets; and yet because of movies (especially American police shows largely broadcasted on TV), video games and toys (plastic guns, but also BB-guns which were highly successful during my childhood), I observed and even practiced the basic gun movements without knowing it, such as emptying and replacing the magazine and pressing on the trigger. Outside of my biathlon experience, I was therefore steeped in guns and how they work. In the United States, this gun culture is not transposed or fictitious: shooting with real bullets, from the time you are very young, is a popular and massively practiced activity. Knowing how to shoot and possessing guns gives you the power to count on and protect yourself and those around you in case of danger. It also means holding values of rugged individualism, ie independence and autonomy from others, federal and government institutions, considered insufficient and useless in keeping people safe.


11:30am, we hand over the guns and leave the premises. No photos to remember the moment, it’s one of the rules of the shooting range patronized by police officers. But shooting techniques that will need to be remembered in order to remain credible to interviewed hunters which we will meet in the next few weeks.



(1) Suggested articles: