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Peppered with fear, lust, and awe, the language kids use to describe guns reveals the spell that firearms cast over troubled teens.
THE CATALINA MOUNTAIN SCHOOL is nestled in the shadow of scenic foothills, approximately 12 miles north of Tucson, Ariz. The school is surrounded by the Sonoran Desert; tall saguaros and low mesquite trees envelop the school grounds. A little further away, several sprawling suburban subdivisions have begun to crop up.
The campus is well maintained. There is a sense of order. It is attractive, in its way. The school consists of 10 buildings, including the administrative office and a number of cottages where the students live. Inside, the students are in uniform, wearing state-issued T-shirts and gray dungarees. They are escorted by security or teaching staff whenever they leave their cottages. The perimeter of the school is demarcated by tall barbed-wire fencing. A security pick-up truck patrols the periphery, driving around and around the barbed-wire fence.
Operated by the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, the school is home to over 150 boys ranging from 12 to 17 years of age. They have run afoul of the law on repeated occasions, having been warned many timesslapped on the wrist, given probation, served a stint in reformatorybut failed to heed the warnings.
I traveled there to explore the symbolic dimensions of guns and gun-carrying, to learn from a group of incarcerated young men what guns meant to them. I went to hear their stories of gun-carrying and to decipher their language of guns. And what I experienced first-hand was their lust for high-powered semiautomatic weaponsfor the nine millimeter, the .45, the .38, the Tech-9, the Desert Eagle. I interviewed 30 youths at the Catalina school and, more than anything, I was deeply struck by their attraction to firearms. To them, guns have a sensual, almost sexual dimension.
I began all the interviews by displaying three pictures of guns from a glossy magazine called the American Handgunnerthe nine millimeter, the .45 semiautomatic, and the Colt .45 revolverand by prompting my interviewee to free associate: "What are you thinking about?" A few expressed visceral opposition to the guns. But many more were filled with lust. They would fixate on the photos and, with slight laughter, giggling, or quiet moaning, would manifest a kind of desire for the guns. Many wanted to go shoot the guns, or touch them, and most were deeply attracted to the pictures. A 17-year-old Mexican-American gang member recounted his experience with his favorite guns in these subliminal terms: "I had me two baby nines. I fell in love with those. They look beautiful to me. They were chrome, like perfect size, they had some power to them."
Guns hold a powerful, passionate grip. As a 16-year-old from the Yaqui tribe tried to make me understand, "I like guns. I like 'em. It just gives you a rush. Gives me a rush." "Everybody likes guns these days, dude," another explained. "Hell, yeah. They're exciting. I mean, what the hell. You feel powerful when you have a gun. You get respect."
THE CATALINA INTERVIEWS REVEALED A RICH SET OF EXPERIENCES WITH GUNS. The vast majority of those I interviewed, 26 of them, had possessed guns at some point in their lives. The firearms they carried were often high-caliber pistols. The nine millimeter is, in the words of a 17-year-old from Tucson, "the size of the moment." "It's just going to be more powerful," a 17-year-old student impatiently confirmed, "and it's kind of just gonna go pretty much right through you." Or, as a 17-year-old gang member said, semiautomatics "look nicer," they're better "if you want to let off quick rounds," and "they'll just put a hole in somebody's ass."
Putting a hole in somebody is an association with guns that several at Catalina made. For them, guns are specifically about killing people they hate or seeking revenge in moments of anger. For one angry youth, the sight of guns made him think of "killing people." "I wish I had a gun right now. . . . Kill the people I hated. . . People make fun of me because of my sexual orientation. They make fun of me because of who I am. They make fun of me, of other things, and I hate them for that. So I'd rather kill them than put up with their bullshit."
Another, a 16-year-old gang member and drug dealer, also associated guns with killing, which for him was intimately associated with gang rivalries. He explained that gang rivals shoot at each other to kill. I asked him to elaborate.
A: Well, if you're a Blood and I'm a Crip, you're my rival. I don't like you, you don't like me, just from the start.
When a 16-year-old gang member looked at the pictures, they made him think of "murder" and "killing people." He elaborated: "I don't carry around a gun for protection. Like if I'm going to carry around a gun, I'm going to go do something with it."
But the most frequent association the youths at Catalina made with guns is protection, albeit an aggressive, preemptive idea of protection. Guns are seen as a way to avoid being victimized in everyday encounters with other youthsto avoid getting "jumped," being "punked," being "disrespected."
What's particularly interesting about this notion of "protection" is how it differs from the conventional meaning of self-defense. The latter notion was mentioned less frequently, and it signifies something different: the need to have a gun to defend yourself against an armed intruder or robber. One 16-year-old looked at the picture of the Smith & Wesson revolver andafter saying that it was "nice looking"indicated that you would "use this to protect your house, have it sitting under your mat and stuff, easy to reach, just in case someone comes in." He was describing a more traditional notion of passive self-defense, protection from a stereotypical intruder.
This is not the notion that dominated the interviews. Instead, many more spoke about guns offering protection from everyday encounters, from getting "jumped" or being "disrespected." Carrying a gun and having a reputation for carrying a gun help prevent being victimized. As a 15-year-old African-American, who purchased a Ruger .22 caliber pistol from a friend for $150, put it: "My momma always said that guns, they bring trouble automatically. I don't know. I guess it was true. But I still had to protect myself whether it did or not. Trouble come automatically when you don't have a gun."
Gun-carrying is a preemptive measure against victimization. The word "strap," the most frequently used slang term for guns in the interviews, means "protection." A 16-year-old school drop-out who carried all the time explained that the term refers to "the sheriff's holster." To call a gun a "strap" is to say that it's "just for protection." "Because," he spelled out, "if out there you don't have a strap, you're going to get killed."
Not surprisingly, for many, especially those who associate guns with protection, carrying a handgun makes them feel safer. They feel less anxious, less threatened. Guns make them feel "more calm" and "less paranoid." And feeling safer, many of them believe, will mean that fewer people get hurtthat the risk of harm to themselves and others decreases.
Still, guns also symbolize danger to manythe danger of guns going off by accident and hurting, or even killing, a sibling or friend. "They look nice, but they're dangerous," said a 16-year-old. "Like, they're, they look nice and everything. They can do powerful stuff, but like, they're dangerous, cuz I have two of my homeboys. One of my homeboys who shot his sister," he went on. "He was just playing with it. He didn't know that, like, a bullet was there. He didn't have the clip but he didn't know a bullet was in there. He was playing with it and he shot her in the head."
Understanding the dangers that guns pose doesn't always translate into feelings of dislike for guns, however. And those who express distaste for guns don't always do so because they fear them. Part of what they dislike about guns is that guns get in the way of "good" fightsfist fights, rumbles, scuffling with bats.
A 17-year-old Mexican-American was blunt. In response to the first prompt"What do these pictures make you think?"he responded: "Pussies." "I don't like that stuff," he explained. "I think it's for little girls. If you ain't man enough to scrap somebody, what's the use of you? Why you just gonna take somebody out and then go to prison. What you get out of it? Nothing. Your life's down the drain." He would much rather "scrap" the "old-fashioned" way. If someone on the street pulls a gun on him, he would tell them to put the gun down and scrap with their hands. "But, most of the time, people, they won't, they're afraid. That's why they use a gun." Of course, he realizes the risks of not carrying. Once, another guy signaled to him that he was in a rival gang and he responded by inviting the guy to scrap hand to hand. The other guy turned around and shot him twice. He pulled up his shirt and showed me the scars.
The ones who disliked guns also tended to be those who viewed them as a commodity. For many of the Catalina youths, handguns have important exchange value: They are something that can be traded for drugs or sold for cash. "I don't like [guns]," a Mexican-American volunteered. "They take a life. Why you gonna be taking a life for? Ain't no good." Yet he admitted he had owned guns. "I just have guns to sell them. Make some money off them. That's actually what they're for," he pointed out. "I sold them, just buy me my clothes or buys some jewelry or something. . . . Just like, Guess clothes, Tommy Hilfiger, and then jewelry . . . hats, glasses, stuff like that."
It's striking that even those who dislike guns talk about them in intense, sexually tinged language. To them, guns are "pussy shit"; they're for "pussies." But the far more common refrain is one of powerful attraction. Half of the youths reacted to the pictures of guns with immediate, spontaneous responses of desire. Several others responded with more muted, but nevertheless identifiable, longing. "I want to go shoot them," said one youth. Said another: "It's just tight right there. I like it. It's just tight like the way it looks." Many of the interviews ended on a similar note.
Q: Is there anything else maybe that you might want to tell me, that I may have missed or anything you want to say?
LISTENING CAREFULLY TO THOSE AT CATALINA, I heard in their voices elements of a common language of guns. They know the terms well"straps," "protection," "tight." They adopt some of the meanings behind these terms while rejecting others, and the language of guns seems to influence their behavior, though it doesn't control or constrain it. The language offers them a way, in some cases, to resist gun-carrying: "Anybody can fight with a gun, anybody can pull a trigger. It takes somebody, like a real man, to fight somebody." And in others, to embrace guns: "They're exciting. I mean what the hell. You feel powerful when you have a gun. You get respect."
Understanding how youths like these talk about guns can have profound implications for law and policy. Of course, translating observations about language into the language of policy is a tricky business. There are so many assumptions about human behavior underlying all forms of empirical research that it's practically impossible to avoid embedding those assumptions in the discussion of policy. Social scientists can't help but deploy theories to try to understand as well as possible how human beings behave.
I believe the connections between the way these young men talk about guns and the way they've interacted with them strongly suggests that instead of thinking about these young men only through the lens of traditional categories of race or class or juvenile records, it also makes sense to think about them through the lens of language. This could mean taking a number of different approaches. The frequently expressed notion that gun-carrying is necessary for protection, for example, needs to be challenged. That could translate into many different policies, including a focus on conflict resolution, safety monitoring in schools and public areas, and redesign of schools, parks, and neighborhoods. It could also mean looking for ways to help young men discover how to achieve respect for themselves and how to create an identity not tied to gun-carrying.
The many meanings that guns have in a setting like the Catalina Mountain School suggests that there is no quick fix for gun possession by young men. There is no single meaning that we can re-engineer to change their behaviors. There is no one perception that we can change to alter their views of gun-carrying. But we can develop an eclectic approach tailored to the different meanings. And we can treat guns for what they are to the most susceptible youths: seductively dangerous.