July 11, 2023

L&C Professor Asks, ‘What Does It Mean to Be a Liberal Gun Owner?’

Jennifer Hubbert, professor of anthropology and Asian studies, examines how liberals define democracy and citizenship through owning guns.

Handgun lying on American flag Professor Jennifer Hubbert's new research examines why gun ownership is increasing among liberals.

Learning how to shoot a handgun at a Las Vegas gun convention had never been on Jennifer Hubbert’s bucket list. But last fall, the professor of anthropology and Asian studies found herself doing just that. “Given my research, it felt like something I needed to do,” she says.

Hubbert is currently exploring a novel question regarding gun culture in the United States: “What does it mean to be a liberal gun owner?”

A New Research Target

Over the years, Hubbert has focused her scholarship on what is often called the “anthropology of the state,” particularly as it pertains to state-citizen relations in China. But she’s found it increasingly difficult to study there given the current political climate.

Jennifer posing outside. She is wearing a black dress and standing with her hands on her hips. Jennifer Hubbert, professor of anthropology and Asian studies
Credit: Stephen Mercier
Hubbert felt the need to pivot.

“Essentially, I had an NPR moment,” Hubbert recounts. “I heard a story on NPR about the uptick in gun ownership among women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and liberals. I became particularly interested in why gun ownership is increasing among liberals.”

Hubbert knew that most gun ownership research focuses on conservative white men. With the rise in gun ownership among liberals, she saw an opportunity to explore the politics of gun ownership and advance a more nuanced discussion. Hubbert decided to devote her sabbatical year (2022–23) to the topic.

“I’m still pursuing my interest in the nation and citizenship, but I’m shifting the focus to examine gun culture in the United States,” she says. “I’m seeking to understand what gun ownership means to liberals and how they envision norms of citizenship and the construction of a just world through gun ownership.”

From Reddit Threads to Gun Conventions

Hubbert kicked off her gun ownership research in summer 2022 with a grant from the undergraduate dean’s office. Hannah Eaton BA ’23, a sociology and anthropology major from Gladstone, Oregon, served as her research assistant.

Hannah posing outside. She is wearing a white dress and has one hand on her hip. Hannah Eaton BA ’23Eaton had met Hubbert during her earliest days at Lewis & Clark; she had transferred to L&C after completing a year of community college and was assigned Hubbert as her advisor.

“When I met with Professor Hubbert, I immediately knew that I wanted to take one of her courses. I went on to register for one of her classes every semester I was able to,” says Eaton.

In spring 2022, Eaton participated in an independent study with four other students, led by Hubbert, that explored the topic of gun culture in the United States. Through readings and coursework, she became increasingly interested in gun ownership. “Toward the end of the semester, Professor Hubert asked if I would be interested in conducting research with her over the summer. I was ecstatic!”

Together, Hubbert and Eaton analyzed two “megathreads” by liberal gun owners on Reddit, a popular online discussion platform. They chose threads that reflected periods of spikes in gun ownership: one after a contentious political election (i.e., the 2020 presidential election), and the other following a mass shooting (i.e., the Uvalde shooting in Texas). Hubbert and Eaton are planning to submit an article on their work to the Political and Legal Anthropology Review.

Also during her sabbatical year, Hubbert conducted 50 interviews with liberal gun owners. She also attended a gun convention in Las Vegas and spent a week in Colorado with a female gun owner group. Over the next two years, she’s planning 50 more interviews with liberal gun owners.

In the meantime, Hubbert is working on another paper about the privatization of defense, which will focus on liberals’ desire to buy guns when they perceive a failure in state protection.

Liberal Gun Ownership as Advocacy

Hubbert is finding that liberal gun owners often want to address the root causes of gun violence, not just the creation of gun control legislation. They recognize the need for an investment in mental health funding, education funding, and job creation to help address the issues of structural inequality that frequently underlie gun violence.

In addition, Hubbert has discovered that many liberals from historically marginalized groups are purchasing guns in order to feel safe. These individuals are unnerved by a political climate that has led to an increase in racist, sexist, and transphobic attacks.

“To many liberals, gun ownership is a form of advocacy,” says Hubbert. “I hope my research will be able to address some really contentious politics from a new angle.”

Hubbert plans to continue her research on liberal gun culture with an eye toward developing a book on the subject. Eaton, who graduated this past spring, will apply what she learned in a different way: She will be attending Lewis & Clark Law School this fall.

Sociology and Anthropology