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University of Chicago Press
Language of the Gun: Youth, Crime, and Public Policy

Language of the Gun: Youth, Crime, and Public Policy

by Bernard E. Harcourt
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Legal and public policies concerning youth gun violence tend to rely heavily on crime reports, survey data, and statistical methods. Rarely is attention given to the young voices belonging to those who carry high-powered semiautomatic handguns. In Language of the Gun, Bernard E. Harcourt recounts in-depth interviews with youths detained at an all-malecorrectional facility, exploring how they talk about guns and what meanings they ascribe to them in a broader attempt to understand some of the assumptions implicit in current handgun policies. In the process, Harcourt redraws the relationships among empirical research, law, and public policy.

Home to over 150 repeat offenders ranging in age from twelve to seventeen, the Catalina Mountain School is made up of a particular stratum of boys—those who have committed the most offenses but will still be released upon reaching adulthood. In an effort to understand the symbolic and emotional language of guns and gun carrying, Harcourt interviewed dozens of these incarcerated Catalina boys. What do these youths see in guns? What draws them to handguns? Why do some of them carry and others not? For Harcourt, their often surprising answers unveil many of the presuppositions that influence our laws and policies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226316086
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/15/2006
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Bernard E. Harcourt is professor of law at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing and the editor of Guns, Crime, and Punishment in America.

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By BERNARD E. HARCOURT The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-31609-3

Chapter One


The Catalina Mountain School nestles in the shadow of the scenic Catalina Mountain foothills, approximately twelve miles north of Tucson, Arizona. The school is surrounded by the Sonoran desert. Tall saguaros, lanky ocotillos, agaves, palo verde, and low mesquite trees envelop the grounds. A little farther away, several sprawling suburban subdivisions, complete with mini shopping malls, have begun to crop up within three to five miles of the school.

The campus is well maintained and is attractive in its way. It has a sense of order. There are about ten buildings, including the administrative office and several cottages where the students live. The grounds are kept neat, with desert landscaping, and look like a summer camp. Picnic tables, paths, and the sounds of cactus wrens, grasshoppers, and the occasional roadrunner welcome the visitor. The air-conditioned lobby in the administration building provides welcome shelter from the beating sun.

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. Some "upper-level" students who haveearned privileges for good behavior are allowed to walk unescorted on the premises, so long as they tell security where they are going. The perimeter of the school is demarcated by tall barbed-wire fencing. A security pickup truck continuously patrols the periphery, driving around and around outside the barbed-wire fence.

The Catalina Mountain School, owned and operated by the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, is home to over 150 boys ranging from twelve to seventeen years old. These youths have repeatedly run afoul of the law, had been warned many times-slapped on the wrist, given probation, served a stint in reformatory-but apparently failed to heed the warnings.


A confident young man, seventeen years old, enters the air-conditioned cinder-block administrative office turned interview room. He closes the door and seats himself in a plastic folding chair across the scarred conference table from me. I assign him his confidential number, CMS-66. I turn on a tape recorder. He says he is from the north side of Tucson, a more affluent part of town. He says he was taking predental classes at a community college before coming to Catalina and had earned twelve credit hours. He says he has been incarcerated here for about three months on a gun charge. He explains that he had been on intensive probation for assault and marijuana use and previously served time in juvenile detention for possession of a firearm-a Glock .40, a powerful and relatively expensive semiautomatic pistol.

I show CMS-66 three color pictures of handguns taken from articles in the American Handgunner magazine. The first gun is an HS 2000 full-sized 9-mm semiautomatic service pistol from I. M. Metal of Croatia. It is made of polymer that looks like black plastic, and it closely resembles a Glock or a SIG 9-mm. The second gun is a Para-Ordnance P-14 LDA. This is a full-sized .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol with a five-inch barrel and looks like a classic Beretta or Ruger .45 semiautomatic. The third gun is a Smith and Wesson .45 Colt CTG revolver-the traditional .45-caliber revolver.

CMS-66 looks at the pictures. He is not in any rush. He seems to be enjoying this. In a cool, nonchalant voice he says, pointing to each picture in turn as he speaks, "Glock, Beretta, Smith and Wesson" (CMS-66, 4).

CMS-66 knows his guns. The first picture of the HS 2000 9-mm pistol he says resembles the Glock .40 he used to carry. "Looks kind of like the gun I had ... [I]t had the plastic thing, but mine had an extended clip for law enforcement and looked kind of like this. It didn't have this fishtail" (CMS-66, 5-6). The other guns he learned about from his father and his older friends. His dad collected guns. He had a Dan Wesson .357 revolver, a Smith and Wesson .44 revolver, and an SKS (Samozariadnyia Karabina Simonova) assault rifle. His dad, he tells me, taught him to respect guns. "He was really into safety courses. He ... kept his guns locked up and kept 'em out of my hands. He never let me play with them. He said, when we went out shooting, he said 'You don't touch till I give it to you. If you realize it's loaded, don't point it toward anybody. Even if it's not loaded. You never know, you could slip and not think, it could cost a life. Never point it toward anybody. Never do anything like that'" (CMS-66, 6-7).

The way CMS-66 tells it, he received the Glock .40 for Christmas when he was fifteen years old. His best friend-who was about five years older-gave it to him. "He got it brand new in the box," CMS-66 says. "With two clips, one was the extended clip, and the real bad thing about the gun, he gave it to me with Teflon bullets. You know what those are? You know, armor-piercing ... But I got rid of those and I gave them back. I don't plan on shooting anyone with a bulletproof vest. So he can keep them. That was his thing" (CMS-66, 11).

His friend's "thing" was the drug trade. CMS-66 started hanging out with the older teenager at about age thirteen, near the time when his father died. His friend was about eighteen then and was selling small amounts of cocaine. CMS-66 was being raised by his mother, and the older friend took CMS-66 under his wing and helped support them both. "He took care of me. He gave my mom money," CMS-66 explains. The source of the money, though, was drugs. CMS-66's friend had started selling crack and slowly progressed to larger amounts of powder cocaine. CMS-66 stuck with his older buddy and soon started getting to know other dealers. "You know, we're right next to the Mexican border, so you start meeting people who are, like, big drug cartel down in Mexico. And there's my friends, they were just getting really big ... They were always taking me under their wing. 'We'll always take care of you.' 'You're like our little brother.' Like big brother types you know. I was always with these people. Whatever they did, I wanted to do. Whatever they were doing, I was doing" (CMS-66, 10).

The older friend encouraged CMS-66 to go to school and make a life for himself. "He bought me books all the time, and he'd pay for my books at school and pay for a couple of writing classes and a math class," he recalls. "He paid for them. He was always encouraging me" (CMS-66, 10). But it wasn't easy. "I didn't like working at Blackjack Pizza and all of that. So I'd hook a couple of people up, 'Hey do you need an ounce of coke to make into crack?' 'Yeah.' 'I can get it.' Raise the price a little bit, pocket a hundred bucks" (CMS-66, 10).

His friend gave him the Glock .40 for protection when they were hanging out together. Protection for CMS-66, in case things heated up, but also protection for his friends. An extra gun could always come in handy. "They were just, like, 'Hey, you're safer with it.' They all had guns, you know ... I think they felt more safe if I had it, that's just one more person, you know, in case. You know, the main worry was ... there's professional people who just rob drug dealers and that was the thing. They'll kick down your door. If there's seven of them and only a couple of his friends and me, just one more person with a piece makes a person safer" (CMS-66, 23).

CMS-66 claims he was careful with his gun. Safety was deeply ingrained in him, not only by his father but also by his friends. "I never played with it," CMS-66 stresses. "I was always real instilled with 'Don't play with it; it's not a toy, leave it under the seat in case you need it. Don't play with it, don't show it to people'" (CMS-66).

Armed with his Glock .40, CMS-66 began to live two lives. He had one life with his friends in the drug trade. They liked guns. They would carry. They needed to carry. When he was with this crowd, "all my friends were packing. Everybody's packing. If you're not packing, you're on the losing end, everybody has a piece there, you know" (CMS-66, 17). But he had a separate life at school, a life disconnected from drugs, guns, and the street. "School was always separate from everything that was going on in my life ... [E]veryone was always saying, 'You're a really smart kid.' I was in gifted and talented. School was always something that I was doing no matter what, that always was more important, that always stayed aside from everything I was doing in my life" (CMS-66, 16). Two worlds. Two lives. In his own imagination, they were separate. "I kind of lived a double life. I was like this good kid in school, did his homework, then once I left school, I'd go hang out with these other people" (CMS-66, 16).

CMS-66 started community college at seventeen. His peers there were less impressed by guns. "One friend that I was getting a ride home from Pima [with], he seen me take [my gun] out of my waist and put it under the seat. He was just, 'Whatever man, just keep it away from me, man'" (CMS-66, 9). "He kinda acted different about it. He asked me about it, 'Why do you have it?' 'Just for protection.' I was kind of embarrassed as to the people I was hanging around with, as to the college community, you know ... So I was always acting different around the college. I'd leave it in my car, try to leave it alone" (CMS-66, 23).

CMS-66 was on high-intensity probation when he got busted for the Glock .40. He had been adjudicated for assault at school at age thirteen, and later he tested positive for marijuana while on probation, which is how he ended up in the JIPS (Juvenile Intense Probation Services) program. He was almost sixteen when the police pulled him over while he was driving. They searched the car and found the Glock under his seat.

What does CMS-66 think about guns today?

People need to understand that guns are dangerous, you know, people need to understand that they're a very dangerous thing. In the wrong hands, they're deadly. But you know, they're not a toy, and you know you shouldn't have them around, knowing your kids. Even myself, I'm still a child; I shouldn't be possessing guns. Maybe when I'm twenty-one, maybe taking a firearm safety course ... I think it's good that there are strict laws to monitor who has guns and who doesn't. Even though they're not really enforced that much, you know, a lot of people have guns who shouldn't. You know what I'm saying? There should be more laws to enforce exactly who has guns. (CMS-66, 5)

CMS-66 was arrested and incarcerated for possessing the Glock .40. He served his time for the handgun but now he is incarcerated again. A parole officer came to his house and found a shotgun in his room.


"Glock, Beretta, Smith and Wesson." CMS-66 is proud of his knowledge. He wants to impress me. He also wants to reassure me. He's had safety training; he knows how to handle guns. At the same time, he can hardly contain himself, he is so taken by the pictures of the guns. The fishtail, the extended clip, the plastic thing-these facets are sources of such intense fascination, curiosity, fixation, and desire.

I interviewed thirty youths at the Catalina school and, more than anything, was deeply struck by their fascination with guns, their attraction to firearms. The interviews revealed rich sensual, moral, and political-economic dimensions of guns and gun carrying among the youths. For them, guns have a powerful sensual, almost sexual, dimension.

I began all the interviews by displaying the three pictures of guns from the American Handgunner-the 9-mm, the .45-caliber semiautomatic, and the Colt .45 revolver-and offering a free-association prompt: "What are you thinking about?" A few of the youths expressed visceral opposition to them. Several conveyed their deep dislike for guns, calling them "dumb" (CMS-53, 5), "stupid" (CMS-69, 5), or "pussy shit" (CMS-4, 16). "Anybody can fight with a gun, anybody can pull a trigger," a seventeen-year-old European American youth contended. "It takes somebody, like a real man, to fight somebody" (CMS-53, 5).

But many more were filled with lust. For them the very sight of the handguns inspired a deep sense of awe and desire. They would fixate on the photos and, with slight laughter or giggling or quiet moaning, manifest a kind of lust for the guns. Many of the youths wanted to shoot the guns, or at least touch them. Most were hooked, deeply attracted to the pictures of guns. In response to three photographs and the simple free-association prompt ("What are you thinking about?") many youths answered that they just liked guns, pure and simple.

"They're cool. I want to play with them. I want to go out and shoot them" (CMS-4, 3). "Guns are nice. They just, I don't know, I just, I just like guns a lot" (CMS-46, 5). "I would like to have one of these ... I always want, I always like, I always like guns ... Yeah, I always like to have one" (CMS-6, 6-7). "I want to go shoot them. I want to see how they handle" (CMS-3, 8). "They look tight. They look nice" (CMS-10, 3). "They're nice-looking guns" (CMS-17, 7). "I kind of like how they look. I just want to go shoot them" (CMS-43, 6). "Those are some tight guns. I like them. I like the way they look" (CMS-13, 5). "I love guns. Hell, yeah, I love guns. [I love] everything about a gun" (CMS-62, 9). "Those are some pretty tight guns" (CMS-16, 5). "I think they're cool. I like them. They're nice. Someday I want a gun collection" (CMS-25, 16). "[Smiling] It's just tight right there ... I like it ... It's just tight like the way it looks. The way you can shoot. Those can shoot, like, ten rounds, huh? But they get jammed a lot. I had one" (CMS-21, 8-9). "I'd say they look pretty tight ... They look cool" (CMS-7, 5).

It is difficult to express in words the richness of emotions the pictures evoked in these youths. It is tempting to invoke psychoanalytic terms-notions of a deep drive for pleasure of the same magnitude and somehow connected to a sexual drive. CMS-10, a seventeen-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. I was, like, damn, I really don't use them because I don't want to get them burned. Somebody's body to it. I have them at home on a shelf, I don't really use those. Those [are] just, like, I'm gonna keep those for a long time ... They're, like, tight. They're just all chrome" (CMS-10, 35).

Guns can be deeply seductive objects of desire. They hold a surprisingly powerful and passionate grip over many youths. The intensity of the attraction in some cases is remarkable. As a sixteen-year-old Yaqui youth tried to make me understand, "I like guns. I like 'em. It just gives you a rush. Gives me a rush" (CMS-65, 22). "Everybody likes guns these days, dude," another youth said. "Hell, yeah. They're exciting. I mean what the hell. You feel powerful when you have a gun. You get respect" (CMS-62, 11). Similarly, the intensity and sexuality of their opposition to guns, for the few who are repelled by them, is striking. To them, guns are "pussy shit" (CMS-4, 16), they're for "pussies" and "wimps" (CMS-2, 6). Real men do not need guns.

At the same time, carrying a gun has a strong moral dimension to many youths. Most of those I interviewed associated guns with a form of aggressive, preemptive protection, and many felt self-righteous about the need for protection. They felt morally entitled in the much the same way that many adults speak of their right to carry arms in self-defense. A Mexican gang member, raised in Los Angeles, protested in indignant terms that when he and his gang peers were carrying guns for protection they wouldn't even think of not using them. "We don't choose not to [use guns] because it's either our life or their life" (CMS-10, 23). Another youth, seventeen years old, said, "It's either them shoot me and kill me and my family being all depressed and quiet or just try and protect myself ... I'd rather have my life" (CMS-48, 27).

In other cases, youths invoked notions of "enemies" and conceptions of warfare. Guns, for them, were about getting back, seeking revenge in gang rivalries. A sixteen-year-old Yaqui gang member, who lived on the Pascua Yaqui reservation, told me: "I know when I have my gun, that's when I'm going after people. I'm not doing it to defend myself. I'm doing it because I want to kill somebody else. I want to shoot somebody else" (CMS-65, 19). For some youths, guns are all about "shooting at my enemy" (CMS-10, 5).


Excerpted from LANGUAGE OF THE GUN by BERNARD E. HARCOURT Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part One. A Semiotic of the Gun
1. Catalina Mountain School, Tucson, Arizona
2. A Road Map of the Catalina Interviews
3. Symbolic Dimensions and Primary Meanings
4. Three Clusters of Primary Meanings
5. Placing the Clusters in Practice Contexts
6. The Sensual, Moral, and Political Dimensions of Guns 
Part Two. Exploring Methodological Sensibilities
7. Sartre and the Phenomenological Gaze: Théâtre Antoine, Paris, April 2, 1948
8. Lévi-Strauss and the Structural Map: Paris, the Tropics, and the Untamed Mind
9. Bourdieu and Practice Theory: From the Kabyle House to the Street Corner
10. Butler and the Performative: From Identity and Scripts to the Discursive
11. Embracing the Paradigm of Dirty Hands
Part Three. Mapping Law and Public Policy
12. A Genealogy of the Youth Gun Field
13. The Landscape of Law and Public Policy
14. Leaps of Faith in Levitt and Bourgois
15. Making Ethical Choices in Law and Public Policy
Appendix: Treatment of Juvenile Records in State Sentencing

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