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UNPACKING HEAT

Sociologist releases first in-depth examination of rural police's gun control views

Gun control issues continue to compete in rural police officers’ identities as both citizens and officers of the law.

As law enforcement living in the same rural areas where they work, they are constantly under the scrutiny of their neighbors. They patrol widespread geographic areas. They regularly encounter alcohol and drug problems, mental health issues and domestic violence. They acknowledge nearly everyone they meet is armed. 

West Virginia University professor Rachael Woldoff, a sociologist in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, examines these experiences in her study “Unpacking Heat: Dueling Identities and Complex Views on Gun Control among Rural Police.”

Rachael Woldoff

This study, to be published in the journal Rural Sociology, is the first to explore gun control views of rural U.S. police officers.

“Police seem to want to view themselves as similar to other upstanding rural residents,” Woldoff said. “But they realize that their experiences as police have led them to hold a high standard about gun owners’ minimum threshold of competence, one that many upstanding rural residents would reject.”

After conducting interviews with 20 police officers from a rural sheriff’s department, the study found that officers possess complex views about gun control. Their views reflect their identities as both gun-oriented rural citizens and police who seek to control the situations they encounter on the job.

Place Identity
The study found that rural police officers regularly embrace their rural identities that support gun rights over gun control.   

“Many things about place identity are symbolic. For instance, in West Virginia, it is important symbolically that you say you believe in certain things and to identify with the whole state, which is unusual,” Woldoff said.

Consistent with their rural identity, almost all participants consistently supported concealed carry rights for private citizens, justifying their views by contrasting rural life with stereotypes about urban locations.

The participants also explained that the public is misinformed about reinstating a ban on assault rifles. They indicated those types of guns are not the problem and such a ban would not have an effect on gun violence.

Police Identity

While many of the police officers identified with gun rights symbolically, exploring questions relating to their on-the-job experiences illuminated that they support stringent gun control laws in specific scenarios.

All of the participants viewed stricter background checks as an important step for increasing safety of citizens and police, hoping that stricter background checks would prevent felons, domestic violence offenders, illegal immigrants and the mentally ill from purchasing guns. One police officer even recommended loosening HIPPA laws to ensure background checks would flag common mental health issues such as panic attacks and depression.

Some of the officers called for more extensive safety training before becoming eligible to obtain a concealed weapons permit, contrasting the current eight-hour citizen safety course with the state’s four months of police academy firearms training. 

“You’ve got guys that have been training for four months, and they’re still making stupid mistakes with a firearm,” said a police officer in the study.  “I don’t think people should be able to go to an eight-hour course and carry the same firearm.”

The officers also report work experiences that have caused them to embrace their police identity and to distance themselves from some gun-related aspects of their rural identities. For example, some have lost their recreational interest in guns over the course of their careers in law enforcement and have increasingly dissociated with their gun enthusiast peers.

Dueling Identities

In light of all these challenges, Woldoff sought to determine how rural police officers reconcile being pro-gun while having a job that’s extremely dangerous.

Ultimately, the study found the rural police officers have learned to incorporate aspects of both their place and police identities into their views on gun control. They universally advocate for some measures of gun control for community safety, but reject other ideas as part of their ideological views of personal freedom. 

The aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. shooting motivated Woldoff to pursue the research.

“It is interesting to find out the nature of (rural police officers’) views about guns and how they have evolved from the time they were children to where we are right now, in a world where people are shooting up schools and campuses and drug problems have reached the rural areas,” Woldoff said. 

Photo credit: Jeff Wallace