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Study: Rural deputies’ view of guns complex, nuanced


Charleston Gazette-Mail

Rural law enforcement officials have complex, subtle views about gun control and frequently favor more limited access to guns, according to new research from West Virginia University.

Sociology professor Rachael Woldoff said, for her paper, published this month in the academic journal Rural Sociology, she asked more than 20 sheriff deputies in a rural county about their views on gun control.

“It goes against this narrative that people from West Virginia are just ignorant. The NRA wants you to believe that, but they don’t really have views like that,” Woldoff said. “They’re much more nuanced.”

Their lengthy responses and discussion emanating from the questions was the first type of qualitative research of its kind, according to Woldoff.

Because of the limited number of responses, she is unable to make broad claims about rural law enforcement in the report, but Woldoff said further research is needed in the area.

The paper proposes rural police officers’ views on gun control stem from two competing influences: the culture of rural places where hunting and guns are usually integral parts of community life, and an officer’s responsibility to protect people from gun violence.

Woldoff began the study expecting the law enforcement officials she interviewed would favor fewer restrictions on guns, but that wasn’t the case.

Nearly all of the officers said they were against gun control, only later to contradict themselves, Woldoff said. Several officers told Woldoff people who have been diagnosed with depression should be barred from owning a gun, even if that meant compelling doctors to release medical records to the government.

Other officers who had served in the armed forces thought people who own guns should have to be better trained on how to use them. Every officer said there should be more thorough background checks of a person before he or she is allowed to own a gun.

“Many things about place identity are symbolic,” Woldoff said. “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.”

Meanwhile, officers maintained they were “pro-gun.”

“Saying you’re pro-gun is just an identity,” Woldoff said. “A lot of people who are pro-gun still think our controls are not appropriate right now. Clearly they would say they were pro-gun, then two seconds later they’re asking for insane gun control measures.”

Woldoff lives in Pittsburgh and commutes to the Morgantown campus on days she teaches. Because of her constant travel through rural and urban communities, she is attuned to the stereotypes people of both places get.

Woldoff hopes her research encourages people to have more frank and honest discussions about gun control. Instead of using blanket statements like “pro-guns” and “anti-guns,” she hopes they ask specific questions about specific gun-control measures.

“The campaign to oversimplify the issue and depict rural people as very scared and ignorant has been successful,” Woldoff said. “Everyone thinks that they know what’s going on with gun control, but it’s not true that rural people always care about the right to bear arms in the same way.”

Woldoff said WVU research policies prevented her from revealing which county’s sheriff’s department was included in the study.

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