Professor Publishes Gun-control Policy Book

Guns, Gun Control, and Elections: The Politics and Policy of Firearms was based on Dr. Harry Wilson's research

"I've always owned guns, and I've always been interested in politics. The two subjects fit well together," says chuckling Wilson, professor of public affairs and director of Roanoke College's Center for Community Research. It's not surprising, then, that Dr. Harry Wilson's research focus shifted a few years ago from the fear of crime to gun-control policy and public opinion polling. It was a natural move. Wilson, who has been with Roanoke College since 1986, had earned his bachelor's degree in journalism and master's in political science both at Pennsylvania State University and later his Ph.D. in political science at Rutgers University. A native of Aston, Pennsylvania, he received a Fulbright Award in 1995.

Wilson first began exploring gun-control policy by conducting several state and national public opinion surveys both in his classes and through the Center for Community Research, and he later presented the research highlights at a conference.

The findings of one of Wilson's national surveys give a sense of the public pulse: "Less than half of the respondents thought that stricter gun laws would reduce crime (43%), reduce accidents (45%), or reduce suicides (20%). They were also not very optimistic about the potential impact of gun registration. Three in five (60%) said they thought that registration would make no difference, while just over one-third (36%) said it would reduce crime."

Measuring opinions on gun control is a difficult task because, as Wilson notes, "Gun control is a multifaceted issue. Asking a basic question such as 'Do you think current gun control laws are too strict, about right, or not strict enough?' may be an effective way to gauge a respondent's overall view of the issue, but it doesn't get us very far in terms of understanding what people truly think of the issue. Standing alone, there are serious questions about what exactly it measures because of most respondents' lack of familiarity with current laws." So, as a result, Wilson's surveys asked many additional questions related to the issue.

As a next step after the surveys, Wilson decided to undertake an in-depth study of gun-related stories in the media, paying special attention to content and tone bias. Supported by a Roanoke College research grant, he purchased more than 120 video news stories from the Vanderbilt University Television News Archive. The videotapes, primarily from CBS News, focused on the final passage of the Brady Bill in 1994, the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 and every CBS story on gun control from January 2000 to May 2003.

A Problem and an Opportunity

Wilson now faced a problem: how to free up the significant time required to review those tapes and code them for several variables, including network, news anchor, length, reporters, topics, type of story, content bias, tone bias and interest groups mentioned, to name just a few.

But the professor also saw an opportunity - a chance to write a book on gun control for use in classrooms, although that entailed significantly more background research as well as writing time.

As a result, Wilson applied for a sabbatical during which he spent hours upon hours viewing and re-viewing the six hours of videotapes that were mainly composed of one- to two-minute segments. "I could only do it for about an hour at a time because it was so mentally exhausting," he says.

Wilson also spent several days in Richmond during the Virginia General Assembly session interviewing legislators and lobbyists. Those interviews later formed the basis of a chapter in his book on gun politics in Virginia.

Moving Towards a Book Deal

The semester away from the classroom provided strong momentum for Wilson's book project, but he still needed more information. In addition to more surveys and basic research, Wilson began a thorough review of coverage of gun-related events in The New York Times. For this project and others, Wilson received valuable assistance from summer student interns, especially senior Aaron Cook, who Wilson considers "a great asset."

The pieces of the book puzzle were falling into place, but the professor still needed additional time to write and edit the book. By winning a coveted Roanoke College three-year Faculty Scholar Award, which reduced his workload by one class each semester, Wilson was able to spend the time needed to write, edit and market the book. "The Faculty Scholar program is great," he says. "It's not a lot of money, but it frees up a lot of time, and time is a precious commodity for faculty."

Wilson's book was accepted by Rowman & Littlefield, a highly respected publisher of academic books in the social sciences and the humanities. Guns, Gun Control, and Elections: The Politics and Policy of Firearms is scheduled for publication in Summer 2006 and will run nearly 250 pages. "The book will be used as a supplemental text for public policy courses and possibly also for introductory courses in American government," Wilson says.

Learning Along the Way

Wilson is delighted that Roanoke provided the time, resources and support to explore his new research interest. "The issue is much more complex than I had thought, and it's not just a partisan issue. Gun control is also the only field, it seems, where an author must disclose his or her views." As to his own opinions, Wilson adds, "I like to say that I'm objective, although I lean towards the guns rights side."

The professor has stronger views about the care that must be taken in enacting new legislation. "The benefit of any law should be discounted by its costs when determining a law's effectiveness," he says. "It is foolish to enact a law that will have little or no effect on the behavior we are trying to regulate, unless the costs are negligible. On the other hand, it would be foolhardy not to enact legislation that will achieve the intended goals at a very low cost."

The Center for Community Research

As director of the Center for Community Research at Roanoke, Wilson acknowledges that he has a built-in research edge. The Center assists faculty and students in conducting research projects in the local community. The students gain valuable firsthand experience in research design, questionnaire construction, interviewing, data analysis and writing. Likewise, the center represents a valuable tool in Wilson's research kit. "We can conduct a significant opinion survey for around $1,500 that would cost at least $10,000 if we had to use an outside research firm."

Wilson's sabbatical was just one step, albeit an essential one, in a several-year process. It was not a discrete one-semester deal, but rather a substantial commitment to faculty development. Roanoke College provided him with several different kinds of faculty development grants and support for research, summer student interns, for reducing his course load and for conference-related expenses.

"Roanoke is very supportive of faculty research," Wilson says. "You're expected to be involved in research, but you're not under the publish-or-perish pressure. In terms of faculty support, Roanoke provides the whole package."

Released: March 21, 2007