This is Part II of my Field Season Safety series; the first tackled road and driving safety. [Editor’s note: this post was written and published online before yesterday’s tragedy in Oregon. Our thoughts are with the school and community in Umpqua.]
After yet another horrific school shooting yesterday, it’s high time to revisit gun culture and regulations in the US.* While that topic is far too big a concept for this blog post**, gun culture and safety does intersect with the academy, research, and fieldwork. There is terrible violence that has been carried out on college campuses with guns. But my post today focuses on how guns affect fieldwork safety for students, technicians, and other researchers***.
Guns could be pretty much anywhere you work
Gun laws in the US are fairly lax, including those for concealed handguns. This means, frankly, that almost anyone could be carrying a gun. Even if it doesn’t look like it. That may sound like some kind of scare tactic, but it’s not. 2013 research by the Pew Research Center found that 1/3 of US households claimed to own a gun – but that there are somewhere near 300 million guns owned by citizens in the US (so excluding law enforcement, etc). That’s nearly one gun per person in the country. So it’s important to know.
But you probably won’t have a gun
Lots of universities have regulations barring their employees from carrying guns (personally owned ones, not work-related) while on the clock. So people at or around your field sites may be carrying guns, and you will probably not.
This of course excludes folks who need to carry firearms for research purposes – like biologists who study (or study near) polar bears. Those are often rifles or shotguns, not handguns, carried to ward off or kill wildlife in case of an attack.
Whether or not you or your field crew is carrying a gun, the presence of guns at or near your sites does affect you. Other people misusing a firearm can have serious consequences. The US Centers for Disease Control doesn’t appear to have quantified unintentional shooting statistics, but they do have stats on how many accidental injuries and deaths are attributed to various causes, including road/driving accidents. And they do have data broadly on injuries and deaths caused by firearms in the US: 10.6 deaths per 100,000 people in the US is from firearms.
Fieldwork sites are often isolated
This can be true whether or not fieldwork is an urban, rural or suburban landscapes. You can be isolated simply by the time of day or night that you’re working. I am not saying this to imply that you’re likely to be robbed at gunpoint at your isolated fieldsite. But if there is a misunderstanding and the person you’re talking (or arguing with) has a gun, being in an isolated setting may not be a good thing (see my next paragraph).
When it comes to guns, you are far more likely to be injured by misuse or accidents than by a stranger trying to mug you or the like. But that also means that isolation can be a problem for getting medical help if there is an accident; this should be a field safety concern independent of guns. Do you know where the nearest medical facility is and how to get there? If you needed to call emergency services for help, do you have a phone? Is there cell service where you do your work? If not, what’s your emergency plan? Again, these are critical questions whether or not guns are involved.
Fieldwork sites are often on or next to private land
You may have permission from landowners or land managers. I conduct fieldwork in natural areas with permission from the land managers. But this doesn’t mean that their neighbors know who my field crew is or why they’re on the land.
I’ll give you an example of this from my own fieldwork. I had permission from a state agency to work in a certain natural area. But the area itself has no buildings or staff working there – it’s just a plot of land. The access road to the property is adjacent to private land. When my field crew and I visited the site for the first time, the neighbor suspected foul play. They actually snuck up on my undergraduate field assistant (as a tall male, they assumed he was in charge, not me) and threatened him with a gun. It was scary for everyone involved, because verbal threats from landowners are tough enough to rationally talk through in real time – without involving weapons. Fortunately we are able to de-escalate the situation without anyone getting hurt.
Here’s an example from a colleague in my department (a male on the research staff, not a graduate student). He conducts fieldwork in suburban streams; he has permission from the relevant state agency to be in the streams, which are technically owned by the state and not private landowners. Several landowners have threatened him at gunpoint to get off “their” property, even though he is technically not on their private land. The legal details are irrelevant when you’re being threatened with a gun. He left without arguing – but also without the data he needed.
What does all this mean?
Honestly, I’m not sure. There aren’t any easy answers****. I’m not advocating that we don’t do fieldwork. I’m not trying to discourage individuals from pursuing the educational/work opportunities they want. But for students, technicians, and anyone who is just starting out in fieldwork based research, safety (defined multiple ways) is a critical consideration.
Do you have experience with gun safety or accidents in field settings? Do you have best practices to share? We’d love to hear them in the comments. Here’s to productive and safe field research experiences for everyone.
* obviously my personal opinion
** let alone any blog but I suggest starting here to understand how bad this problem really is: http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/ and to learn about gun laws in your particular state, a good resource is: http://www.justfacts.com/guncontrol.asp
*** with a US bent, I’ll let folks abroad comment on how these concerns translate (or not) to where they live and work
**** which makes this a surprisingly short blog post