Field season safety: Part II

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.

Accidents happen

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: and to learn about gun laws in your particular state, a good resource is:

*** 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

14 thoughts on “Field season safety: Part II

  1. I believe, personally, that there is such a deep political divide concerning gun ownership in the US, that the debate has been short-circuited. New legislation- good, bad or otherwise simply does not get passed. Training & education are the issue, and academia should take notice of that. Switzerland illustrates guns do not kill people, people kill people.

    Switzerland has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the world. In 2014, Switzerland had 8.1 million people. There were 18 homicides involving firearms during that entire year. Chicago appears to reach that number in a weekend…. . Switzerland also has among the most extensive and stringent of firearms training regimens in the world- and it works.

    Imagine that… education, not eradication, solves the problem.

    • that’s an interesting point – if Switzerland has a lot of gun ownership, do you think that the concerns I just raised about fieldwork safety and guns are not issues there?

      • Actually, one of the major concerns are women who bicycle- of which there are many. Biking is very popular there, and apparently a majority of women carry guns for protection. Many have expressed that when they bike on rural roads, they are especially vulnerable. So, I am betting they would carry in remote field settings too.

        • Interesting. See, I am not advocating carrying guns in response to other people carrying guns (see part about “Accidents Happen” …). I don’t think that’s the answer. But I don’t have good answers to the problem at large.

          • Certainly there exists a potential for accidents. But the same can be said for automobiles- and look at how many people are killed by them… far more than guns. You are correct though- guns should not be used in response to others having them.

            Education really is the answer, though. My entire family was educated at young ages on the appropriate use of firearms, along with all of the safety training. When use properly, there is virtually no chance of an accident because multiple precautions are taken that eliminate any one oversight from causing an accident.

            So I will leave it there. We should focus on training and education. I think both sides could compromise on that. If they did, then we could have the kind of stats we see in Switzerland.

          • yes, this is why my first post about field safety was about driving and road safety. But it’s not either/or — both are hazards.

            Many US states don’t require a lot of training (if any) for handguns; they let you have one if you passed hunter safety. Education may need to be mandatory and appropriate to prevent more accidents (my personal view).

  2. There has been a lot of discussion of this on the Writing Center I work in at my college, and a couple teachers within the last week have been engaging students in lock-down drills. As I spoke to a fellow reader in the Writing Center, she told me of when she was volunteering for her kids’ school in Texas, and any one walking down the street, not aiming for the school, but going for a walk with their open-carried gun (perfectly (ha!) legal in Texas)–anything of this nature would send the school into a lock down. It’s to the point where we fight so much for the right to own a gun, yet we’re terrified of everyone that has one, even if they’re in compliance with the law. It’s a rather mad state of affairs we seem to be existing in.

  3. Thank you for writing a fairly level-headed essay on the this topic.

    I would suggest that the primary _addressable_ issue is one of civility. Switzerland has a high guns-per-capita ratio, and a low firearm homicide ratio compared to Chicago, because Switzerland culturally places a high priority on personal responsibility for one’s actions, and on civility towards ones neighbors. Chicago, not so much. You can see the same phenomena played out in different US settings as well: You’re far, far more likely to be shot (or otherwise killed or injured by another human) at, or in the urban environments surrounding your university, than you are in remote rural areas.

    With the exception of accidentally stumbling on an illegal cannabis farm or secluded methamphetamine farm in the woods, your likelihood of actually being intentionally _shot_ by a “local yokel” with a gun, is quite slim. Threatened with a gun if you don’t leave their property (or what they perceive to be their property), that’s a different matter, but actually shot, is quite unlikely. To them, guns are simply the most straightforward tool they have to convince you that you ought to actually listen, and go “cause trouble” somewhere else. (The presence of alcohol is another confounding factor – if there’s alcohol mixing with deadly implements – firearms or otherwise – it’s time to get the heck out of dodge).

    This does cycle back to improving safety (and possibly access) at field sites: The issue you and your colleagues have experienced with access to the state plot, and to streams, is one of civility. If the nearby landowners had been approached first, most likely, you wouldn’t have had any problems. Where I’m from, you probably would have even been offered lunch.

    It doesn’t matter that “it’s not their land so they shouldn’t care”. In most of rural America, neighbors look out for each other, and for each other’s property. The vast majority of the time that someone unknown, is doing “something” on the empty plot next door, that someone is up to something no good. For every one of you, who’s trying to take samples from the (yes, state-right-of-way) waterways that run through their back yards, there are 100 Sundays when they’ve had to drag the trashed mattresses out of the stream, and spend hours cleaning up all the broken glass from the smashed beer bottles from uncivil kids partying on Friday and Saturday night. It hardly matters that the state has a right-of-way on navigable waterways – the state isn’t the one who is forced to clean up the constant destruction and trash-pile, if someone doesn’t guard it.

    You want access to a stream and don’t want run off the land like you’re a hoodlum? Knock on the local doors carrying trash bags, explain what you’re doing, and promise to pick up trash and leave the place in better shape than you found it. In short, be civil, and generally you’ll be welcomed with open arms. Go tromping down “their” stream without knocking first, and you’re going to be treated like the rest of the uncivil hoodlums they’ve encountered. Given that those people are probably from the local city, and have as little respect for life as one sees in Chicago, your average rural landowner is inclined go into those encounters armed.

    And by the way – you’re overwhelmingly more likely to be wrongfully shot by the police, than by a person legally carrying a concealed weapon – look it up… If you’re not too worried about being killed by the police, it’s pretty silly to spend time agonizing about the chance of being shot by someone _else_ carrying a concealed weapon.

    • Ray, I appreciate you sharing your viewpoints. Please keep our comment policies in mind when making statements about “hoodlums” “those people” or references to urban residents – or else we will have to remove your comments. You don’t actually know the specifics of the incidents I mentioned. Maybe you have reasons for wanting to confront people with guns, but please refrain from generalizing about people, rural or urban. I live in a rural area and do not confront people with guns, even if I think they might be on the wrong property parcel.

  4. As a graduate student doing fieldwork in the central valley, the ranchers would routinely shoot at us. Not ‘at’ us, but near enough to scare us. They thought it was good sport (they were actually out for a day of drinking beer and shooting ground squirrels, but scaring the ecologists was too good of a diversion). I have a very clear understanding of what it sounds like to have a bullet whizzing by your head.

  5. Following up on W Ray’s comment, I am wondering whether there are a few things that might pre-empt this – e.g. contacting the adjacent landowners (land or state-owned-waterways) before you do the fieldwork, so that they are aware you will be arriving around certain dates for fieldwork, then visiting to introduce yourself/your team, and (probably even better) having some form of authorisation letter that can explain who you are, what you are doing, and signed off by whoever owns the land. As to the beer/guns issue (proguncontrol) did you make a police report on those incidents, discuss it with your university supervisors/administrators, or just kept quiet?

    • Yes, many researchers do all of those things — and please remember that privacy is also a concern. Many adjacent landowners don’t want to be bothered with a meeting, let alone give their names (coupled with addresses) — and many cooperator/landowners (or agencies’ with land) don’t know or don’t feel comfortable sharing the contact info for all of their neighbors. Those are very legit and competing concerns. And I’ve met with neighbors of landowners before, but you can’t meet with all of them realistically (or all of their family members, etc). There is always someone who knows what you’re doing and someone who doesn’t — that’s the reality.

      I personally always travel with authorization letters, in order to show anyone who has questions. And if anyone asks me about our work/what we’re doing out there, we spend as long as the person wants discussing it. This post wasn’t about field decorum (which would include many of your suggestions as best practices) though. And while I agree that there are ways that researchers can make neighbors feel more comfortable, that line of reasoning veers dangerously towards “your attire/dress/demeanor was asking for a confrontation with a gun.” Threats of violence are never the answer. Couldn’t we also say that if a neighbor felt uncomfortable with people sampling in a stream that they could call the authorities, rather than take measures into their own hands?

      There is also a degree of anti-state sentiment depending on where you live, which agency you’re working with/for, and whether or not your university is public/private. Some neighbors distrust “the government” or “the state” and may treat visitors, even with authorization, as trespassers because of those views.

  6. I work in Australia, and I love our strict gun control laws. However, the issue of gun safety is still important when we undertake remote fieldwork: most farmers and country folk have licensed guns for their own purposes… usually hunting and/or scaring pests away from crops, etc. I have been ‘threatened’ (intimidated, really) by farmers who didn’t want us coming on to ‘their’ land (which is actually government owned). I’ve also been in cars that have been hurtling along off-road and on bad tracks, only to find later that one of the men I was working with had a loaded rifle in the cab with him (because he wanted to shoot a kangaroo if he saw one). A friend of mine had someone accidentally shoot a hole in the car’s dash when he was cleaning a rifle, which he hadn’t realised was loaded. Despite working in close proximity to guns, I’ve never had any training on how to safely handle one, or how to handle a situation where someone has a gun. While it’s not exactly a common occurrence, it’s not rare, either, and in all of these occasions I’ve simply had to trust that the people I was with knew more about gun safety than I did, so would be responsible. That doesn’t seem like a great approach!

  7. A colleague on fieldwork in the UK had her research birds shot by an angry farmer. Had he threatened the researchers with the gun, he could have expected a custodial sentence (which I whole-heartedly applaud!). I just can’t imagine having to risk-assess the chance of gun violence threatening my research. So alien. Glad I don’t live in the US…

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