Language of the Gun Youth, Crime, and Public Policy
by Bernard E. Harcourt
University of Chicago Press, 2006
Cloth: 978-0-226-31608-6 | Paper: 978-0-226-31609-3 | Electronic: 978-0-226-31607-9
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226316079.001.0001


Legal and public policies concerning youth gun violence tend to rely heavily on crime reports, survey data, and statistical methods. Rarely is attention given to the young voices belonging to those who carry high-powered semiautomatic handguns. In Language of the Gun, Bernard E. Harcourt recounts in-depth interviews with youths detained at an all-malecorrectional facility, exploring how they talk about guns and what meanings they ascribe to them in a broader attempt to understand some of the assumptions implicit in current handgun policies. In the process, Harcourt redraws the relationships among empirical research, law, and public policy.

Home to over 150 repeat offenders ranging in age from twelve to seventeen, the Catalina Mountain School is made up of a particular stratum of boys—those who have committed the most offenses but will still be released upon reaching adulthood. In an effort to understand the symbolic and emotional language of guns and gun carrying, Harcourt interviewed dozens of these incarcerated Catalina boys. What do these youths see in guns? What draws them to handguns? Why do some of them carry and others not? For Harcourt, their often surprising answers unveil many of the presuppositions that influence our laws and policies.


Bernard E. Harcourt is professor of law at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing and the editor of Guns, Crime, and Punishment in America.


Language of the Gun shows why Bernard Harcourt has earned a reputation as one of our most provocative and informative analysts of the administration of criminal justice. Thoroughly interdisciplinary, he brings to bear on his subject a remarkably wide range of sources. Most striking are his probing interviews with at-risk youths which provide a fascinating and rare glimpse into how they think about guns and gun carrying. This book bristles with insight and information.”
— Randall Kennedy, Randall Kennedy

“Bernard Harcourt is surely one of the most creative scholars working at the intersection of law, social science, and policy. In Language of the Gun, he presents a fresh and empirical look at the meaning of guns for youths that helps shed new light on broader theoretical and policy issues.”
— Calvin Morrill, Calvin Morrill

"[Harcourt} embraces the metaphor of 'dirty hands' in this erudite, fascinating, and boldly reasoned volume to understand how public policies can be informed by the symbolic meanings attributed to guns by incarcerated youths. . . . It is an important book, one that forces each of us to examine the assumptions that underlie our work. Harcourt's work is a gift to the field, a work that stimulates, frustrates, inspires, and, most important, motivates us to think and read more."
— Michael B. Greene, PsychCritiques (APA)

"A very important book in my view. Harcourt has given the opportunity for the voices of young people, both perpetrators and victims of gun violence, to be heard through his research. . . . He has conducted a methodologically unique study. The empirical findings are very much welcome."
— Georgios A. Antonopolous, The Howard Journal



Part One: A Semiotic of the Gun

1. Catalina Mountain School, Tucson, Arizona

2. A Road Map of the Catalina Interviews

3. Symbolic Dimensions and Primary Meanings

4. Three Clusters of Primary Meanings

5. Placing the Clusters in Practice Contexts

6. The Sensual, Moral, and Political Dimensions of Guns

Part Two: Exploring Methodological Sensibilities

7. Sartre and the Phenomenological Gaze

8. Lévi-Strauss and the Structural Map

9. Bourdieu and Practice Theory

10. Butler and the Performative

11. Embracing the Paradigm of Dirty Hands

Part Three: Mapping Law and Public Policy

12. A Genealogy of the Youth Gun Field

13. The Landscape of Law and Public Policy

14. Leaps of Faith in Levitt and Bourgois

15. Making Ethical Choices in Law and Public Policy


Appendix: Treatment of Juvenile Records in State Sentencing