CSGS Second Annual Undergraduate Research Conference

CSGS hosted its second annual Undergraduate Research Conference on April 26, 2024, in the Frank Center for Public Affairs on the Wesleyan campus.

The day-long conference featured undergraduate students from Wesleyan and Trinity College presenting original research on guns and society using mixed media.

CSGS founding director Jennifer Tucker shared how the conference theme, “Historical and Current Perspective on Guns and Society,” reflects a broad range of research topics. The students’ research supports the Center’s mission of learning from each other across disciplines and fostering connections between academics, artists, data science researchers, and communities at large.

Artist and “Reenacting Justice: Guns in America” co-instructor Glenn LaVertu shared clips from short films that students created as part of the course. LaVertu collaborated with the students on a video/installation titled Taking Aim (Reenacting Justice), 2024, currently on display in Wesleyan’s Olin Library.

The student videos are original scripted stories, conceived as “reenactments” of shootouts and showdown scenes from Western films such as High Noon (1952) and Tombstone (1993), with a superimposed contemporary context. In each video multiple ideas and viewpoints about the gun debate in America are addressed, thus the title: Taking Aim.

Taking Aim (Reenacting Justice), 2024, artist Glenn LaVertu

One example: Chloe Goorman ’24 and Fisher Hirsch ’26 address masculine vs. feminine tropes found in American Westerns, while exploring the notion that gun ownership and use was not unfettered in the “Wild West.” Their short film can be viewed here.

A special guest at the conference, Cameron McWhirter, Wall Street Journal reporter and co-author of American Gun: The True Story of the AR-15, sat for a conversation with Wesleyan Professor Peter Rutland. Together, they dissected the narrative of the AR-15, a symbol of American culture and political division.

Peter Rutland and Cameron McWhirter

In the book, McWhirter and co-author Zusha Elinson unraveled the gun’s evolution from military use in Vietnam to its civilian market surge. They highlighted the AR-15’s paradoxical design—optimized for combat yet easily wielded by novices, resulting in catastrophic mass shootings.

“The profit margins were so tempting that all the gun companies eventually jumped in,” said McWhirter. “That has left our country with an enormous problem of 20 to 25 million AR-15s.”

Reflecting on their investigation, McWhirter recognized the interplay of technology and society, emphasizing the need for nuanced discourse amid ideological divisions.

“It’s a story about how technology pulls society to places it’s not prepared to be,” shared McWhirter.