Jennifer Carlson

University of Arizona sociology professor Jennifer Carlson was a bit taken aback by the conversations going on in her Guns in America class in 2016.

It was her first year at the UA and the gun debate in America was red hot in the midst of a presidential election that had the Second Amendment squarely at its center.

“At that point, what I was really surprised about was this exhaustion among students about politics,” she said. “What I’ve seen develop over the last few years is students are a lot more interested, a lot more engaged. Students are coming in and saying this is important that I understand this.”

And unlike their parents’ generation split over partisan divides, today’s young people are more level-headed and open-minded, focusing on finding solutions rather than scapegoats, Carlson determined.

She is hoping she can recreate that kind of dialogue with her UA Community Classroom Program course “Guns in America: Can We Have a Better Gun Debate?” The course kicks off Tuesday, Sept. 10, at the Loft Cinema on East Speedway and runs from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Oct. 15.

“The goal of this course is to create a community of people interested in guns so that we can talk about the issues in ways that are often precluded either by the very polarized debate ... or the bits and bites, where we don’t have time for the discussion,” said Carlson, who is beginning her fourth year at the UA. “One of the things I hope students will come away with is what actually the gun debate tells us about our legal system, about racial inequality and empathy in how we relate to one another.”

Carlson, 37, has long been interested in America’s gun culture. She focused her master’s and Ph.D. studies on guns at UC Berkeley after earning her bachelor’s in sociology and math from Dartmouth College. The gun debate back then was turning sideways following the election in 2008 of Barack Obama. Gun proponents were telling Americans that President Obama and Democrats were hellbent to take away their guns, which led to a dramatic spike in people buying firearms.

“There were a lot of headlines saying that guns were flying off the shelves and open carry was so much more commonplace compared to 50 years ago,” Carlson said.

Carlson conducted extensive interviews with gun owners and opponents and personally immersed herself in the gun culture, including legally buying a gun, taking and later teaching gun-safety courses and participating in activist events. Her research was the basis of her first book, “Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline,” published in 2015.

But since then, the debate has gotten even more fierce. With every mass shooting — as of Aug. 31, there were 297 mass shootings so far in 2019, including the shooting in Odessa, Texas, on Aug. 31 that left seven dead and 22 injured — that divide between those who support gun control and those who oppose it grows even wider.

And it is that divide that Carlson hopes to bridge, even a little.

“It is not to indoctrinate people on one side or the other. What I am interested in is to elevate our public discourse about guns,” she said. “The main goal is to arm people with the data and evidence.

“We will spend one class discussing the Second Amendment and how this short sentence has caused such turmoil across the generations,” she added. But “this course is more about learning to talk to each other. In some ways, the gun debate is the perfect vehicle to exercise that muscle because the issue is so polarizing. The point of this class is to get people to have a conversation.”

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com or 573-4642. On Twitter @Starburch

Cathalena has covered music for the Star for the past 20 years. She's a graduate of Arizona State University has worked at Sedona Red Rock News, Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls, New York; and USA Today.