Gun Present takes us inside the everyday operations of the law at a courthouse in the Deep South. Illuminating the challenges accompanying the prosecution of criminal cases involving guns, the three coauthors—an anthropologist, a geographer, and a district attorney—present a deeply human portrait of prosecutors’ work. Built on an immersive, community-based participatory partnership between researchers and criminal justice professionals, Gun Present chronicles how a justice assemblage comprising institutional structures and practices, relationships and roles, and individual moral and emotional worlds informs the day-to-day administration of justice. Weaving together in-depth interviews, quantitative analysis of more than a thousand criminal cases, analysis of trial transcripts, and over a year of ethnographic observations, Gun Present provides a model for scholar-practitioner collaborations.

The passage below is excerpted from the Introduction of Gun Present.

Just feet from District Attorney Hays Webb’s desk on the fourth floor of the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse, the office is abuzz with conversations among prosecutors. A police investigator, head slightly bowed, lopes through an open office door, his forehead already beaded with summer sweat from the short walk across the alley from the Sheriff’s Office, to discuss the details of a gun case. “Another shooting? At 7:45 a.m. on a Tuesday?” asks a passing paralegal, her dismay softened by Alabama’s characteristically languid vowels. An Assistant District Attorney gives her a quick hug as she passes on her way downstairs to court, trailed by a police investigator carrying a box of evidence, including a 9mm handgun a defend- ant was accused of using to commit murder.

Glancing down at the felony report in her hands, the first page emblazoned with a “Gun Present” stamp, its crimson ink bleeding out onto the page at a forty-five-degree angle, the assistant district attorney braces her- self to review yet another several hundred pages of evidence photos, witness statements, phone records, and other information pertinent to the prosecution of criminal cases involving firearms. She puts down her coffee cup and sighs as she opens Filemaker, the office’s internal case management system. She has 596 felony cases to prosecute, many of which involve a gun. Her files marked “Gun Present” span the gamut of human frailty, bad decisions, and just plain terrible luck. Drug deals gone wrong enough to involve a shooting that, despite the shooter’s intentions, left the victim alive due to bad aim. Love triangle murders with the victim shot in the head at such close range the ballistics expert states that the defendant must have pressed the gun barrel directly against the victim’s sweat-beaded forehead before pulling the trigger in the bed they used to share. Bystander shootings at apartment complexes that have become battlegrounds between rivals. Drive-by shootings committed by defendants with lengthy criminal histories.

Seeing “Gun Present” evokes vivid images of scenes from myriad cases. “Bang!” explodes the muffled reverberation of close-range gunfire in her mind as she looks at evidence photos taken at the crime scene, developing her theory of the case as she imagines a home invasion victim’s absolute terror in their last living moments. “Bang!” goes the gun fired by another young shooter who, with more bravado than skill, fails to kill his teenage rival. “Bang!” ends the drug deal gone wrong.

She and her fellow felony prosecutors spend much of their time sorting through the detritus of such human suffering chronicled in police reports, victim and witness statements, crime scene photos, videos, and physical evidence related to near-daily violence as they search for truth while trying to make sense of the senseless. Murdering another human being for a half- pint mason jar of marijuana. For making too much noise next door at a Fourth of July party. For wanting to see other people. The list goes on.

The red “Gun Present” stamp on a felony report does not relate only to the actual misuse of a gun, as it also recognizes the increased danger any time a gun is present during the commission of any crime. These are the “what if” cases with guns—those scenarios that do not involve a shooting but nonetheless have significant potential for violence due to the presence of a firearm. “Bang!” could have screamed the sawed-off shotgun propped against decaying particleboard cabinets when police executed a search war- rant in a mobile home following a confidential informant’s controlled buy of a large amount of methamphetamine earlier that day.

“Bang!” could have resounded from the 9mm handgun and its multiple magazines the patrol officer found lodged under the front seat of a car driven by a man with multiple felony armed robbery and assault convictions. “It’s my wife’s gun,” the driver tries to reason with officers as he puts his hands behind his back, his mind now in countdown mode until his parole officer inevitably revokes his freedom and sends him back to prison. “I didn’t even know it was in there.” “Bang!” could have sent a bullet racing into the body of the woman whose ex-boyfriend’s family beat and pepper sprayed her while he waved his handgun in her direction, vowing to return and kill her. Indeed, “bang” could result from the presence of a gun during even a simple misdemeanor theft; the presence of a gun during any intentional criminal act changes the significance of the crime.

The Assistant District Attorney knows she must stay focused on the facts beyond change, and if they point to a crime, how to build her case with what she has—to be on the offensive instead of worrying constantly about what the defense is going to do. Her job is to see where the facts and law intersect when analyzing the evidence and assembling the state’s case. Proper preparation demands that she challenge all from every source, and when confident that she has arrived at Truth, craft an unassailable story that resonates with those who will determine guilt or innocence. She understands that her witnesses and her victims may not want to talk. She believes it when they say they’re scared, that they don’t like police. She’s less credulous when they say they are “too busy” to come talk to her at the courthouse about a criminal case. She understands it’s an impossible position to be in, so she doesn’t dwell on it. She can’t. There are too many people, indeed an entire community, counting on her and her fellow prosecutors.