Barry Saunders

Shotgun weddings, sans gun, still happen

A day after discovering that you can suffer from an ailment called “trigger finger” without pulling a trigger, I found out that you can have a shotgun wedding without an actual shotgun.

When I saw my sawbones this week and said “Doc, it hurts when I do this,” I expected him to say – hoped he would say – “Then don’t do that.”

He instead looked at my swollen, misshapen index finger and made the instantaneous diagnosis “trigger finger.”

Odd, that was, since I haven’t fired a weapon in a long time.

The next day, I spoke with Christina Gibson-Davis about shotgun weddings.

Gibson-Davis and two colleagues at Duke University had conducted a study on the phenomenon – which sounds like a relic left over from the hollers inhabited by the Hatfields and McCoys – and had some interesting insight.

The most interesting was to my first question.

Does the betrothed dude have to have a shotgun poking him in the ribs as he walks down the aisle or lines up in front of the Justice of the Peace? I asked.

Not at all, said Gibson-Davis.

“The idea that there’s a father standing there with a shotgun pointed at a quivering male who got his daughter pregnant, we don’t see that anymore,” she said. “It may have once happened, but it doesn’t anymore.”

The pressure applied to a possibly diffident bridegroom comes now not from the barrel of a shotgun, she said, but from the “social pressure” of having a child out of wedlock. There are still some women, she said, who want to be married before giving birth.

Those social pressures and desires seem to have abated, she said, but in the 1930s, U.S. Census data showed that half of all unmarried pregnant women in the United States married before giving birth.

By the second half of the 2000s, Census data they cited showed, only 6 percent of unmarried pregnant women rushed to tie the knot before cutting the umbilical cord.

Sorry about that: I’ll show myself out.

Gibson-Davis, a faculty fellow of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy and an associate professor of public policy, sociology and psychology and neuroscience at Duke, authored the study with Elizabeth O. Ananat and Anna Gassman-Pines.


In her interview with me and in a published release, Gibson-Davis said that while shotgun marriages have declined overall, they still occur.

“With apologies to Mark Twain, the death of shotgun marriage has been greatly exaggerated,” she said.

What’s really intriguing about shotgun weddings – other than the fact that the shotgun is optional – is that the study’s authors concluded that people who get married after conception but before birth are no more likely to divorce than people who go through the traditional courtship and don’t have a pregnancy boosting them down the aisle.

They also concluded that the people most likely to engage in a shotgun wedding are the ones who are, statistically speaking, less likely to marry at all.

“Not many people have a shotgun marriage, but it’s more common among groups who otherwise have low marriage rates – African-Americans, those with less education and those under 25,” said Gibson-Davis. “This matters because having married parents may be good for the children involved.”