As the first decade of the twenty-first century came to a close, I found myself transfixed by the doom-and-gloom reports about the future of gun politics the “morning after” the election of President Barack Obama. The November 2008 spike in gun and ammunition sales seemed to insist that Obama, who had declared on the campaign trail that downtrodden Americans “cling to guns and religion,” would move to aggressively regulate, if not out-right ban, firearms. Of course, Obama would do no such thing: he signed bills that expanded gun rights, while his calls for congressional action to tighten background checks and explore other gun regulations were met with inaction. Nevertheless, with each high-profile incident of gun violence—the murder of Trayvon Martin, the murder of Jordan Davis, the Sandy Hook Massacre, the Charleston Church Massacre, the Pulse Nightclub Massacre—the gun debate reached an impossibly more intractable deadlock.“How could a thorough understanding of guns in the United States proceed without some sociological sensibility?”
The sudden high profile that gun politics assumed in late 2008 sparked my sociological imagination—and I eagerly wanted to find out what, exactly, sociologists had to say about gun politics. After all, sociologists are poised to explain the nuanced relationships between microlevel interactions and macrolevel structures, to tether together lines of difference, such as race and gender, to make sense of social phenomena, and to think through the relationship between politics and practice—including the practice of politics. How could a thorough understanding of guns in the United States proceed without some sociological sensibility? Some important works notwithstanding, I found myself stunned that so few scholars in my field had engaged and unpacked such a central phenomenon in US society. Although scholarship abounds on criminal guns, the last time the American Journal of Sociology or the American Sociological Review—sociology’s two flagship journals—published work substantively related to legally-owned guns was in the 1980s.1For example, see Jo Dixon Alan J. Lizotte, “Gun Ownership and the ‘Southern Subculture of Violence’,” American Journal of Sociology 93, no. 2 (1987): 383–405; David McDowall and Colin Loftin, “Collective Security and the Demand for Legal Handguns,” American Journal of Sociology 88, no. 6 (1983): 1146–1161; Douglas A. Smith Craig D. Uchida, “The Social Organization of Self-Help: A Study of Defensive Weapon Ownership,” American Sociological Review 53, no. 1 (1988): 94–102. Since then, there have, of course, been reviews of books that, e.g., analyze American gun culture, as well as analyses that use, e.g., the National Rifle Association as a case among many. There have also been studies that could illuminate—and be illuminated by—an inquiry into US gun culture, especially recent published work on lynching and the racial politics of law enforcement, but these are generally not connected more broadly to gun culture, the politics of self-defense and/or the sociolegal terrain of legitimate violence.
The United States has long been a gun-owning country, and guns have played indelible roles in a variety of historical moments and social contexts. But something had fundamentally changed in the decades leading up to Obama’s election: not only did Americans own guns, they also carried them—and in record numbers, thanks to new laws loosening restrictions on concealed carry licensing. This transformation means that, by last count, at least 16 million Americans are licensed to carry guns, and even more millions of Americans live in states like Arizona, Maine, Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont, and others that do not require a license to carry a firearm in public. This shift has been uneven—states like California and New York have tightened gun laws as much of the rest of the country loosened them—but its magnitude alone should have incited far more interest. To paraphrase political scientist and public scholar Kristin Goss, there is perhaps no public issue of such pressing importance that is so proportionately understudied as gun policy, gun culture, and gun politics.
Limits to the current approaches
Though constraints on federal funding for gun violence research (especially the Dickey Amendment) have most directly impacted public health research on gun injuries, most scholarship on guns uses a public health, criminological, or legal approach, rather than a social science, lens. Such research is geared at developing an evidence base that can guide the crafting of gun policy. While some of this research has revealed consistently illuminating findings (e.g., Zimring’s instrumentality effect2Franklin E. Zimring, “The Medium Is the Message: Firearm Caliber as a Determinant of Death from Assault,” Journal of Legal Studies 1, no. 1 (Jan., 1972): 97–123.), it has also at times been frustratingly contradictory, ambiguous, inconclusive, or merely “suggestive.” A recent RAND Corporation survey of existing scholarship on gun policy effects only finds strong evidence of gun violence prevention for safe storage and child access prevention policies.
The impasses that characterize both public debates and scholarly inquiries into gun policy are at times indicative of mutual omissions that tend to reduce the US experience of guns into more narrow questions of violence and policy. This makes it easy to assert that the answer reduces to a mere advocacy of “more guns” or “less guns.” But as law and society scholars note, policies are only as good as the people who implement them, on the one hand, and the people who follow them, on the other—a key reason as to why gun policies may not work in the United States “as expected” (the ineffectiveness of gun buybacks being one example). Without understanding not just why Americans own and carry guns but also how guns matter in their day-to-day lives, scholars, pundits, and politicians risk imputing a whole host of assumptions about the social life of guns in the United States.
Masculinity and guns
My book, Citizen-Protectors,3New York: Oxford University Press, 2015More Info → aimed to provide just such a sociological intervention: to tease apart why Americans—particularly American men—carry guns and how their carried guns transform themselves and the social worlds around them. Interviewing, and carrying alongside, men gun carriers in Michigan, I learned about how socioeconomic decline shaped how men understood themselves, and found their footing as men, through guns; how race shaped the meanings that men attached to their guns, especially with regard to public law enforcement; and how NRA-certified gun training transformed gun carry from a mere practice to a civic duty, one that gun carriers affirmed by virtue of their decision to be armed.“Guns provide an alternative basis through which to recuperate one’s dignity as a man: one that does not revolve around the precarious capacity to provide but around the concrete right to protect.”
Unpacking how gun carrying transforms the gendered and racialized meanings of citizenship; the social distribution of policing (at least symbolically); and the moral politics of lethal violence, this book develops the term “citizen-protector” to capture how men use guns to assert their authority, dignity, and relevance to their families, and even their broader communities, by embracing a duty to protect—up to and including the willingness to kill. This is intimately related to the erosion of a core pillar of masculinity—breadwinning—due to a neoliberal shift away from manufacturing. Guns provide an alternative basis through which to recuperate one’s dignity as a man: one that does not revolve around the precarious capacity to provide but around the concrete right to protect. This model of citizenship circulates informally in shooting ranges, gun clubs, and online gun forums and in the formal training programs (usually run by NRA-certified instructors) that are required by law to obtain a concealed pistol license in most states.
This “citizen-protector” model took on different meanings for men in different social positions. For middle-class white men, for example, it primarily entailed a commitment to their families and provided a way to position themselves as protectors within their own households, especially amid a context of felt socioeconomic insecurity. For men of color, legal gun carry often provided a way to practice an “off-limits” form of masculine citizenship (as armed men of color are often presumed to be criminals by police and civilians alike) and to resist police scrutiny captured in phrases like “driving while Black,” “walking while Black,” and, I argue, “Black man with a gun.” Given the important intersection between race and guns, social scientists must reckon explicitly with both the marginalization of scholars of color in the gun debate as well as how the terms of the gun debate on both sides—albeit in different ways and at different pitches—work to marginalize the perspectives of those who are most impacted by gun violence: urban communities of color.
Citizen-Protectors was aimed at understanding gun carriers, but it also transformed my understanding of the NRA: stated simply, the NRA is so much more than one of Washington’s most powerful lobby organizations. For the roughly one million Americans who go through NRA training every year, the NRA represents a community service organization that spreads firearms safety and training, and works to protect not just the rights but also the well-being of gun-owning Americans. In addition to providing a way for the NRA to embed in local contexts, this tactile, concrete training component—imbued, no doubt, with political and social meaning—is an edge enjoyed by gun rights proponents that advocates of gun control policy too often overlook.
Rethinking legitimate violence
Since my early surprise at most social scientists’ disinterest in US gun culture, there has been surge of new work. Scholars such as Angela Stroud, Jooyoung Lee, David Yamane, and Harel Shapira have mobilized sociological critique that both interrogates the racial and gender dynamics of gun carry culture and provides new sensibilities to rethink what “culture” means in that context. But scholars of gun carry culture have only begun to scratch the surface of the social life of guns in the United States.
Not only do scholars of US gun culture have much to gain from sociological insight, but sociology stands to gain as well. The social life of guns offers unparalleled opportunities to rethink the normalization of violence in US society; to dissect how race, gender, and class ideologies shape the social construction of social problems such as gun violence; to interrogate the durability, or instability, of the relationship between the state and legitimate violence; to dissect the contemporary politics of trauma by examining how gun carry culture transforms gun-related trauma, from active shootings to justifiable homicides to negligent gun injury; to further theorize the carceral state by examining the unexpected—shall we call them “collateral consequences”?—of gun regulations, especially along the lines of race and gender;4Jennifer Carlson, “Legally Armed but Presumed Dangerous: An Intersectional Analysis of Gun Carry Licensing as a Racial/Gender Degradation Ceremony,” Gender & Society 32, no. 2 (2017): 204–227. and more.“The state’s relationship to the monopoly of legitimate violence, particularly in the United States, is often assumed as a settled outcome of historical dynamics.”
As one example, consider how the social life of guns could reinvigorate scholarship on legitimate violence, a term typically defined as physical coercion that can be justified by recourse to law, justice, and/or moral authority. On this topic, sociologists often take a historical view—think Max Weber on the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence, Norbert Elias on the civilizing process, or Michel Foucault on sovereign power. The state’s relationship to the monopoly of legitimate violence, particularly in the United States, is often assumed as a settled outcome of historical dynamics. But framing this issue from the perspective of the social life of guns raises different questions: the proliferation of lawful guns in the hands of civilians and the prominence of progun sensibilities in everyday US life brings legitimate violence from the back stages to the front stages of social life, contra Elias. Gun carry culture forces us to blur commonly held distinctions between sovereign and disciplinary power to understand the capacity to exercise legitimate violence as a means of becoming a full citizen—indeed, a “good guy with a gun” (an interpretation of sovereign power, I would argue, that is more in line with Foucault’s original formulation5Jennifer Carlson, “States, Subjects and Sovereign Power: Lessons from Global Gun Cultures,” Theoretical Criminology 18, no. 3 (2013): 335–353.). And the widespread embrace of gun rights over gun control among state agents such as the police suggests that the usual disclaimers appended to Weber’s definition of the state monopoly on legitimate violence—namely, that the state does not claim this monopoly solely for itself as much as it defines the terms of this monopoly—are insufficient for fully grasping the relationship between an armed state and an armed populace. On this last point, it is worth asking not just how or why the US state apparatus enacts particular gun policies but also what states stand to gain from loosened gun laws. Such a perspective would mean considering gun law enforcement not as a top-down bureaucratic mechanism (as often imagined in criminological and public health studies on guns) but as a dynamic, social process that mutually co-constitutes the lines between the state and citizenry, especially along the axes of race, class, and gender.6I explore some of these questions in my upcoming book with Princeton University Press, Policing the Second Amendment.
On this and other points, social scientists, including sociologists, are uniquely positioned to address how Americans come to grips with guns. If the past is any indication, however, this promise may be met with a particular uneasiness: fully harnessing this potential will require thinking with theoretical creativity regarding the contemporary social life of guns, which necessarily means letting go, even if provisionally, the tried-and-true terms of the gun debate. This is an incredibly daunting moment for a distinctly sociological approach to guns—and, for that reason, an immensely exciting one.