Jennifer Dawn Carlson on Gun Politics in America

I was fortunate recently to host a leading sociologist studying American gun culture, Jennifer Dawn Carlson.

Jennifer_Dawn_Carlson_Lecture_Flier_Feb_14Dr. Carlson is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, but despite working north of the border she is an American and primarily studies American society. She has published a number of newspaper opinion pieces which attempt to speak across the divide between “pro” and “anti” gun camps. Among these are: “The Gun Debate Misses the Mark in Detroit” in the Detroit News and “The NRA’s Hidden Power” in the Los Angeles Times.

Carlson’s presentation last month was based on ideas she is developing in a forthcoming book called Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline (Oxford University Press, 2015). The book draws on research conducted on gun carriers — both open and concealed — in and around Detroit, Michigan, hence the “age of decline.” She argues that within the context of socioeconomic decline in general and personal decline experienced by men in particular, gun carriers reassert their relevance by identifying themselves as “citizen-protectors” (her term, not theirs).

In Carlson’s analysis, the social identity of the citizen-protector: (1) “Redefines lethal shooting, under certain circumstances, as a morally upstanding response to violent threat and an affirmation of one’s love for life,” (2) “Draws on the duty to protect as a historically male-dominated social function,” and (3) “Emphasizes protection as an esteemed form of masculinity.”

Thus, to understand why a growing number of Americans are getting licensed to carry handguns in public (or are exercising their right to open carry without a license where that is allowed) requires getting beyond the gun itself. Carrying a gun is about more than personal self-defense; it is an assertion of “relevance, dominance, and dignity.”

20140218_154411One thing I find particularly valuable about Carlson’s work is her valiant effort both to understand where gun carriers are coming from and to explain this to those who come from outside the gun culture. Her ability to speak across the divide, I hope, is enhanced by the fact that she did all that she could (as a young female from the People’s Republic of Berkeley) to walk-the-walk with gun carriers. She got a Michigan concealed carry license, carried a firearm regularly, and even became an NRA Certified Firearms Instructor. Short of actually shooting someone in defense of self or others, she did all she could to establish her bona fides.

Because I read it in draft form, I will not give away one of the punch lines to her book, but Carlson draws some important conclusions based on her time interviewing and hanging out with gun carriers. Conclusions she could only reach by hanging out with gun carriers. I am anxiously awaiting the publication of Citizen-Protectors to see whether those conclusions resonate with a broader audience.


  1. Interesting idea, and as a Canadian living in the United States who carries both openly and concealed wherever I can, there is a large element of truth to what Carlson is saying.
    However, there is an element of personal empowerment in the new realities of Gun Culture 2.0, and I am not sure that she is giving too much weight to “the decline of society” based on her conducting her research in Detroit. Gun permits are booming *everywhere* they can, and one would hardly say that the economy of Texas or Florida is in decline.
    There is a unique boom in personal empowerment going on at a level not seen since the early days of the printing press. We don’t need Walter Cronkite or the NY Times to tell us what the news is, we can chose from hundreds of cable channels or millions of online resources. If I want to read the news in my hometown of Calgary, I can read it on the Herald’s website myself, not hope to see glimpses of it on the news or pay outrageous amounts of money to have the paper shipped to me in the U.S.
    With the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage and other trends, people are realizing they need a large state less and less.
    So why, they think, do they need to hope there will be an armed representative of the state around when they really need one?


  2. Great question — my argument isn’t just that the ‘economy is down’ but that people are experiencing declining access to a particular version of America — what I call “Mayberry America,” a nostalgic version of America with plentiful jobs, widespread homeownership, upward mobility, and low levels of crime. Think: 1950s.

    This declining access to “Mayberry” is experienced in three keys: first, as downward mobility vis-a-vis one’s parents, and a general loss of confidence in the US economy – not just in Michigan but more generally. Second, it’s also a declining confidence in the state, especially police. And finally, it’s voiced through concerns about the threat of crime (even though there has been an overall drop in crime since the 1990s).

    But as you note, this is certainly NOT the only driver of pro-gun sentiment in the US — in fact, one of the major problems with public dialogues on American gun culture is that we’re often locked into this notion that there’s “one” gun culture and “one” driver that brings people to guns. This is a vast oversimplification – there are multiple gun cultures (by my count, there are at least four distinct regional gun cultures) and multiple reasons people turn to guns for protection. Your point about information access drives this point home even further, and the evidence suggests that contemporary American gun culture is more diverse than ever in terms of the demographics of people participating in it. So, by no means is my argument supposed to make a blanket generalization about all gun carriers in the US — I am unpacking one context, what I believe to be a usefully generative context, in which guns become embedded into everyday life.

    (And PS Just for accuracy, it wasn’t a Detroit police station — it was a station in Metro Detroit :)).


  3. Overall, though, is the nostalgia for a “Mayberry” misplaced, and is the perceived need for armed self-defense misplaced, illogical, or otherwise naive?


    • When I hear “nostalgia” I almost always think “the way things never were.” So, in that sense nostalgia for “Mayberry America” is probably misplaced. But if we take the specific indicators that Carlson highlights — plentiful jobs, widespread homeownership, upward mobility, and low levels of crime — giving all (or most) Americans access to that version of America is something to aspire to. I would say it is something aspirational rather than nostalgic.

      To the second part of your question, it is one of the ironies of the movement for armed self-defense that the people most likely to legally carry firearms are (probably, since good data is lacking) the least likely to ever need to use a firearm in self-defense.

      Does that, however, mean their felt need is misplaced, illogical, or naive? That is hard to say. On the one hand, the culture of fear is in full effect in American society distorting our sense of the dangers we face in everyday life (as Glassner argues), which is compounded by all sorts of cognitive biases that psychologists like Kahneman and Tversky highlight. This would tend to highlight the illogical.

      On the other hand, the science of risk analysis and decision making is challenged to address how to deal with “low probability, high consequence” events. How do you assess the rationality of protecting against something that is unlikely to happen, but if it happens it will really suck? For people who really are into calculating probabilities, it is a game of chance and they are hedging mightily. Sort of like Pascal’s Wager – better to plan for it and be wrong, than to not plan for it and be wrong.

      Recognizing the danger of analogies, I pay a boatload for auto, home, health, and life insurance. I keep a fire extinguisher in my kitchen. I have a first aid kit in my car. I wear my seatbelt to back my car out of my driveway. I wear a helmet when I ride my bike. I do everything I can in my life to make sure I never have to use any of these tools. And if I never have to use them, not only will I not feel naïve – I will be happy! The sensible advocates of armed citizenship I hear take this approach: do everything to reduce your risk of needing to defend your life to near zero, but be prepared if that unlikely scenario is realized. (Of course, in terms of preparation, there is a spectrum from people who carry pepper spray on their keychain to full-on preppers who never leave home without two guns, three knives, and a tactical flashlight.)

      I am attempting to understand this very phenomenon through my scholarly research, to be sure. But I must admit there is also a personal dimension to this as well. For 40 years of my life, I never once seriously feared for my (or, later, my kids’) lives. I was fortunate to live in the Mayberry America described above. But one weekend, because I chose to intervene in a conflict between a man and woman in the parking lot of my apartment complex – which I felt morally compelled to do – I brought the possibility of injury or death into my and my kids’ lives and home. And I was totally unprepared for it. So, I do believe that a person can be completely rational in preparing 100% for an event that is unlikely to take place.

      In any event, questions like those you raise are questions I am trying to answer in my research so I appreciate your raising them again and certainly welcome your further thoughts, if any.


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