In my sociology of guns class this week and next, we are reading and discussing Jennifer Carlson’s book Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline. Today I want to reflect some on the issue of race and gun carrying, reflections occasioned by Carlson’s book.
As noted previously, Carlson’s study is focused on concealed and open carriers in and around Detroit, Michigan. In the introduction to her book, we meet Jason, an African American in his 30s. A native of Detroit, he chooses to open carry a .45 caliber handgun while walking along one of the city’s major thoroughfares.
Jason is not exceptional, except for the fact that he chooses to carry openly rather than concealed. Carlson observes that “in Detroit and its suburbs, African Americans have higher rates of concealed carry licensees per capita than white residents” (p. 5). For the state as a whole in 2013, blacks were 14.3% of the population, but 21% of license holders (p. 17).
This was not altogether surprising to me since “Law-Abiding One-Man Armies,” a study of concealed weapon permitting in Seattle in 1972, found that in all areas of the city the rate of permit applications was higher for blacks than whites.
And it makes sense that those who live in more dangerous areas might be more likely to arm themselves. Rates of reported victimization on the Seattle permit applications were much higher for blacks than whites, and much higher in the “ghetto” area (39%) than in the predominantly white area (7%).
And yet, those who are anti-gun (and who tend to live in areas in which they are relatively safe) often feel they know what is best for those who live in areas where they are much more likely to be victimized. Take Jonathan Metzl, for example. He is the Frederick B. Rentschler II Professor of Sociology and Medicine, Health, and Society, the Director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society, and a Professor of Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University. (More on Metzl is a separate post, as well.)
In an editorial titled, “Colion Noir, the NRA’s ‘urban gun enthusiast,’ is off target,” Metzl criticizes Noir’s argument that the “only person responsible for your safety is you.” He calls the NRA’s employment of Noir to reach out to a younger, more urban, and more minority audience “cynical” and “disingenuous.” Why? Because urban America “is quite clearly the worst place to introduce more guns. Indeed, guns are already readily available in low-income minority areas.”
But Noir is not just promoting gun carry in urban areas, he reflects the already existing reality of LEGAL gun carrying by African Americans for their own protection, from Seattle in 1972 to Detroit in 2012.
As National Public Radio reported earlier this year, “According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 54 percent of blacks now see gun ownership as a good thing, something more likely to protect than harm. That’s up from 29 percent just two years ago.”
Of course, being a “black man with a gun” is not easy, as Carlson discusses throughout her book. Jason, the open carrier in Detroit, was stopped and questioned by police who looked at him like he was “Frankenstein or something” (p. 3). Interviews with other people of color who carried guns led Carlson to conclude that they “experienced profiling both as people of color and as gun carriers” (p. 121). Urban black men not only cannot rely on the police to protect them, they often face hostility from the police, which doubly justifies gun carrying for some.
To be sure, the racial politics and realities of guns in America are never clean and simple. Armed Black Panthers in the California statehouse in 1967 led to the hastily passed Mulford Act, which was signed into law by conservative hero Ronald Reagan. This was followed shortly by the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, which ironically catalyzed the modern gun rights movement, which was led and populated mostly by older white men. Metzl makes some interesting points about this, as does Carlson (see her blog post on the topic in addition to Citizen-Protectors).
But the idea that people who have a higher probability of being victimized should not seek to defend themselves is one that I, at least, do not accept. Even though my social position makes me very unlikely to be a victim of violence, my probability of victimization is not zero. In fact, I encountered a very threatening situation only a few years ago which moved me very powerfully to want to defend myself and my children.