Carrying Guns, Embodying Gun Culture

“Embedded into everyday life, guns become commonplace objects to be worn and carried with purpose – rather than taboo ‘killing machines’ that should be kept out of sight and out of mind.” – Jennifer Carlson, Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline (p. 83).

In my previous post, I highlighted Jennifer Carlson’s argument that a large and under-appreciated part of the National Rifle Association’s power in American society comes from its presence in local communities rather than its Washington lobbying.

Carlson’s insights into the role of the NRA in promoting the ideal of the citizen-protector came from interviews with trainers, observation of NRA classes, and participation in hands on shooting and training events.

As if that wasn’t far enough (for a sociologist), Carlson went even further in her ethnographic research in order to more fully understand the meaning of legal gun carry. She became an NRA-certified instructor for Basic Pistol and Personal Protection in the Home, two of the classes that Michigan residents can take to fulfill the training requirement for the concealed pistol license.

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Carlson also got a concealed pistol license herself and carried a gun in public every day of her fieldwork. Although she usually carried concealed, she also opened carried on occasion, including open carrying into a police station as part of a protest on behalf of an open carrier who was unjustly fined for open carrying.

By becoming a gun carrier herself – if only for purposes of her research? – Carlson felt “the weight of the gun heavy on my hip” (p. 75). This allowed her to see something that many academics who study guns and activists who oppose guns do not: For gun carriers, gun culture is embodied (p. 69).

Not only that, the NRA “helps to cultivate affective ties [and not just fear and resentment among gun owners] between a gun carrier and his or her gun by emphasizing the moral and lawful duties that this gun represents. NRA classes help to transform gun politics into more than mere ideology: gun carry is an embodied means of doing citizenship” (p. 83).

Gun carriers are not just proclaiming their rights as citizens; they are exercising them (p. 84). This goes a long way toward understanding the strength of the gun rights movement on the ground, complementing political scientist Matt Grossman’s argument for why “money can’t buy you the NRA.”



  1. Ok, now I really want to read this book. I enjoyed Paul Barrett’s “Glock” book because he was willing to train with Massad Ayoob and shoot in IDPA match, and reading that Ms. Carlson went one (way more than one!) step further and became an NRA Instructor herself adds innumerable weight to her insights.
    And it’s available on Kindle as well. No reason not to buy it now.


    • It is more “scholarly” than Barrett’s in writing style, but still very much worth reading. I don’t agree with every word of it, but it is a very good study of an extremely important social development in the last 30 years (as you know).


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