From Citizen-Protector to Citizen-Vigilante?

Continuing my response to a commenter about the potential downsides of gun carriers as sheepdogs. . .

In her study of gun carriers in Michigan, Jennifer Carlson develops the concept of the “citizen-protector” to describe how “the everyday practice of gun carry sustains a model of citizenship . . . that celebrates the protection of self and others as an everyday civic duty. . . . This is a particular kind of citizen who is willing to take (criminal) life in order to save (innocent) life” (pp. 19-20). Citizen-protectors see this not just as a pragmatic choice made out of necessity (e.g., “I carry a gun because I can’t carry a cop”). They see it as a “moral duty” (p. 20).

Carlson Citizen Protectors Cover

As noted, the expansion from the right of self-defense to the duty to protect others (including strangers) is the subject of chapter 4 of the book. Carlson takes this analysis a step further in chapter 6 – “Jumping the Gun” – in which she examines the slippage from being a citizen-protector to a citizen-vigilante.

Wayne LaPierre of the NRA is famous for having drawn a clear line between “a good guy with a gun” and “a bad guy with a gun.” Carlson wants to problematize this distinction by highlighting the case of Aaron, an African American man and NRA-certified instructor who was hoping to open his own firearms business. Aaron entered a gas station in suburban Detroit as a “good guy” and left it as a “bad guy” after illegally brandishing his firearm during a confrontation with another customer. (He was arrested for felonious assault and eventually pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of brandishing – p. 141).

Carlson uses the case of Aaron to highlight the various things that gun carriers bring into everyday life along with their guns: a heightened and at times excessive sense of moral duty and responsibility, masculine bravado and macho posturing, presumptions (often racially-biased) about what a threat looks like, training for violent confrontations but not for de-escalation or situation recognition. These “can lead gun carriers to take actions that ultimately propel them to act more like citizen-vigilantes than the calm, cool, and collected citizen-protectors that they aspire to be” (p. 160). They can turn someone from a post-boy for the citizen-protector ideal into a George Zimmerman in an instance.

The reality of Aaron is evidence that the slippage from being “a good guy” to “a bad guy,” from being a citizen-protector to a citizen-vigilante, is possible. But Carlson also recognizes that it is not probable. In fact, it is quite improbable.


Carlson herself provides crime stats from Michigan. From 2003 to 2013, 600,000 concealed pistol licenses (CPLs) were issued. During that time period, 4,700 CPLs were revoked (just 0.7%). 3,800 revocations were for felony or misdemeanor charges or convictions (0.63%). 1,667 were arrested for crimes while using or brandishing a firearms (0.28%). CPL holders were convicted of assault and related offenses 846 times during this 10 year period (0.14%) (p. 142).

Gun carriers, then, “are not more likely to commit crime than the general population. As a general rule, a gun carrier is much less likely to be arrested than the general population” (p. 142).

Carlson also adds the following observations

  • “Aaron was the only gun carrier I met who actually crossed this line from lawful gun owner to criminal” (p. 151).
  • “As my fieldwork unfolded, I often wondered how I managed to find so many non-macho, clear-headed, and morally upstanding gun carriers” (p. 152).
  • “In my research, I never witnessed gun carriers at shooting ranges, at activist events, or during my interviews become visibly angry, raise their voices, or explicitly threaten someone else with violence” (p. 153).

The inclusion of this chapter in the book allows Carlson to bring in Zimmerman and Michael Dunn and Stand Your Ground laws, but the fact that gun carriers are less likely to commit crimes overall makes the inclusion of this chapter curious to me.

Moreover, Carlson explains “the conditions under which some gun carriers come to break the law” as result from “a commitment to the ideals of citizenship captured by the citizen-protector model, on the one hand, and inadequate formal and informal training, on the other” (p. 142).

I can see how the crime committed by Aaron was the result of an excessive commitment to the citizen-protector model, like the person who witnessed a carjacking at a gas station in Houston, shot at the fleeing suspects, then picked up his spent casings and disappeared. But of all the crimes that are committed by CPL holders, how many of them are like this as opposed to crimes committed that have nothing to do with being a citizen-protector gone wild? Not many, I don’t think.

Also, Carlson points a finger at the “[s]ystematic inadequacies of the firearms training required to obtain a CPL in Michigan” (p. 159). To be sure, few people inside gun culture (at least professionals) equate the courses required for concealed carry permits anywhere in America with “training.” But Carlson observes that Aaron had hundreds of hours of range training, was an NRA-certified range safety officer and firearms instructor, and aspired to have his own firearms business (p. 143). He knew the law and was well-trained, and still reacted poorly in an ambiguous situation. Hundreds of thousands of CPL holders in Michigan are inadequately trained – according to Carlson – and yet they do not become citizen-vigilantes or unintentional criminals.

In the end, the story of Aaron is a cautionary tale. Gun carriers can add it to the long list of such examples of “what not to do,” from George Zimmerman to Michael Dunn to Marissa Alexander to Byron David Smith to Theodore Wafer to Markus Kaarma.

But like these other cases, Aaron’s remains an exception that proves the rule. Licensed gun carriers are, by design, among the most law-abiding citizens in the United States.


  1. Not having read the book yet (with all teh redundancy and ignorance that implies), I would cast the change from the limited concept of the right to self-defense to “duty to defend others” not as an -expansion- but rather a return to the traditional English/Anglosphere concept of the “hue and cry” and communal responsibility for public safety. It is, after all, less than two centuries since real, professional policing was born. As I recall from Malcolm’s “Guns and Violence: The English Experience”, in England even that did not eliminate the duty to, nor apparently discourage the willingness of, the citizenry to take up their own legal arms to assist the police even into the early 20thC. The police were unarmed in part due to public resistance to allowing a monopoly of violence for the state in domestic affairs. Under that metric is it not perhaps accurate to view the “non-intervention” principle not as a standard we are evolving from, but rather an aberrant artifact of the mid-20th Century rise of state control over general possession and carry of weapons and active suppression of the concept of “self-help” in favor of merely “being a good witness?”


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