This is the fifth of several end of class student reflection papers I will be posting. You can also read the first reflection (with background information on the actual assignment), second, third, and fourth.
By Hayden Abene
This course has perhaps the most politically contentious and personally opinionated class that I have taken while at Wake Forest. The topic of guns, gun culture, and the legality and policy that structure our relationship with firearms has become a divisive issue in our country split by partisan ideology. In fact, the course allowed me to study how it became so divisive in the first place, that is how we became a country of “gun nuts” and “gun grabbers.” I fully identified myself with the latter group coming into the course. I saw little role for firearms in a fully democratic society. Through my research, course readings, and classroom discourse, I have come to have a far more nuanced understanding of gun culture and to be far more informed on the policy that shapes it.
My first reflection at the beginning of the semester on the role that guns should play in society was largely informed by my ethics as a pacifist and vegetarian, yet also uniquely shaped by growing up in the South and having positive firsthand experiences with guns personally. It was a philosophical hypothetical utopian envisioning of what a gun-free society might look like. From this course, I have further seen how cultural discourse around guns employ sentiments of nostalgia, of American freedom, and of fear. I also still see guns as symbols of power and thus tools of violence and oppression. But I do not exclusively see them as that as much so as I did at the beginning of the semester. I also have no interest in remaining in the highly hypothetical headspace ignoring the reality that guns are integral to America’s history and as prolific in number as the country’s total population. Still I hold onto many of the sentiments that I originally expressed. For instance, I understand now better than ever before that we—or rather organizations such as the NRA—have transmuted the history of guns as literal relics of power used to conquer, to colonize, and to dominate others, into our cultural fascination today, often ignoring that violence and oppression that they have long inflicted overwhelmingly on the losing end of a hierarchical power structure.
My understanding of how they are used to oppress has greatly been widen this semester. Particularly, through my research on the militarization of municipal law enforcement and course reading from Angela Stroud and Jennifer Carlson, I have come to see the way white hegemonic masculine gun culture and law enforcement use their power and indeed their weapons to encroach upon the citizenship of Black American and often to prevent them from fully participating in society. Through my research I came to understand how the domestic militarization was birthed out of the War on Drugs along with a police platform that perpetuated the insidious legitimation of police brutality target Black communities, and how it has targeted Black citizens disproportionately than any other demographic. This represents part of a larger societal trend over the past years of becoming increasingly fearful of the presumed threat of the “Other.”
There is a further phenomenon in this, one that Carson’s ethnographic research also illuminated. Because African Americans face hyper-militarization particularly in spaces of peacefully protesting for anti-racist reform as well as investigatory police stops and perpetually encountering narratives of Black criminality (as Stroud explored), Black communities receive a powerful message not only about their lack of citizenship but also rightfully perceive an eroded legitimacy of the police. This leads to a decreased trust in the police and less willingness to solicit police assistance. It’s integrally connected to the overpolicing/underpolicing paradox that Carson explored, meaning the idea that police harass and arrest black communities yet do not protect them from violence and threats. Thus, there is a niche for self-protection here, one that I was previously unaware of. Similarly, Carlson and some of the other authors we have read talk about women using firearms for self-protection.
My greatest realization this semester was probably that in dogmatically exposing the problematic nature of concealed carry and using guns for self-protection, I was speaking from a privileged experience in which I enjoy the comfort of being a white, middle-class, man with no real outstanding threats. I projected that security onto all people, including marginalized persons. This is not to say that I think all non-white men should have a gun because they are under eminent threat, but merely that I recognize that I cannot speak from their experience.
Ultimately, I stand by the conclusion I drew in my first paper: In the most ideal world, we would have no need for guns. And I still don’t think we need them to the extent we have access to them—increasingly evident by the numerous mass shootings that happened in this past semester alone. But I have come to recognize that we don’t live in an ideal, and in fact are quite far from it, and that there are people for whom the only protection they may know is that which they can conceal away in the form of a firearm. I think I have come to truly embrace a middle ground approach that is less politically dogmatic, and I know for sure that I have a far more vested interest in the continued conversation of addressing the role that guns should and do play in our society.