Firearms as “Tools of White Male Pathogenesis” and “Lethal Prosthetics of White Identity”

I confess to not being a regular reader of the Boston Review but my Google alert this morning for both “gun owners” and “gun culture” pointed me to a recent essay published by political philosopher Chad Kautzer, “America as a Tactical Gun Culture.” I know Kautzer from having participated in a conference on guns with him at Amherst College back in 2017.

The essay is actually quite sweeping in scope and in detail connects a great many dots together, including Kyle Rittenhouse and vigilantism, Ferguson and the militarization of law enforcement, extra legal violence in the name of border security, Threepers and Oath Keepers, Lavoy Finicum and Civil War II, “Operation Wetback” and the NRA, Stand Your Ground and vigilante sovereignty, George Mason and Dick Heller, CSPOA and authoritarian populism, “racialized fears and patriarchal aspirations” driving Gun Culture 2.0, and others!

Kautzer’s fundamental argument is that “an armed white citizenry, working in tandem with law enforcement, has for centuries sustained white rule in the United States through legal and extralegal violence.” As white rule has been challenged over the past several decades, we see the “rise of a tactical gun culture” in response. It’s a variation on the same old song of America. Although it alone is not sufficient to sustain the old regime of racial domination, “it does cultivate the material and ideological conditions necessary for a return to an authoritarian legal and political order.”

The Boston Review’s algorithm also pointed me to three additional stories, all of which provide variations on Kautzer’s theme.

[1] “Guns in the Family” (March 2018) by Harvard historian Walter Johnson. The summary under the title reads: “A childhood steeped in guns shows that toxic masculinity and racism are at the heart of U.S. gun culture.”

From the “tell us what you really think files”:

When I hear the NRA people going on about how guns are just “tools,” I think, absolutely, you are right, guns are tools: tools for making emotionally stunted men feel whole; tools for guiding lonely boys along the bloody pathway to becoming violent men; tools for spreading the fearful fantasy of the coming race war; tools for enflaming urban areas in rural states, and making the argument for more cops and more prisons; tools for reproducing male dominance and white supremacy; tools for white male parthenogenesis.

Walter Johnson, “Guns in the Family”

Johnson’s conclusion: “Until we deal with the admixture of toxic masculinity and white supremacy that produces such pornographic inequality; until we stop using armed police to guard the border between the haves and have-nots; until we recognize that imperial violence and police violence and school violence are related aspects of the same problem, we are going to keep producing killers. The cause of the United States’ problem with guns, to paraphrase Dunbar-Ortiz, is not guns, it is the United States.”

[2] “How the Modern NRA Was Born at the Border” (May 2021) by Sierra Pettengill and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

Speaking of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, here we have a story about a documentary, The Rifleman, made by Sierra Pettengill, whose thinking she says was shaped by Dunbar-Ortiz’s book, Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment (2018).

The Rifleman uses the story of Harlon Carter — who we know from Kautzer’s essay as head of the US Border Patrol ran “Operation Wetback” in the 1950s and subsequently became head of the NRA after the “Revolt at Cincinnati” (1977-1985) — to tell the story of the NRA, but in a broader context.

Pettengill wants to “place it in the broader context of how gun ownership has, since early in the nation’s founding, been central to enforcing a white nationalist vision of the United States.”

The Boston Review story includes a conversation between Pettengill and Dunbar-Ortiz. Dunbar-Ortiz concludes very much as Kautzer does:

I think what the NRA—and Carter specifically—did was to simply revive something that had waned, because it was for a moment no longer needed. Slave patrols were not needed. The KKK wasn’t needed because the Jim Crow state had taken on that role of racial enforcer. But as that began to break down with civil rights, Carter handed to the descendants of the white settler population this tool for their empowerment, the new NRA.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

[3] “The Supreme Court is Poised to Put Politics Ahead of Gun-Violence Prevention” (October 2021) by Jonathan Metzl. Like Kautzer, I also know Jonathan Metzl, from having contributed an article (“Targeted Advertising”) to a journal special issue he edited.

Although ostensibly about the Supreme Court case of NYSRPA v. Bruen, that could force the remaining “may issue” concealed carry regimes to go “shall issue,” Metzl also continues on Kautzer and Dunbar-Ortiz’s theme of guns as “integral to white male authority.”

After Heller, guns became ever-more prevalent and, in most parts of the United States, easier for everyone to purchase and carry. To be sure, ready access to civilian firearms portended the realization of arguments by Robert F. Williams, Malcolm X, and other leaders who once argued that Black Americans deserved the right to arm themselves in defense of myriad forms of white aggression. But as guns flooded southern states at previously unimaginable levels, conservative politicians and gun manufacturers upped the ante, continually reinventing ways to assure white tactical advantage while casting firearms as lethal prosthetics of white identity.

Jonathan Metzl

I began by noting how many dots Chad Kautzer connects in his essay. Other dots could also be connected. We know that Kautzer concludes his essay invoking the work of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. [Thanks to reader AY for pointing out this statement is not correct. It was Johnson who invoked Dunbar-Ortiz at the end of his essay.]

In her interview with filmmaker Sierra Pettengill, Dunbar-Ortiz mentions David Hogg, the student gun control activist from Parkland High School. She say, “I should add that … David and I have become friends. He’s a student at Harvard now, and was taking a course from Walter Johnson, and he came up to Walter and said, ‘Have you read this book, Loaded?’ And of course, Walter had blurbed it!”

It’s not surprising, then, to find such consistency of thinking. As a sociologist of guns, I find myself divided between the obvious reality of racism in American society and the more dubious assertion that firearms therefore can only be seen as upholding a racially unequal social order. Seeing firearms as “tools of white male pathogenesis” and “lethal prosthetics of white identity” casts racially diverse gun owners in the role of “Acting White.” Which strikes me as, what’s the word? Paternalistic.

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  1. I’m confused on this point. When we crackers permitted you to buy a gun and join our little club, did we make you an honorary white person? Or did we brainwash you somehow in order to convince you to participate in your own oppression?

    As a white person who owns these tools of white male pathogenesis, I’d really like to know what my strategy is, here. Or is this one of those cases where the virus doesn’t really need to know how the disease works so long as we replicate?

    Liked by 1 person

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