When I read Jennifer Carlson’s op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, entitled, “Why Men Feel the Need to Carry Guns,” I was surprised by her apparent argument, which I oversimplified in a response piece I wrote in the following way, “your reason for carrying a firearm is not rooted in practical self-defense, rather you carry because you’re compensating for your inability to bring home the bacon on a consistent basis.”
Carlson’s point about why men feel the need to carry is way more comprehensive than the way I originally interpreted it. I know that now because I had the chance to ask Carlson, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, a few questions, not only about her LA Times op-ed but also about her book, “Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline.”
Below is our Q&A:
S.H. Blannelberry: Let’s start at the beginning and ask the obvious, why guns? Of all the things to study and research, what sparked you to examine the gun community?
Jennifer Carlson: I grew up in a very conservative family and spent my childhood mostly in the Midwest. For that reason, I have a different relationship with conservative politics and what some people derisively call “fly over” country than most other sociologists.
My family, however, wasn’t a gun-owning family.
I ended up getting personally interested in learning how to shoot a gun about the same time I decided I wanted to learn how to ride a motorcycle – it wasn’t political (I was living in California at the time, after all), just something I thought I should learn how to do. I started hearing about a few groups that seemed to go against the “hillbilly with a gun” stereotype – the Pink Pistols, the Second Amendment Sisters, etc., right about the same time that Obama got elected and people started getting really politicized over guns.
At this point, I figured there would be a lot of sociologists who had already spent a lot of time interviewing and hanging out with gun-carrying Americans. But I was wrong – there was actually very little in the way of research that involved scholars going out and talking to gun owners, much less gun carriers. So, that’s when I realized this was what I wanted to study, and I headed to Michigan.
S.H. Blannelberry: In your LA Times op-ed, you said that men carry firearms to address “social insecurities,” can you elaborate on this point?
Jennifer Carlson: Certainly. Unfortunately, this point has been understood to imply some kind of inferiority complex – as if men are “overcompensating” for something by carrying guns. I like to think of the picture by Oleg Volk that says “Gun owners are compensating for something – we are compensating for having children who need protection.”
Joking aside, my much-misunderstood point is this (as I wrote on my blog): there’s been a collapse in the American dream – and yes, that collapse has been felt more by men because they have been hit the hardest by the economic collapse. But its far beyond just income – or just crime. It’s about believing in the promise of upward mobility, of having faith that your neighborhoods are safe and that your neighbors will help you out if you need it, and all the other kinds of things often associated with “Mayberry America.” I spoke to over five dozen gun carriers, and in virtually all of my conversations with men, responsibility and duty to family was a huge factor shaping why they found it important to carry guns, across the board, regardless of race or other background. And yes, I found that socioeconomic insecurity framed how men talked about their turn to guns – especially if they lived in Detroit or Flint or their outskirts. That’s not to say that people can’t own or carry guns for other reasons (obviously they do), but when someone is on the fence, seeing the American dream slip from their reach, seeing their community crumble around them, seeing police defunded, seeing the cracks in the sidewalk get bigger and bigger, seeing crime persist despite the overall “crime drop” – all of this can have an impact on how secure people feel in their communities and how appealing carrying a gun might be.
S.H. Blannelberry: How do you define the titular character in your book, “Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline?” What are the characteristics of the citizen protector?
Jennifer Carlson: I use this term to describe what most gun carriers would call a “Sheepdog mentality” – the “citizen-protector” is someone willing to use lethal force to defend innocent life, and it extends beyond just the right to self protection to a duty to protect. I argue that in an era of concealed carry, where over 11 million Americans have licenses to carry guns, this is an increasingly important part of what it means to be a citizen in the contemporary American context.
S.H. Blannelberry: What surprised you most about studying gun owners?
Jennifer Carlson: Two things in particular come to mind.
First, I was surprised by the racial dynamics of gun carriers. I went into this project assuming I’d be talking almost exclusively to white men, as that is who is usually featured as the prototypical gun owner/carrier in the media and in scholarship on guns. However, there is a vibrant African American pro-gun community in Detroit, as NPR recently covered, and the rates of CPL licensing for whites versus African Americans are actually on par.
Second, I was surprised about the attitudes of public law enforcement. In the 1990s, various police organizations mounted a huge campaign in support of the Brady Bill and the Assault Weapon Ban. I’m not sure if that provides an accurate picture of the “rank and file” officers at that time, but today, it certainly doesn’t hold water in Metro Detroit. Police – including Chief James Craig – seem to be extremely in favor of law-abiding citizens exercising their right to self-defense.
S.H. Blannelberry: There is a stereotype that the vast majority of gun owners are old, fat white guys. In terms of demographics, what did your research tell you about this stereotype?
Jennifer Carlson: There are of course the old, fat white guys who love their guns. And the majority of gun owners are white men – that is a demographic fact. But pro-gun American is far more complex than the “bubba with a shotgun” stereotype, and I think those stereotypes especially break down when you look at gun carriers. My book opens up with two stories – one about a white Democrat who voted for Obama, got a concealed pistol license, and ended up involved in a justifiable homicide in his store, the other about a conservative African American open carrier who sees himself as a role model for other Detroit men. I picked those stories because they challenge what we think about gun carriers, and they pull us away from the stereotypes that are too often used to close the debate rather than open it up.
S.H. Blannelberry: After getting to know gun owners, and training and shooting yourself, what are your thoughts about the current gun control debate. Specifically, where do stand on policy measures such as universal background checks and bans on “assault weapons”?
Jennifer Carlson: I think its important to distinguish between studying gun culture and studying gun policy. Too often, we have ‘arm chair policy analysts’ who pontificate about policies without understanding that passing a law is not the same as changing how guns are regulated, or not, in this country. And that goes for people on both sides of this debate. I believe we need much better and more careful analysis of how gun policy actually works on the ground.
So, when you ask about policy measures, my immediate questions are: how will this be implemented? what infrastructure is in place? who is funding it? how will we make sure that people with disqualifying issues don’t slip through the cracks – but also that people aren’t punished for poorly kept or mistaken records? My latest research actually looks at these questions — in Fall 2014, I spent five months in Michigan’s county “gun boards” and collected over 900 cases on what gun policy looks like “in action.” I saw people with arrests from the 1950s and 1960s denied licenses without providing the appropriate paperwork – which is pretty hard to get 50+ years after the fact. I saw people hold on to their licenses despite being served PPOs because the gun boards were so slow in processing the paperwork. And I saw gun board revoke licenses because they simply thought the person didn’t really “need” a gun – despite operating under a “shall-issue” framework. Needless to say, I saw a lot “on the ground” that did not conform with how gun policy is supposed to look “on the books.”
I’m still going through these data, but at this point, I’ll say this. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in the mantra that we need to enforce – and in some cases, fix – the laws we have before we rush to pass new ones.
Here’s an interview Jennifer did about a year ago on mass shootings:
Big thanks to Ms. Carlson for taking the time to chat with us. Regardless of what you think of her findings or opinions on gun ownership, you have to respect and applaud the effort. She certainly walked the walk!
You can purchase her book right here on Amazon.com.