Author Responds to Claim that ‘Men Carry Guns to Address Social Insecurities’

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Jennifer Carlson, author of the book "Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline."

Jennifer Carlson, author of the book “Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline.”

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?

I carry

The picture of Oleg Volk that Ms. Carlson was referring to.

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?

The book cover to "Citizen Protectors: Gun Ownership in the Age of Decline."

The book cover to “Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline.”

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.

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • KMacK June 1, 2015, 3:49 pm

    Perhaps Aristotle said it best: “The right to carry a weapon is the mark of a free man. Slaves are prohibited arms. An unarmed free man is worthy only of contempt.”
    Note: this is a paraphrase of a much larger comment that the Greek Philosopher made. It still applies: Free men (and women) have the right to bear arms both for their own defense and the defense of the State. Slaves, being property, have no such right.
    A person who chooses to entrust his or her safety and security to others…deserves what he or she gets.
    It’s as simple as that.

  • Loupgarous June 1, 2015, 3:21 pm

    Ms. Carlson’s using sexist and bigoted language to justify her desire to deny other Americans enumerated Constiutional rights.

    If we responded by calling her attacks “hysterical” (literally, saying she shot her mouth off because her uterus made her do it), we’d be called bigots. But the editor in charge of the Los Angeles Times’ op-ed page apparently thinks it’s fine for HER to be a bigot in his paper.

  • John Adams June 1, 2015, 11:37 am

    Ms. Carlson, Like so many other Liberal minded individuals you too plucked that reasoning right out of the sky and state it in the same way that YOUR commander and chief states things “its the right thing to do” WHY?? just because you say so?. Think again. I don’t carry a gun to compensate for a social insecurity, I carry a gun because Society (a root word of Social) is insecure. So next time you plan on assuming what other people feel or how they should feel why don’t you just ask them, instead of spewing your Liberal emesis all over the floor. And how dare you to assume you were raised in a Conservative upbringing. You obviously have no idea how you were raised.

  • Rokurota June 1, 2015, 9:54 am

    Have you all bothered to really read Dr. Carlson’s Q&A or her blog postings? Read her blog post (linked to in the interview) responding to her LA Times piece: http://jdawncarlson.com/2015/05/28/and-this-is-why-we-cant-have-nice-things/ . Then read the LA Times piece again. It is not unsympathetic to gun ownership or use.

    As for her thesis about the declining avenues for masculine expression, I must agree. The teeth-gnashing here in the comments seems to indicate that idea hits close to home for some of us.

  • Chris Mallory June 1, 2015, 9:07 am

    I haven’t (and likely won’t ) read her book. But I did read the LA Times article. In that article and in her response to Mr. BLANNELBERRY , she seem respectful of both firearms and people who carry. The sample size that she used to conduct her research was fairly small, limited to Michigan.

    It doesn’t seem she deserves the slurs and obscene attacks that a few of the responding posters have given her.
    The book may (or may not) advocate disarming the “peasants”, but her article and interview don’t suggest that.

  • Pieter June 1, 2015, 7:59 am

    Poor Ms. Carlson….her penise envy (or hatred?) if reflected in her view of guns and their function in society. She sees gun owners as dysfunctonal elements who are making up for some weakness or lack of manliness. The weak and insecure will not protect themselves or their families, they will bolt the door and call 911. Gun owners, male and female, are not lacking something, they are taking care of themselves, their families and ultimately, society. She then steals Lt. Dave Grossman’s writings referring to “sheepdog” mentality…nothing like a plagerist. With more and more thugs, criminals and the attorney generals we’ve had lately…you’d better be willing and able to protect yourself from these scum.

    Ms. Carlson is that smiling person who talks so reasonably but so wants to disarm the peasants….but with a smiley face.

    • Chris Mallory June 1, 2015, 10:38 am

      The false “sheepdog” argument has been bandied about for years. Her referencing it does not make her a plagiarist.

      I for one am not a canine of any kind or a sheep. I am a man, the top of the food chain. Dogs exist to serve me. Sheep exist to serve me. Wolves exist because I allow it. Anyone who fancies themselves a dog, needs to remember, they serve man and man can put them down at any time.

  • ALLEN DELANEY June 1, 2015, 7:54 am

    MS CARLSON MAKES AN IMPORTANT POINT AND THAT IS THE AMERICAN DREAM IS IN FACT DISSOLVING FOR MANY MIDDLE CLASS AMERICANS

    PRESENT GOVERNMENT POLICY LIKE THE ACA HAVE PUSHED MANY BUSINESSES TO HAVE MORE, AND MORE PART TIME EMPLOYEES WITH THEIR HOURS SET JUST BELOW THE CURRENT TRIGGER FOR THE COMPANY TO PROVIDE BENEFITS. SO, YES, EMPLOYMENT IS UP, BUT MANY OF THOSE JOBS ARE LOW WAGE, PART TIME WITH LITTLE PROSPECT FOR ADVANCEMENT. THIS CONTRIBUTES TO MORE DISTANCE BETWEEN THE HAVES AND HAVE-NOTS….. HISTORY SHOW US THAT INCREASE IN INCOME DISPARITY ALWAYS LEADS TO MORE ARMED CONFLICT SO THATS WHY I CARRY. Ms cARLSON HAS HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD THERE.

    I PERSONALLY HAVE A CWP, AND CARRY MOST OF THE TIME. MY WIFE AS ONE TOO, AND OUR RECENT ENCOUNTERS WITH POLICE OFFICERS HAVE BEEN UNIFORMLY POSITIVE WRT SUPPORT FOR CONCEALED CARRY. THE LAST TWO TIMES I’VE HAD OCCASION TO SPEAK TO A POLICE OFFICER. ( I WAS HIT IN A CAR ACCIDENT LAST WEEK) THE OFFICER DIDN’T EVEN ASK TO SEE MY GUN.

    SUPPORT THE NRA AND THE ILA. WE WILL NEED A POLITICAL FORCE IN THE NATIONAL AND STATE LEGISLATURES FOR MANY YEARS TO COM TO PROTECT OUR RIGHTS

    AN NRA LIFE MEMBER

  • RetNavet June 1, 2015, 7:23 am

    Me thinks Ms. Carlson is a nincompoop who compensates for not having a regular service performed on her bore from her furry muzzle-end all the way up to her chamber.

  • M1917A1 June 1, 2015, 6:40 am

    Dear Ms. Carlson, two words describe your column, “Bull Shit”!

    • Gary June 2, 2015, 11:43 am

      People, be nice……. she is absolutely correct in my case. Its the inequality of the weaponry the criminals are carrying to harm me, vs the availability of the police the respond in a split second when need (not happening), and me being able to protect myself since in my advanced years I can no longer hold my own in a fair combative fight nor run away fast enough which is always suggested by the sheeple. So I carry the biggest most round count I can conceal on my person with extra magazines. Remember, ‘An armed society is a polite society’.

  • Will Drider June 1, 2015, 1:24 am

    Ms. Carlson’s conclusions are flawed regardless of her explinations. She uses a broad brush to label all males who possess firearms after speaking to two dozen men living in an area of economic blight and high crime. What result would she get interviewing 24 people from Sun Vally ID, Jackson Hole Wyo or Aspen Co?

    I researched her bio, academic accomplishments, civic contributions, titles of research papers and Group/committee positions and memberships. I’m sure she is highly regarded within her field: Teaching/English. Absent from her edcuational pedigree was regarding psychology, civics, social science or scientific theory. She can spit out a anti gun Op-ed and find an anti gun rag to print it. The bigger problem is when the well funded gun grabber groups start stating “According to published reasearch conducted by Prof. Carlson; insecure men own and carry guns to commensate for their econimic and social shortcommings coupled with an unrealistic paranoia of crime and violence.” We know the gun grabbers twist and fabricate everything to their advantage. Carlson’s Op-Ed will be another stereotyping we will have to fight in the future.

    • joe June 1, 2015, 9:22 am

      Well said. While I’m sure her theory does apply to some small subset of people who carry firearms, not only do I not think it’s anywhere close to a majority – but I also don’t think it only applies to men.

      I don’t live in Aspen, but my income puts me in the evil top ~5%. I live in an extremely safe (violent crime last year: 0.0) town with no economic blight. I’ve carried since the day I turned 21. It started out as just being prepared: I also carry a leatherman, keep a first aid kit in my car, and a fire extinguisher in my trunk. As I had children, my motivations expanded into the fact that I’m a body guard for a bunch of tiny people.

      My wife, who also brings home the proverbial bacon, also carries.

      That said, I don’t think we need to demonize her. While I think her conclusion paints with a broad brush, she also had some good points about demographics that work in our favor. While the anti-gunners can twist anything into a negative, I don’t think this on its face damages us in the slightest.

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