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Have Guns, Will Liberate

Inside the civic theology of arms-bearing

European thought on violence and government doesn’t survive transatlantic shipping very well. In the American setting, the story of Hobbes’s state, which seizes for itself the exclusive right to force while providing domestic peace in return, has the reassuring and quaint cadence of a sanitized fairy tale. That’s because in North America, the war of all against all has long been seen less as a problem and more as a solution, one perfectly suited to a settler-colonial population conquering its way westward with non-state militias. Freelance physical force was indispensable in a slave society maintained by violence inflicted lawfully by state and private actors alike. Let loose in the New World, Leviathan goes feral.

And that Max Weber chestnut about the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force? Weber’s catchphrase is sorely tested—if not smashed outright—by the present battery of policies devolving “Stand Your Ground” powers of lethal force to the private individual. Today, non-state violence is warmly encouraged, protected, and given incentive by the state itself.

The 2012 massacre of twenty young children and six teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, did not produce any meaningful gun control legislation despite an initial bout of talk from the White House and sympathetic pundits that now was surely the time for such measures. Instead, we’ve seen the opposite—a call to continue militarizing our public schools with armed teachers and higher numbers of armed “school resource officers.” Kansas now requires public buildings either to admit concealed carry firearms or to install metal detectors and hire a security detail, on the grounds that public safety is impossible without either armed citizens at the ready or armed guards. (Most public facilities in Kansas’s big cities can’t afford such precautions, thanks to the blind austerity reign of governor Sam Brownback, and thus have no practical choice but to welcome the new armed retinue.) Detroit’s swamped police officers, whose average emergency response time in 2012 was a torpid fifty-eight minutes, have been known to advise people to just shoot an intruder before calling 911.

This last grim vignette comes from Jennifer Carlson’s new book, Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline (Oxford University Press, $29.95), an ethnography of handgun carriers in and around Detroit and Flint, Michigan. The book is modest in scope but deep in its implications, given the permanent American trends of robust gun sales and gun control advocacy (both of which spiked after the Sandy Hook massacre and last summer’s uprising in Ferguson, Missouri), along with the broadly dawning recognition that the American social order relies on punitive state violence.

And by state, we usually mean states. Contrary to a lazy media focus on federal law enforcement, it’s state and municipal governments that wield most of the police (and prison) power in this country. Today, most states issue concealed carry permits on a “shall-issue” basis: if you fill out the paperwork, pay the registration fee, and don’t have a criminal record, you’re automatically entitled to a permit. (Twenty years ago, states typically would issue the license only to people with some good reason for it.) Some states—such as Arizona, Arkansas, Wyoming, and Vermont—don’t require a permit at all. More than half of states have also enacted some kind of Stand Your Ground law allowing private individuals to use deadly force not just against intruders at home, but against violent threats in public space.

The reasons for owning guns have shifted too: nearly half of American gun owners now say they keep a gun (or several) for protection, up from just 26 percent in 1999. Even if gun-ownership rates have declined since the 1970s, there are still about three hundred million firearms in the United States, and more than eleven million Americans now hold concealed carry permits.

Who are they, the handgun grass roots? In Citizen-Protectors, Carlson sets out to learn what they think, what they feel, and what they believe they get out of their legally concealed sidearms. Carlson’s book is a classic ethnology; her mission is to listen to, not argue with, her subjects, even as they recite phony facts and self-contradictory reasoning. Sometimes Carlson’s studied social scientific reserve will make critical readers grind their molars, but it’s a small price to pay for the deeper insight she gains into our sprawling gun culture.

Carlson also has firsthand knowledge of her topic: not only did she obtain a concealed carry permit and carry a handgun herself, but she also became a certified NRA instructor. The men and women who are her informants are not all that different from her; far from being fuming resentniks, they see themselves as civic-minded people who offer up their armed vigilance as a contribution to the common good. While other sociologists of gun culture have emphasized its high quotients of bile and backlash, Carlson highlights the Good Samaritan mindset of gun owners: these everyday, armed Americans want to be ready to stop the next carjacking, school shooting, or act of international terrorism, which they think could happen at any moment. They just want everyone to be safe and would hate to see anyone get hurt. Carlson’s subjects seem wholly unaware that this is the same patter that protection racketeers recite to their victims; in any event, there’s not much sense in arguing with feelings.

Zimmermans in the System

While media organs and scholars have paid much critical attention to the NRA’s formidable lobbying arm and lavish corporate funding, Carlson looks at the organization’s closer-to-the-ground capillary network of instruction and training. The NRA truly warrants designation as a community organization, with its 80,000 instructors training 750,000 Americans every year. And this network exists symbiotically with the group’s higher-profile lobbying and legislating initiatives: whenever a state ratifies concealed carry or open carry laws, it’s a given that the NRA will be the body that provides the mandatory training and certification. Not surprisingly, these training sessions instill, along with the basics of safe gun care, an ideology that’s minted at NRA headquarters: pro-gun, pro-Second Amendment, and fixated on the principle of citizen self-defense. Carlson notes, however, that the NRA also imposes rather striking topical limits on its training programs. Its concealed carry sessions, for instance, feature virtually no instruction on assessing genuine threats, maintaining self-awareness as a gun carrier in volatile situations, and avoiding racist stereotypes. Nor is there any serious attention devoted to more practical matters, such as how to shoot accurately in a crowded room or how to draw your weapon from a banquette or barstool. (Hint: It’s a good idea to stand up first.)

Let loose in the New World, Leviathan goes feral.

Like so many ethnographers, Carlson can’t help but advertise her interviewees as representative everymen (and less often, everywomen—male gun owners outnumber females by four to one); she points out repeatedly that the social world they experience in the urban, deindustrialized neighborhoods of Detroit and Flint differs from the rest of the United States only in degree, not kind. It’s certainly true that Carlson’s subjects are in some ways typical of working- and middle-class men across the country, at a time when declining male earning power as a share of household income has left many men looking for new ways to assert their authority and demonstrate their usefulness. Against this backdrop, guns offer a path to what Carlson, borrowing the term from gender scholar Iris Marion Young, calls “masculinist protection.” And given the society-wide rise in single mothers and divorced dads, carrying a gun also doubles as a way for many men to play the cherished role of strict father without taking regular care of kids.

Meanwhile, she finds that the racial politics of handguns in Detroit and Flint are more complicated than they may appear. Across the nation, gun ownership rates are higher in white households than nonwhite ones, given the prevalence of sport hunting in rural, white America. But in Michigan, handgun ownership rates are roughly even among black and white households (about one in twenty-four), and in the southeastern part of the state, concealed carry permits are slightly more popular among black residents than among white residents. Are white-racist attitudes instrumental in defining the marauding “other” against which citizen-protectors will have to wield force? No doubt, but Carlson didn’t, apparently, broach the subject with her interviewees. In any event, the notion of handgun owners as effective enforcers of the civil peace has been broadly internalized across the racial divide in Michigan. Carlson cites the example of the Detroit 300, a community policing organization that responded to the murder of Trayvon Martin without any of the traditional, liberal calls for gun control or legal restrictions on vigilantism. Instead, group leaders commissioned more armed street patrols to out-George Zimmerman any potential George Zimmermans.

Don’t Take Your Guns to These Towns

Detroit and Flint are atypical American towns in two respects. First, they suffer from dismally high rates of violent crime and poverty. Most of the country has seen violent crime rates nosedive since their peak in the early 1990s, but Detroit and Flint remain oppressed by murder rates at nearly ten times the national average, with both cities perennial contenders for the homicide capital of the nation. Detroit’s poverty rate, nearly 40 percent, is also much higher than the national rate of 14.5 percent.

And while the number of local and state police personnel has increased nationwide—by 25 percent from 1992 to 2008—Detroit and Flint, squeezed by fiscal shortfalls as their industrial tax bases have hollowed out and collapsed, have drastically reduced their police departments. None of this stops Carlson’s subjects, who are no less parochial than anyone else in any other city, from insisting that these conditions of high violent crime, an overstretched police force, and financial collapse are the norm all over the United States.

Who are they, the handgun grass roots?

For most of the country, the past quarter century has brought plummeting crime rates along with stagnating incomes. Americans have felt more secure in matters of personal safety while at the same time experiencing unprecedented economic insecurity. (This reverse correlation also illustrates an important broader truth: that the connections between crime rates and indices of economic well-being are surprisingly loose.) Our political elites have been unwilling to do anything to shore up middle- and working-class incomes, but elected officials have been all too happy to channel the public’s generalized anxiety about security into increasingly draconian law-enforcement regimes. The rigidly inflexible criminal sentences mandated under this get-tough ethos have given rise to a police state, one that presides over a skyrocketing incarceration rate and the cancerous spread of the punitive mindset of criminal-law enforcement into new spheres of everyday life.

With crime in general decline, both our police state and our gun culture still manage to thrive in a climate of politicized fear. One recent Chapman University study found that more than half of Americans believe serious crime to be more rampant than ever, an impression propped up by a twenty-four-hour cable news cycle peddling crime sensation and a pop culture that promotes heroic narratives of vigilante justice, from AMC’s The Walking Dead to dozens of other post-apocalyptic soap operas.

How do citizen-protectors’ fantasies of armed valor play out in real life? Carlson opens her book with the story of a man she calls “Corey,” a corner-store clerk. When an armed teenager entered his store in Flint a few years ago and demanded money, Corey drew his own handgun and shot him dead. At the end of the book, we learn that the kid’s gun was a fake. (The homicide was ruled justifiable and the killer, who faced no criminal charges, was congratulated by local law enforcement.) In another chilling set piece, one of Carlson’s informants, “Aaron,” recounts how he pulled his handgun (but did not fire) on a woman in a gas station parking lot; he thought she was about to deliberately ram her truck into his car, which he had left at the pump with his children inside. The guy comes across less as a Travis Bickle hothead and more as a hapless schmuck; nevertheless, it would have required only a miscalculation or two for this encounter to end as tragically as the one described in Carlson’s opening chapter. (This citizen-protector was swiftly arrested and took a plea deal for brandishing a firearm.)

Carlson sees bearing arms as an understandable response to Detroit’s high crime rate and low police presence, but she is under no illusions as to her subjects’ real contributions to public safety. She writes that the hapless schmuck in the incident above was suffering from “forward panic”—the psychological term of art for a prolonged period of tension followed by a rush to (usually senseless) violence.

A crop of recent empirical studies has measured the consequences of our liberalization of violence, although these studies don’t turn up in Carlson’s book. According to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of more than two hundred cases in Florida (half of them fatal), Stand Your Ground defense claims held up about two-thirds of the time, even though in 57 percent of the cases the assailant could have retreated. The law frequently shielded people who already had records of violent crime; one-third of the legally authorized killers had been caught illegally carrying guns or threatening others with a gun, and around the same number had been charged with assault, battery, or other violent crimes—as George Zimmerman had prior to Trayvon Martin’s killing. In roughly two-thirds of the cases, the person killed was unarmed. (These findings, and the results of other studies I mention here, were collated in a recent New York Times op-ed by political scientist Robert J. Spitzer.) In a study of FBI data from 2000 to 2010, Texas A&M researchers found that Stand Your Ground laws did not head off burglaries or assaults; instead, Stand Your Ground states saw homicides increase by 8 percent.

The racial disparity in Stand Your Ground defenses is depressingly in the American grain, with cases of whites killing blacks more than twice as likely to be found legally defensible than cases of whites killing whites. In short, these new laws renew the American tradition of state power serving as a lubricant for, rather than a deterrent to, private violence.

The Freak-Out Patrol

The relationship between state power and the gun lobby, both corporate and grassroots, is complex and often contradictory. The NRA has cannily ridden the Tea Party wave of resentment against a Democratic president, and Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s CEO, can occasionally be heard bashing the state’s “jack-booted thugs.” At the same time, the lobbying group demands more armed government security forces in places like our public schools and tirelessly lobbies to turn more and more of our common world into a concealed carry haven. Needless to say, this is all very good for the gunmakers who bankroll the NRA.

The racial disparity in Stand Your Ground defenses is depressingly in the American grain.

Also complex are the attitudes of Carlson’s armed citizens toward local law enforcement. Her informants all agree that the cops are pitifully inadequate when it comes to dealing with violent crime in their communities. At the same time, all of Carlson’s white working-class and black interviewees report having been mistreated, or at least disrespected, by law enforcement; indeed, some say they’ve taken up arms as a defensive protest against the excesses of the cops.

But it seems clear that many more of Carlson’s subjects aren’t anti-cop—rather, they are wannabe cops. They are eager to take part in the collective task of law enforcement, zealously serving and protecting their communities as lawful volunteers, trusty helpmates to government power. Though they don’t see their mission in these terms, they are among the leading contributors to the steady blurring of the boundary between state and non-state violence. Consider the Oath Keepers, a nationwide group of current and retired military and law enforcement personnel that sent a detachment of members to monitor the anti-police protests in Ferguson this past summer. As protests over the police killing of Michael Brown mounted, many Oath Keepers took to the roofs of buildings downtown with rifles ready to shoot looters—all in the name of community service and protection of property and order. Journalists who closely follow the Oath Keepers stress that they are not openly peddling white-supremacist or neofascist politics. And yet even without a shared ideology, it’s hard not to compare this group to the Freikorps militias that patrolled Germany in the chaotic interwar years, most of whom were not fervent Nazi ideologues but just zealous defenders of a conservative vision of public order.

The grassroots adherents of Second Amendment fundamentalism may not work in law enforcement, but they do forcefully shape the political culture that indirectly keeps this country’s uniquely harsh criminal justice policies in place. The same politics of fear that has incubated our punitive hyperincarceration state also directly feeds these citizen-protectors’ positive, if delusional, self-image as brave and useful men. This passionate, self-interested attachment to a vision of the United States as violent and chaotic—even in the face of historically low crime rates—continually blocks the drastic reform that our criminal justice system badly needs. Our robust, everyday gun culture is part of the reason why punishment and protection are not just simply the goals of law-enforcement agencies but have come to be the guiding paradigms for government policy in general. (Sociologist Jonathan Simon calls this “governing through crime”; Carlson refers to the “seepage” of the state’s policing duties into a generalized civic duty.)

Carlson’s short book does not close with any tidy policy prescriptions. Instead, she leaves off with a prophetic insight: the efforts to limit and control handguns and their use will flail until the nation’s growing social and economic insecurity is rectified. This is a common refrain from left-leaning critics of any element of the status quo—and in this case, it might even be true. As Carlson’s study shows, economic insecurity has bred compensatory performances of armed, masculinist protection, even amid record-low violent crime rates. It is unlikely that government’s attitude toward punitive violence can be productively overhauled without a corresponding shift in the civil society that functions outside (if also in tandem with) the state. Until then, everyday Americans will continue to find themselves hostage to a battery of violent imaginings backed with real guns.