Jennifer Carlson thinks we're doing the gun debate wrong.
Prompted by wall-to-wall coverage of mass shootings, the contemporary conversation on gun violence pits "gun safety" advocates pushing middling reforms against gun rights enthusiasts who see almost all reforms as complete and unconscionable violations of the Second Amendment.
But as Carlson argues in her new book, Policing the Second Amendment: Guns, Law Enforcement, and the Politics of Race (Princeton University Press), this conversation largely excludes two major groups: the cops we task to enforce gun laws in the first place, and people of color—especially Black people—whose communities bear the brunt of gun violence.
In a remote interview hosted by Town Hall tonight at 7:30 p.m., I'll ask Carlson to school us all on how she thinks we should be talking about this stuff. We'll learn where cops were born, where they got their guns, and how race informs their approaches to policing a country armed to the teeth.
Carlson is a sociologist at the University of Arizona, where she teaches courses on guns, criminal justice, law and politics, and gender. In her last book, Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline, she interviewed concealed-carriers to figure out why so many Americans have been arming themselves. In Policing the Second Amendment, she loops in law enforcement and gun licensing boards to examine how gun laws and the people who enforce them create the complex, sticky, and frankly racist pubic-private web of "legitimate violence" in which we all crawl.
In the early chapters, Carlson runs readers through the fascinating and extremely telling history of the National Rifle Association's influence on guns in police work. (Turns out all cops didn't always carry guns, and the NRA had a lot to do with convincing them to take up arms.) She then asks nearly 80 police chiefs from states with varying degrees of gun restrictions whether a heavily strapped population helps or hinders their mission to protect and serve. She finds that cops approach their answer to that question using racially coded frameworks that criminalize Black men and boys and ultimately exclude them from fitting into the category of "a good guy with a gun." Her observations of gun board meetings, which issue and renew gun permits, also highlight a racial divide.
Rather than adopting the stale "gun control" vs. "gun rights" dichotomy to analyze her data, Carlson develops the terms "gun militarism" and "gun populism" to describe the way cops, gun lobbyists, and gun carriers talk about their favorite doom tools. Both terms helpfully link gun politics with police politics and root the conversation in race.
Briefly, gun militarists grant state actors (such as cops) a monopoly on legitimate violence through "tough on crime" laws. In this view, cops are trained Warriors who must load up with maximum firepower to win a battle against criminals in cities flooded with "illegal" guns. Gun populists, on the other hand, dissolve the line between state and civil actors. They think more "good guys with guns" will prevent and stop crime and argue for less restrictive gun laws. The politics of race shape both ideologies, positioning Black men and other POC as the objects of the former group (i.e. "the bad guys") and excluding Black men and other POC as subjects in the latter group (i.e. "good guys with guns").
These terms help us see what putatively "color-blind" gun reforms look like in a racist culture with racist systems, and serve as tools to escape this trap of a debate about the Second Amendment.
Hear us talk more about this tonight at 7:30.