I grew up in a very conservative, Midwestern family, and I work in a pretty liberal profession. Add to that — I research an extremely controversial topic: gun politics and wrote a book about it called Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline. Precisely because people disagree so vehemently about guns in this country, I see the best thing I can do as a sociologist is to bridge that gap and help people try to see things from other people’s perspectives – and because I chose to study gun carriers rather than gun rights activists, that often means getting the anti-gun left to better understand pro-gun America.
So, despite this being one of the most divisive issues in American politics, I have strained over and over to avoid playing into the stereotypes about gun carriers – both who they are and why they carry. It is for this reason that one of the major points in my book is that the “white male gun carrier” stereotype grossly distorts gun-carrying America — in Michigan, African Americans and whites are licensed to carry at roughly equal rates. As a scholar, it is my responsibility to present a sober view, when asked by the media, of who pro-gun America really is, as I have done with the BBC, the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. That’s not to say I am not critical where it is deserved – but my goal isn’t to slander. It’s to understand.
My latest piece from the LATimes, however, has sparked a much-unanticipated reaction. Both sides – pro-gun and anti-gun – seem to think that my argument boils down to some Freudian psychobabble about men’s “inadequacies” (think: #tinypenis). While I understand that people were primed by an unfortunate title (one that I did not choose – and would not have chosen), the reaction to this piece tells me that neither side is very interested in much other than rehashing the same old vitriol about guns. Nowhere do I say that men are “overcompensating” or even “compensating” by carrying guns, or that a small paycheck equals a big gun. Men do not carry guns once their incomes hit a certain point and they think “oh gee, better get my license now!” That’s a total simplification of what I was trying to say here (but one that apparently everyone is reading into this piece — live and learn in terms of making my points clearer, which is on me). It is exactly the kind of idiotic explanations of gun culture that I went into this project trying to dispel by looking at the moral politics of rights and duties, and of policing and protection, within gun culture and how they intersect with race and gender in expected and unexpected ways.
My goal with this piece was to talk about the biggest demographic of gun carriers – men. While the number of women are going up (and I’ve written about them here), men still outnumber women (last I checked, 4 to 1 among Michigan CPL holders). This op-ed gives one reason why men in Michigan may carry guns, and my point is this: 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. You can read all about it in my book.
I’m utterly confused why it is a problem to point out that we are in economically dire straights, that fewer Americans identify as middle class – and that this is connected to the appeal of guns. 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 – all of this can have an impact on how secure people feel in their communities and how appealing carrying a gun might be.
When I was doing this research as a graduate student at Berkeley, I was frustrated over and over by two things – and I continue to be frustrated by them. First, that people with little knowledge of guns, gun culture or gun laws often pontificate about armed America, which is why I did the project the way I did (carried a gun, became a certified instructor, and learned as much as I could about all aspects of gun carry culture) and continue to educate myself. Second, that people totally gloss over the inequalities in security (from education to healthcare to police to income – all valid sources of insecurity in my book) that Americans face. Translating what I saw in Metro Detroit to Berkeley (and to sociologists in general) meant explaining this broader context – and explaining that not everyone can ‘buy’ their way out of insecurity by “moving out to the suburbs.” That “white picket fence” is over, at least in Michigan. Even if you are middle class – as most of the gun carriers whom I met were.
I am not interested in making policy recommendations about gun laws, either for or against them. I am interested in sparking conversation about what matters beyond a gun debate that is too often caustically self-congratulatory: a collapse in the American dream, dwindling confidence in public law enforcement, and the persistence of crime and insecurity in places like Detroit and Flint despite a much-celebrated “crime drop” across the US. And yes, I do want my cat to go viral.