And this is why we can’t have nice things.

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.

The Embodied Politics of Guns

In the winter of 2010, I arrived in Michigan to study the “gun carry revolution” for my book Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline. Over the last few decades, US states have increasingly loosened their restrictions on the ability of residents to carry guns in public (including “shall-issue” and “Constitutional carry” laws) and to use them in self-defense (i.e., “Stand Your Ground” laws).

Today, estimates top off at over 11 million licensed gun carriers in the US. Some Americans are also embracing the open carrying of handguns and even long-guns. This surge in legal gun carriers reflects and sustains a major transformation in how Americans understand the place of guns in everyday life: the number-one reason Americans own guns today is for protection, and according to recent polls from Pew and Gallup, most Americans view gun ownership as doing more to protect people than endanger them. This is a major shift in the imagined place of guns as objects of safety and security.

Read more on the ASA Body & Embodiment Blog.

Gender & Guns: Some reasons why men and women carry guns in Michigan

In Michigan, where I did my research, men gun carriers outnumbered women by a ratio of 4 to 1.

The LA Times just posted one of my op-eds on masculinity and guns, looking at one (but not by any stretch the only) explanations for why men carry guns. You can find it here.

But, women gun carriers are increasing in number, and I’ve written about them in a piece I published a few months ago for Contexts magazine. Check it out here.

Happy 25th Birthday, Indiana Academy

This past weekend, I revisited my high school – a publicly-funded (meaning: FREE for the students) boarding school called the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics & Humanities, set up by the state on the campus of Ball State University. There was supposed to be a Gala celebrating the 25th anniversary of the school…or…something…but when that got cancelled, my high school BFF and I decided to go down any way (or was it “anyway”? Ms. Foltz, help?) to say hello to the teachers that changed the rest of our lives for the better – much to Mr. Rajca’s surprise. (He even said we turned out “somewhat normal.” Wow!)

The Indiana Academy was exactly as we remembered it: curious, excited students (we thought highly of ourselves, I guess!), inspiringly quirky teachers, and of course….awkward PDA in Wagoner Lounge.

Here are some action shots to prove it really happened…

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Exceptions or the Rule? On the Topic of African American Gun Carrying

A growing point of debate among pundits and scholars alike is the intersection of race and pro-gun sentiment, particularly the embrace of guns among African Americans. While white men dominate pro-gun America at the bottom (in terms of gun owners and carriers) and at the top (as leaders of the gun lobby), high-profile examples of armed Black groups, such as the Deacons for Defense, the Black Panthers and the more recent Huey Newton Gun Club, raise questions about the overlap between “white America” with “armed America.”

In my research on gun carriers in Michigan, I found that African Americans are licensed at per-capita rates that are on par with white gun carriers. Parity in terms of rates, however, does not mean that guns are attractive for the same reasons for whites versus African Americans: while white gun carriers tended to see themselves as supplementing a police force they saw as generally benign if inefficient, African American gun carriers tended to discuss police in the context of racial profiling and unwanted harassment. Jason, an African American Detroiter whom I profile in my book, even used his openly carried gun as a way to stand up to police.  Furthermore, African Americans were more likely to have more direct exposure to crime than whites – and thus the pragmatism of guns may well override the politics.

This helps to explain, at least in part, why African Americans in Michigan – a place where the overpolicing/underpolicing paradox is particularly acute – are turning to concealed carry licenses, even as African Americans tend to be far less supportive of loosening gun control laws as compared to whites.  Nicholas Johnson in his tome, Negroes and the Gun, references a similar paradox – noting that even as aggregate data suggest apprehension toward gun rights agenda, many African American communities, at the neighborhood level, may embrace guns for the purposes of protection at rates on par with whites.

I was initially surprised by my own findings – and the findings of scholars like Johnson for a couple of reasons. First, gun ownership is tied to felony status – felons can’t possess guns or obtain a license to carry concealed – and African Americans, thanks to decades of “tough on crime” politics and investigatory policing, are disproportionately represented among felons. Second, there is a long legal and cultural legacy of keeping guns out of the hands of African Americans (e.g., the discretionary licensing laws that predated today’s “Shall-issue” system were famously used in the Jim Crow era to ensure that Blacks would not be able to carry firearms concealed) – and as we see with the persistence of racial profiling in a “post-racial America”, old habits die hard.

Finally, there is good reason to believe that just as race relations, policing and crime are subject to distinct regional dynamics, so too might the racial politics of guns be distinct as well. For example, a recent story on the racial politics of concealed carry in Texas shows that African Americans are licensed at almost half the rate at which their population would suggest – they make up 7% of concealed handgun licensees but 12% of the state’s population.

At the same time, Texas is also home to the Huey Newton Gun Club – a group of African Americans who formed as an armed group in support of Mike Brown. So, I decided to check out the Texas data in more detail; as Harel Shapira has noted elsewhere, African Americans are denied CHLs in Texas at disproportionate rates – from 2001 to 2014, African Americans are denied at 2.8 times the rate of whites. Another noteworthy piece of data: with the exception of a dip in 2013, the proportion of African American applications and issued licenses seem to be on a slightly upward trajectory over the same time period. CHL Statistics for African Americans, 2001 - 2014

Right now, it is clear that some states – Michigan is certainly one of them – harbor vibrant African American gun cultures. Perhaps other states – such as Texas? – do not, although the statistics from Texas, given their trajectories over time, certainly do not settle the debate. No doubt, this calls for a distinctly sociological intervention in the American gun debate: an analysis of American gun culture not as a monolithic whole but as a set of gun cultures organized not just around the lines of race but also region, political ideology and policing.

A few things ‘Nashville’ got wrong – and right – about guns

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I am a huge fan of the show Nashville. Last week’s episode ended in Sadie fatally shooting her former abusive boyfriend, with this week’s episode focusing on the legal aftermath. Here’s what Nashville got wrong – and right – about Nashville the state and its gun laws.

First, “unregistered firearm.” There are few states, believe it or not, where this phrase means anything sensible. That’s because most states don’t have registration systems – and Tennessee is not one of them. In Nashville, there’s no such thing as an “unregistered handgun,” which makes another term used  in this week’s episode – an “illegal firearm” also confusing. Although certain alterations could turn a handgun “illegal” (e.g., effacing the serial number, turning a semi-automatic to fully automatic) and it’s possible the gun was stolen, there’s no evidence that any of these apply to Sadie’s gun.

What the episode writers probably meant was that Sadie was carrying her gun without a permit to carry. In Tennessee, residents need a permit to carry openly and concealed (although that might be changing). But that’s a permit that licenses a person – not a gun.

Beyond legal technicalities, however, the show does a better job capturing the law enforcement response to women who shoot and kill their abusers in self-defense. Research shows that women who kill their abusers tend to be judged more harshly than men who claim self-defense (Think: Marissa Alexander). However, Sadie’s shooting exhibits a pattern that follows a more “conventional” self-defense scenario (at least as imagined by gun-carrying men): Sadie is a pretty and petite woman who shoots someone already established, on national media, as a “bad guy” when he confronts her in a “dark alley” (well, a dark parking lot) after a period of estrangement. My research suggests that this is a pattern that tends to rouse the sympathy of gun proponents and police alike. Gun laws in some states reflect this: Kentucky, as one example, makes expedited gun carry licenses available to women leaving domestic abuse – after all, one of the most dangerous moments for women facing intimate partner violence. As far as I can tell, Tennessee is not one of these states, and there is plenty of room for debate on these laws. Nevertheless, the producers of Nashville got it right – in a broader, cultural sense – when they decided to write in that the District Attorney dropped Sadie’s charges and slapped her with a misdemeanor.

The Takeaway: Nashville captured the spirit, though not the letter, of contemporary American gun laws in pro-gun states like Tennessee.

Tip of the Cap

I’m the editor for a new series on the policing blog Anthropoliteia called “Tip of the Cap:

The series ‘tips the proverbial hat’ to the major works and big ideas that inspire established and up-and-coming scholars alike. In it, we’ll showcase these scholars and the classic works that shaped them.

The first contributor in this series is Randol Contreras, sociologist and award-winning author of The Stickup Kids. Check out his post here.

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Buying in Bulk, Detroit Style

Why Don’t We Own This? just released a map of over 6,000 foreclosed properties in Detroit that you can buy – at once. It’s known as the “Blight Bundle,” and Mayor Duggan thinks this will “facilitate the demolition of severely blighted properties, the redevelopment of properties with such potential” and “provide a better process for getting [the properties] back on tax rolls.” But who is going to buy 6,000 properties scattered from the edge of Dearborn to the border of Grosse Pointe?

(Thanks to Curbed Detroit for covering this.)

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Capturing US/Canadian Difference in Two Road Signs

What motivates people to change their habits and behaviors – for better or worse? Sociologists – most notably Barry Glassner – have spent a great deal of effort analyzing how American news media, policy-making, and moral politicking are fueled by aMDOT_DMS-TrafficDeaths_427552_7 “culture of fear” that uses fear to persuade Americans to vote for particular policies, change particular behaviors and – very often – buy particular products….or else.

My Canadian students often talk about American culture as “punitive.” Every time I drive from Ontario to Michigan, I am reminded of this punitive ethos in a mundane road sign that is updated through out the year that publicizes the number of traffic deaths on signs posted on interstates like I-75. Here, fear — fear of being another statistic of traffic death on a billboard somewhere in the highways of Michigan — becomes the motivating factor (or so MDOT presumably believes) to changing people’s bad driving habits (whatever those may be).

Okay Canadians, so what’s the alternative? On my last Michigan-Ontario drive, I found out. A society with a deep family-oriented ethos, Canada take a different approach, captured in road signs just a few hundred miles (or, if you must, kilometres) away: “Children are precious.”

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More Canadiana here.

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America’s cautionary tale of mandatory minimum sentences

As the Supreme Court of Canada decides whether to consider the Harper-backed mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, Canadians, especially Canadian conservatives, should take a cue from Americans who have already suffered the fiscal and social consequences of mandatory minimum sentencing.

There are few things that conservatives and progressives in Washington, D.C., can agree on. From health care to welfare to immigration reform to the national debt, U.S. politicians prefer dissension over concession. But there’s one exception: politicians on the left and the right are becoming unlikely allies against a bloated criminal justice system. One of their major targets? Mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for drugs, guns and other offences. 

Read the rest of my op-ed at The Toronto Star here