Police Warriors and Police Guardians: How Gun Violence Matters in Policing

We often talk about “gun regulation” and “gun violence” as if these are monolithic categories. We rarely unpack how variegated gun violence is; how nuanced gun regulation is; and how, therefore, the ways we as a society match one to the other are complicated.

I thought I had a good grasp on this complexity after interviewing gun carriers for my book, Citizen-Protectors. But that was before I talked to public law enforcement–and it turns out, police–like the rest of us–have complicated views on gun violence that are shaped by the racial and gender terrains in which criminal threat is imagined and policing responses are crafted. The scholarship on policing places so much emphasis on the Warrior as the hypermasculine police officer eager to “catch the bad guys” (read: Black and Brown criminals). But there’s another archetype of policing, one is also gendered and racialized and indelibly marked by gun violence: the Guardian. Center-stage here isn’t the urban “thug”–it’s the active shooter so often figured as a mentally distressed white male. Here’s the link to the article I recently published with the findings, and the abstract:

This paper draws on 79 in-depth interviews with police chiefs in Arizona, California, and Michigan to advance sociological understandings of race, masculinity, and policing. While the bulk of scholarship on public law enforcement focuses on urban settings, this paper juxtaposes police’s perceptions of urban, suburban, and rural gun violence. It details how police chiefs construct criminal gun violence according to two overarching tropes: (1) gang- and drug-related gun violence involving black and brown perpetrators and victims in urban spaces and (2) active shooting-related gun violence involving white perpetrators and victims in suburban and rural spaces. The analysis shows that police understand their own guns in part through reference to these tropes, embracing two racially distinct styles of police masculinity: the “warrior” and the “guardian.” Whereas the “warrior” brand of police masculinity emphasizes aggressive enforcement against (black and brown) perpetrators, the “guardian” brand of police masculinity emphasizes assertive protection on behalf of (white) victims. Detailing masculinity as a bifurcated axis along which racialized policing is enacted and amplified, this study broadens scholarly understandings of public law enforcement as a race-making institution and suggests the limitations of police reforms that fail to address whiteness as shaping public law enforcement.


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