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Why so many American men want to be the “good guy with a gun”

The rise of the “citizen protector” has reshaped the gun control battle.

open carry protester Getty Images

Americans on both sides of the gun debate react viscerally whenever a mass shooting happens. But what’s distinctive about the American reaction, relative to what happens in other countries, is that the two sides of the gun debate can look at the same horrific incident, feel similar feelings of disgust and outrage — and yet settle on strikingly different interpretations of what those tragedies mean and how a decent person should respond to them.

Shootings like those in Parkland, Florida, or Las Vegas lead to public demands for tighter gun restrictions and marches against gun violence, but they also inspire Americans to buy guns and join the National Rifle Association. Both sides subsequently cast aspersions that the other side is not just morally bankrupt but also factually wrong.

The facts, both sides insist, are on their side.

Legal scholars Dan Kahan and Donald Braman have argued that evidence related to the effects of gun control has almost zero effect on public opinion, or the opinion of policymakers, when it comes to this subject. A key challenge we face in this area is that Americans evaluate evidence — and even what counts as evidence — through the prism of culture.

Do you focus on the risk of someone obtaining a gun who shouldn’t have one? Or do you zero in on the risk of needing to defend yourself with a firearm and not being able to? If you tend to embrace traditional or individualistic values, you likely think about the latter risk; if you are more communitarian or egalitarian, you probably think about the former.

In either case, statistical findings are largely beside the point.

Politicians and pundits, when they speak of this phenomenon, talk of “identity politics” and “culture wars,” but these terms tend to evoke personal preferences and psychological dispositions.

But something significant has changed in recent years, something that has deepened the divisions around the social meaning of guns and their proper place in everyday life. The rise of “gun carry” as a mass phenomenon has changed the way gun owners think about themselves. Gun carry has simultaneously entrenched and changed the old culture war differences.

Today, more than 16 million Americans are licensed to carry a concealed gun, and many millions more live in states that don’t even require a license if you want to carry. (There are more than a dozen such states.)

For these millions of Americans, gun politics is not just something you believe in; it is something that you do: gun carry is an everyday practice. It’s a way of moving through the world. Guns have become replete with a prosocial, moral meaning for the men who carry them (and, yes, gun carriers are disproportionately men).

Guns have helped foster a new “citizen protector” ethic, whereby firearms — and the willingness to use them to defend innocent life — come to represent an affirmation of life. For many men, guns counteract the increasing precarity of being a provider for their families, providing a way to be a good man centered on protection.

With more than 16 million Americans carrying guns, about a third of American households owning guns, and an estimated 250 million to 300 million guns in circulation, American gun culture is a formidable social fact and material force. Reformers too often equate combating the mammoth problem of American gun violence with strengthening gun regulations. But American gun culture runs far deeper than American gun laws — and changing laws won’t matter much (or be possible) without understanding gun culture.

Getting inside the heads of men who carry guns

To understand how gun culture has changed, I conducted research on gun carriers in Michigan, just after the brunt of the 2008 recession had passed and the jobless recovery was underway. Gaslit for decades into believing that Michigan’s economic woes were specific to that state’s rapid industrial development and egregious dependence on consumer industries, suddenly Michiganders felt vindicated for what they knew they were: canaries in the coal mine of post-industrial decline.

Perhaps more than anywhere else, Michigan residents were well-acquainted with the lost promise of Mayberry America, which deindustrialization had transformed into a myth: Once home to the US’s most vibrant labor union and its most robust manufacturing center, Michigan had become a darker place, characterized by stagnant wages, job insecurity, and declining public services. Police were laid off. Cities went bankrupt.

Demographically, this decline hit men the hardest — both individual men and the collective male identity. At one time, Michigan was the epicenter not just of the auto industry but also of the American union, which made possible the ideal of breadwinning masculinity. As this system collapsed over decades, it did not only signal class upheaval; it led to gender vertigo.

I wanted to better understand the everyday politics of gun carry against this backdrop of decline. So in 2010 and 2011, I interviewed dozens of gun carriers. I attended gun training, open carry picnics, and other activist events. I even became a gun carrier and NRA-certified instructor (though I did not join the NRA or actually train anyone).

When I asked Michigan men why they carried a gun, I received many of the canned answers one might expect: a snarky comment about then-President Obama, a story of a close call with victimization, a generalized worry about crime, a complaint about police response times. But often, these observations were couched in a language of decline, a decline that elicited a sense of loss, sadness, and even despair from people like Ben (a pseudonym), a retired white suburbanite who bemoaned that “Detroit had such an admirable reputation in its day. It’s just so sad to see what’s become of it.”

The gendered politics of broad-based decline was overlaid on the racial politics of Michigan. Metro Detroit’s racial segregation hardly protected white Michiganders from the most acute socioeconomic decline; even though African Americans suffered most, the region as a whole was hit hard. Egregious racial segregation also provided an alternative script for understanding (and imagining a solution to) socioeconomic decline: crime.

This was a script long in the making, with roots in the war on crime of the 1960s and ’70s. By the 2010s, the language of crime had become a central means of understanding social problems ranging from unemployment to housing to education.

Crime proved a powerful way to make sense of direct and indirect experiences of decline —and to reenvision men’s social relevance as protectors.

Consider how Ben, the white suburban retiree and gun carrier, racialized the historic decline of Detroit: “We are still in Wayne County, though we are on the very edge out here — right on the Washtenaw border. We still have reason to be concerned about the city of Detroit and its residents. I mean, you heard it — years ago — white flight! Then it became ‘good black’ flight. And now it’s just — the bad of the bad are left over and leaving.” Ben’s loaded racial language echoed that of other gun carriers who talked about fears of “gangbangers” and “thugs” coming out of Detroit in “roving gangs” in order to victimize them and their suburban neighborhoods.

That left the gun as the main protection between order and disorder. Guns — owning them, then carrying them — became a symbolic means of countering decline.

Guns exacerbate the vulnerability of African-American boys and men, who are disproportionately victims of felonious homicides as well as homicides classified as “justifiable.” (Especially in states with “stand your ground” legislation — Michigan is one —white-on-black homicides are disproportionately likely to be classified as “justifiable.”) And yet Ben and other white suburbanites were not the only ones who found protection in the gun. Not unlike Ben, Frankie (another pseudonym), an African-American gun carrier from Detroit, also waxed nostalgic about Detroit’s history, a “back then” when crime was low because people were too busy “having a good time” and when people knew how to “enjoy themselves.”

It was a time when Frankie himself, as he told me, “got a job at General Motors, and they were hiring people off the street with zero education, and they could work 20 years, and they could make a living.” But, he warned, “You can’t do that shit now.”

Like white suburbanites, residents of Detroit, Flint, and other African American-majority cities found themselves pulled into the centripetal force of gun carry culture: The dismal crime rates and flailing public services that reflected the politics of disinvestment in these once-bustling manufacturing hubs amplified the appeal of the gun as a concrete solution to a downward trajectory. Though in many states, whites are disproportionately the holders of concealed carry pistol licenses, in Michigan, African Americans and whites are licensed to carry concealed guns at similar proportions: roughly 7 percent. And Detroit in particular boasts a vibrant gun carry culture.

From carriers of guns to citizen-protectors

Gun carry culture helped men from diverse backgrounds imagine themselves as protectors, counteracting gender vertigo. In metro Detroit, I learned there was some truth to the claim that gun carriers were indeed “clinging” to their guns — but not out of fearful ignorance (as Obama’s “clinging to their guns” quip implied) but because their carried guns said something important about who they were and what they wanted to become.

Neither aggressive criminals (the “wolves” in gun culture parlance) nor meek victims (the “sheep”), gun carriers see themselves as valiantly straddling a moral space of heroic violence. They are sheepdogs. This citizen-protector ethic redefines men’s social utility to their families.

This ethic did not emerge purely organically out of the socioeconomic context of Michigan; it came, at least in part, from the NRA, and not in the form of a political message but as a moral practice. The emphasis on guns as vehicles of moral worth is shaped by the NRA training that gun carriers often undertake to obtain their gun carry licenses.

In fact, roughly a million Americans go through courses taught by NRA-certified instructors, using NRA-certified materials, every year. In the courses I observed and the materials I read, gun carriers learn that their guns mark them as special kinds of people: the kind who “refuse to be a victim.”

Alone, the NRA’s moral message may not have been enough to convince millions of Americans to carry guns. But against the backdrop of socioeconomic decline, guns become a powerful means of asserting oneself as an upstanding person, as a dutiful father, and even as a committed community member. Guns may well be a tool of self-protection, but they do much more: With guns, men both rework their personal codes about what it means to be a good man and transform lethal force from a taboo act of violence to an act of good citizenship.

The problems that guns solve

How would the gun debate change if it were centered on the problems that guns solve for the Americans who bear them? Today, gun culture overwhelmingly centers on self-defense — a fact that provides contemporary gun culture with its moral sensibility and its political prowess. No doubt, concerns about crime motivate many Americans to own and carry guns. But the problems that guns “solve” for Americans far exceed criminal insecurities.

Loosening gun laws, it turned out, was much easier than fixing the fundamentals of a broken economy or remaking the racial politics that criminalized boys and men of color. In contrast to the vanishing security of a breadwinning wage and the elusive promise of a post-racial America, guns appear as uncannily concrete, dependable, and durable.

With this in mind, making meaningful progress in the American gun debate perhaps requires something different than passing gun restrictions (many of which remain frustratingly inconclusive in their effectiveness, even as they may lead to conservative backlash), aggressively punishing the “bad guys with guns” (which disproportionately harms men of color), or debating ad nauseam the “real” meaning of the Second Amendment.

It requires, my research suggests, realizing that the loss of manufacturing signaled not just a loss of jobs but also a loss of meaning, relevance, and dignity attached to these jobs. Guns may be a poor substitute, but they will remain appealing as long as these deeper structures — and the demands they place on men — remain unaddressed.

Jennifer Carlson is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Arizona and the author of Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline.


The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at thebigidea@vox.com.

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