Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline by Jennifer Carlson, Oxford University Press, US $19.95, Pp 248, September 2018, ISBN 978-0190902148
Every time there is a shooting – from a gang- or drug-related shooting to mass shooting in a school or a mall – it makes a headline of newspapers and nightly news bulletins. Depending on the size of the shooting, there is a heated debate for a few days if we should continue to have the right to carry guns. There has been a steady surge in support for the Americans’ right to possess guns. The anti-gun sentiment may not be growing but it is surely becoming more intense. In Citizen-Protectors, Jennifer Carlson explores Americans’ love for firearms. During her research for this book, Jennifer Carlson took part in firearms training sessions, attended pro-arm gatherings, and carried a gun herself. With the help of the stories of gun-carriers, Jennifer Carlson opens a window into the complexities of American gun culture and the dramatic changes it has undergone over the past several decades.
Jennifer Carlson argues that the millions of Americans who are now licensed to carry guns not only find gun politics ideologically appealing but also see guns as a concrete part of their lives. The country is about evenly split between those who want to maintain existing gun laws and those who want stricter laws. She says that the politics of guns buttresses a simplified narrative about socio-economic decline, reducing a complex constellation of social transformations to a more digestible problem of crime and police efficacy. This means that the unexpectedly inclusionary project of gun carry is predicated on an exclusionary politics centered on a fear of crime and a fear of the “usual suspects” — people (often economically marginalized, urban men of color) who are stereotyped and feared as hyper-aggressive criminals. Drawing on distinct narratives of race, class, and masculinity, gun carriers articulated criminality in a variety of key ways, but a language of exclusion was often a work, implicitly or explicitly, as the men talked about protecting “their” families and “their” communities. She argues that the reproduction of social inequality through the policies of crime and justice is not new. Such projects litter American history.
We must remember that not only does the United States have an exceptional gun culture compared with other Western nations, but it is also an exceptionally unequal society. Jennifer Carlson argues that America is a country where public law enforcement, personal safety, crime rates, income, access to health care, access to education, and a variety of other resources are distributed in such a way that individuals have very different relations to violence, guns, and crime, as well as to social mobility, the American Dream, and Mayberry America. Against this backdrop, justifiable homicide by private citizens and police is one of many contemporary examples of the racial disparities in life and death that already marred American history for hundreds of years — and the increased reliance on firearms as everyday tools of self-defense threatens to further desensitize us to this loss of life. At the same time, it is naïve and dangerous to believe that gun control policies necessarily help residents of high-crime, gun-rich places like Detroit, where police response time is too long and where gun laws can be so easily used to further criminalize minorities.
Jennifer Carlson argues that we should not feel rushed to embrace gun policies that leave untouched the deep and uneven problems of decline that aggravate fear, exacerbate inequality and drive many Americans to guns in the first place. There is no clear-cut answer to the question of guns, because guns are embedded in different, and starkly unequal, realities of policing, protection, and insecurity. Jennifer Carlson further argues that guns appeal not only to Americans who hold tightly onto the American Dream’s ideology of rugged individualism but also to those Americans who live in an American nightmare that requires self-reliance and survival skills more than ideological preferences. Guns solve problems for the people who bear them. Nevertheless, engaged votes, activists, politicians, policy-makers, and lobbyists — whether promoting gun rights or promoting gun control interests — play a critical role in shaping the contexts in which guns become appealing tools and with what ramifications. To what extent good life involves guns is a question of how we — from everyday Americans to national policymakers — choose to rebuild broken dreams.
Jennifer Carlson presents an alternative but controversial viewpoint about owning a gun. She has tried to answer an important question why Americans love to carry firearms by giving portraits of gun-carriers. She shows that economic insecurity and social instability give the carrier a sense of being a good citizen who believes it their civic duty to carry concealed guns. Citizen-Protectors is a well-researched book that takes gun-carriers as important social subjects in the gun-related debate. Jennifer Carlson is not politically correct and does not hesitate to ask and try to answer difficult questions. And she does it in a timely, nuanced and easy-to-understand manner. This book is for every American.