Are There Guns in Mayberry?

Jennifer Carlson, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, has written one of the best sociological studies of the last decade on American firearm culture. Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline, based on the author’s doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley, attempts “the impossible: an illuminating but apolitical book about guns.” It succeeds to the extent that should be expected of a scholarly work. We academics, after all, have world views. We enter academia, in part, to make known—but also to challenge—our beliefs. Professor Carlson’s writing is tinted by her biases, as my reading is by mine. What follows, then, is intended to be more an engagement of her scholarship than a review or critique of it.

To try to better understand why people carry guns, Professor Carlson went to southeast Michigan to become immersed in its gun-carry culture. She interviewed 60 male and 11 female holders of licenses to carry concealed handguns. Although the author is careful to note that her study of southeast Michigan is not “generalizable to all states,” some of her analysis encompasses the nation as a whole. Such generalization in this case is not obviously improper.

Professor Carlson also attended gun-related events, obtained a conceal-carry license, became a National Rifle Association-certified firearms instructor, and at times even openly carried her handgun. This book examines, in her words,

a world in which guns are a sensible, morally upstanding solution to the problem of crime, a world in which the NRA is not a hard-line lobby that distorts the political process in Washington, DC, but rather a community service organization that serves middle America, and a world in which guns are attractive not only to white men but also racial minorities.

She notes that men are four times more likely to carry than women. She concludes that men bear arms in order to counteract social and economic decline. They become “citizen-protectors” to fulfill a duty to protect themselves, their families, and their communities from crime (“the most common articulation of decline”), and to compensate for government’s corresponding “[in]ability to secure social order” or provide simple protection. The author does not dispute the praiseworthiness of familial and civic desires to protect. She does, however, believe that they are driven by men’s social insecurities, which manifest themselves “where alternative ways of asserting masculinity (such as being the sole financial provider for one’s family) are eroding.”

Her view is that in acting in this way, men are “mourning Mayberry,” the idyllic setting of the Andy Griffith Show of the 1960s, a make-believe North Carolina village where crime was nonexistent, communities were tight, morals were upright, and men provided for their families. In Mayberry, Sheriff Taylor took care of everything. There was, presumably, no need for firearms. The real or imagined loss of this secure place, Professor Carlson asserts, explains the modern proliferation of conceal-carry laws across the vast majority of the United States.[1]

Yet the statist notion that all will be well if one merely has a good job and leaves all else to the sheriff is a historically atypical American outlook. The view that it is appropriate for the state to hold a monopoly on violence (or on other matters of importance, for that matter), Robert H. Churchill convincingly recounts, may have fit well with the era of hyper-patriotism that began near the end of the 19th century and ended with the Cold War.[2] But the constitutionally required legality of either open or concealed carry was the common understanding through the 19th century.[3]

Notwithstanding some subsequent fading of that sentiment from popular understanding, and its undermining by courts,[4] open carry was widespread well into the 20th century even in states that today have the nation’s most restrictive gun-carry laws.[5] The conceal-carry “revolution” and the distinctly individual citizen-protector view of citizenship may be seen as more a reversion to American tradition than a rejection of it.

Professor Carlson notes her surprise at how much of the NRA course that is required for an individual to earn a concealed-carry license was devoted to teaching the “moral and legal dimensions of gun carry”—the prerequisites to being a citizen protector. The course focused on “the cultivation of responsible, safety-conscious Americans” who both know the law of deadly force and are morally able to use a gun to protect themselves or others. As the NRA courses acknowledge, this requires “ethical contemplation” of a question—when is it acceptable to deploy deadly force against another?—to which there is no right answer.

The author acknowledges in a way unusual in the academic world that the NRA is a 145-year-old service organization that teaches the skills and duties required for responsible gun ownership. She rejects “the emotions of fear and resentment” often emphasized by scholars when discussing gun politics as presenting a “one-sided, partial view of the NRA.” This determination to treat the gun issue fairly is not merely rare but an act of courage for a Berkeley PhD student in today’s academic environment.

She mildly chides the NRA for shaping the moral politics of life and death—“who needs shooting” and “who is worthy or unworthy of life”—without regard for the social catalysts of crime. She rejects the notion that crime is a question of moral turpitude, embracing throughout the book other structural and economic injustices, along with racism, as more likely causes of (real or perceived, I suspect she would say) criminality. Yet the supermajority of crimes that may lawfully be stopped with deadly force, like homicide, kidnapping, and other forcible felonies, stem from depravity rather than from structural or economic coercion. Race and other factors like economic condition are manifestly important in, for example, determining whether certain gun-carriers are more likely to be harassed, or whether stop-and-frisk practices unfairly target and criminalize disfavored groups and the poor. Such factors are flatly irrelevant, though, to the lawful carrier staring down the barrel of an attacker’s gun. (Professor Carlson notes that in the highest crime area of Detroit and its suburbs, blacks are more likely to carry a gun than whites.)

She takes her position in a context where gun-carriers speak openly about hoping never to have to be in the terrible position of having to kill anyone. There is an undertone of disdain in her description of such people, as when she refers to two such individuals as “pontificat[ing] about self-defense and taking the life of another human being.” She also notes that many outside the gun culture consider using deadly force to protect innocents an oxymoron. This view represents the complacency into which much of the citizenry has descended. Today, vast numbers of individuals have the luxury of never needing to consider the dreadful possibility of having to take a life.

In the American gun culture, Professor Carlson notes incisively, considering this possibility, being willing to act on it, but hoping never to have to, is the mark of a full citizen. Some might even view as morally problematic leaving such responsibilities to state actors. As Jeffrey R. Snyder asked in “A Nation of Cowards,” his famous 1993 essay in The Public Interest magazine:

Is your life worth protecting? If so, whose responsibility is it to protect it? If you believe that it is the police’s, not only are you wrong—since the courts universally rule that they have no legal obligation[6] to do so—but you face some difficult moral quandaries. How can you rightfully ask another human being to risk his life to protect yours, when you will assume no responsibility yourself? Because that is his job and we pay him to do it? Because your life is of incalculable value, but his is only worth the $30,000 salary[7] we pay him? If you believe it reprehensible to possess the means and will to use lethal force to repel a criminal assault, how can you call upon another to do so for you?

If Citizen-Protectors makes tiresomely frequent reference to race, its characterization of the conceal-carry license along gender lines can, at least from a male standpoint, feel divisive. It is undeniable that men are more likely than women to carry guns, and that men’s instinct to protect themselves, their families, and others manifests itself in a way that is different from women’s corresponding instinct. It is understandable that (male and not insignificant female[8]) desire to carry in Detroit is driven by a combination of crime and economic decline—an economic and social malaise that has hit both citizens and law enforcement’s ability to police. (The Detroit Police Officers Association, she reports, once handed out fliers at a baseball game warning fans to beware because the police were too underfunded and understaffed properly to ensure the fans’ safety.)

Gun-carriers (of either sex) may be insecure, but they are the best positioned to judge their personal risks and benefits of being armed. For example, poorer individuals have relatively more to lose from a criminal act and more difficulty receiving adequate police assistance. Men may indeed, as Professor Carlson finds, be more willing to resort to forceful protection in an environment of decline. But she takes the gender angle to extremes, at one point even suggesting, for example, that men encourage their wives to be armed for purely selfish reasons. She asks, “are men promoting guns to women for women’s self protection, or for the protection of their (that is, the men’s) children?” It requires too large a leap to arrive at this conclusion from men using phrases like “my wife” and “my children” when discussing who their wives could protect if they were armed.

The reader is also left curious about the female gun-carrier’s psyche. If Professor Carlson’s 11 female subjects were analyzed as thoroughly as her male ones were, the book does not show it. To the author’s credit, however, Citizen-Protectors does point out a few examples of unnecessary “tough-guy” behavior in some strains of the gun culture, like the unfortunately not uncommon sign on the wall of a firearms school reading “We don’t dial 911!”, or the counterproductive hostility sometimes displayed by open-carry activists. They would be better served, as President Theodore Roosevelt might say, by walking more softly.

Perhaps the author’s greatest worry is that gun-carriers will shoot the wrong person by mistaking benign encounters for deadly threats. Three of her examples—all real—typify the sorts of misidentification with which she is concerned.

In one example, she describes the dilemma of Aaron, a gun-carrier who pulled into a suburban Detroit gas station in several feet in front of a woman with a truck. Aaron’s children were in the car. On his way into the station, the woman began to be hyper-aggressive and belligerent toward him and his vehicle, going so far as to threaten to “move this MF myself!”He continued inside to conduct his business, where someone said, “Oh, she’s in the truck.” Aaron turned to see her “driving her car into his,” and her truck inches from his car with his children still in it. He rushed to within several feet of the truck, told the woman to stop, stated that he was armed, and when he saw her reach for something, drew his firearm.

It turned out that the woman had reached for her phone. Aaron was arrested (no shots were fired) and eventually pleaded guilty to brandishing and had his gun collection confiscated. In Professor Carlson’s view, this man “brought a gun to a verbal fight, misreading the situation and misusing his gun. He paid dearly for the incident; the woman could have paid far more dearly had he pulled the trigger.” Her belief is grounded in her view that Aaron misinterpreted the woman’s use of “institutionalized bluster,” or “street code,” which was intended to avoid violence by intimidating, “‘projecting an image of confidence on one’s ability to fight well,’” and “‘present[ing] oneself as explicitly willing to use violence.’”

But on whom should the burden in such a situation fall? Viewed on Professor Carlson’s terms, the woman’s behavior intended to threaten violence. Any law enforcement officer will readily acknowledge that, as is the law of Michigan[9], a car, much less a truck, is a dangerous weapon. In the mind of many, Aaron would have been justified in drawing his weapon much earlier than he did. Yet Professor Carlson sees what he did as “macho posturing” and as racially stereotypical thinking of a threat that she presumes (but did not confirm) came from a black woman. This despite that the woman instigated the encounter, and that Aaron was also black. The failure, I offer, was not that this man drew his firearm, but that the law punished him for defending his children.

In another example, Corey, a store owner in Flint, Michigan, fatally shot a 19-year-old robber who was pointing a gun at him. The police ruled it a justifiable homicide. It turned out that the robber’s gun was fake. Here Carlson asks questions that are fundamentally about burdens: “Could Corey have known the gun was fake? Should he have known? And if the assailant’s purpose was to intimidate Corey, does it even matter that the gun was fake?” As with the aggressor in the first example, this robber’s unqualified intent was to make Corey believe that his life was in immediate danger. It is not surprising that neighborhood residents and police saw Corey’s act as a public service.

Third is the well-known shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida in 2012, and here Professor Carlson does the most disservice. She oversimplifies the case by characterizing it as one where Mr. Zimmerman followed Mr. Martin, murdered him, and used Florida’s Stand Your Ground law as cover. Even a cursory examination of the evidence, however, shows that the situation was much more complex.[10] It suffices for present purposes to note that Florida’s Stand Your Ground law was irrelevant to the analysis. Under that law, an imminent attack that could subject the victim to death, severe bodily harm, or a violent forcible felony entitles the victim to use deadly force to repel it without a first having to attempt to retreat from his or her attacker.[11] This scenario was not at play, however, making Stand Your Ground inapplicable: If Mr. Zimmerman was the aggressor, then he was not under the law’s protection, had no right to self-defense, and whether he should have retreated or not was beside the point. If, on the contrary, Mr. Martin attacked Mr. Zimmerman and pinned him to the ground, as seems to have been the case, Mr. Zimmerman had no real opportunity to retreat, so the Stand Your Ground law was once again irrelevant.

A case as nuanced and important as that deserves more than the cursory discussion afforded it here. This lapse, however, is the exception in a book filled with otherwise thorough analyses. Citizen-Protectors was written with no agenda other than to describe the gun-carry mentality. At its core, it does so substantially accurately. It concludes not with the author joining a side of the gun debate, but her expressing her desire to better understand the root causes of violence. Everyone who wants a better world shares that desire.

[1] In “shall-issue” states, licensing authorities must issue carry permits to anyone who passes a criminal background check, does not have a mental disability, and, in most states, takes a basic training course. Only California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island follow a “may-issue” regime, under which licensing authorities have wide discretion in whether to issue carry permits. Of these, Connecticut typically issues permits to anyone who would be qualified under a shall-issue system; the others tend to be very restrictive, typically issuing permits only to a connected few. A few states do not require permits to carry concealed. Right to Carry Laws, NRA Institute for Legislative Action https://www.nraila.org/gun-laws.aspx (last visited June 13, 2016). Many states, including Michigan, do not require permits to carry openly. http://www.opencarry.org/maps/map-open-carry-of-a-properly-holstered-loaded-handgun (last visited June 13, 2016).

[2] See Robert H. Churchill, To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant’s Face: Libertarian Political Violence and the Origins of the Militia Movement (University of Michigan Press, 2009), pp. 145-182.

[3] For a discussion of the era, with citation of and excerpts from cases adhering to this norm, see Nicholas J. Johnson, David B. Kopel, George A. Mocsary, and Michael P. O’Shea, Firearms Law and the Second Amendment: Regulation, Rights, and Policy, Aspen Casebook Series (Wolters Kluwer Law and Business, 2012), pp. 251-344.

[4] See for example Brian L. Frye, “The Peculiar Story of United States v. Miller,” New York University Journal of Law and Liberty 3 (2008), 48. Frye suggests that United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939), a case which many interpret to have held that the Second Amendment does not protect an individual right to keep and bear arms, was the result of a collusive prosecution, involving a U.S. Attorney, a federal district judge who had strongly supported federal gun control in his former role as a member of Congress, and a compliant defense attorney, working to set up a Supreme Court test case to affirm the National Firearms Act. See also Brannon P. Denning, “Can the Simple Cite Be Trusted?: Lower Court Interpretations of United States v. Miller and the Second Amendment,” Cumberland Law Review 26 (1996), 961. Denning argues that 20th century lower federal court cases, in citing Miller for the proposition that the Second Amendment does not guarantee an individual right, had consistently read Miller to stand for propositions that were not clearly established by that decision.

[5] New Jersey, which has one of the most restrictive public-carry laws in the nation, allowed open carry until 1966. Drake v. Filko, 724 F.3d 426, 448 (3d Cir. 2013) (Hardiman, J., dissenting).

[6] The two most famous cases holding that law enforcement has no responsibility to protect anyone in particular are: DeShaney v. Winnebago County, 489 U.S. 189 (1989), holding that the government is not liable for its inaction in rescuing a child who was known to be severely abused, and was later murdered; and Riss v. New York, 240 N.E.2d 860 (N.Y. 1968), holding that the government is not liable for its inaction despite being told of an impending attack by a stalker that disfigured his victim. The dissent in this second case noted that Miss Riss was prevented from carrying a gun in public by New York law.

[7] The 2016 starting pay for a New York City police officer is $45,674, including “top base pay, longevity pay, holiday pay, uniform allowance and average night shift differential.” Benefits & Salary Overview, NYPDRecruit.com, http://www.nypdrecruit.com/benefits-salary/overview (last visited June 13, 2016). After 3.5 and 5.5 years of service, these figure rise to $60,398 and $91,998.

[8] Professor Carlson notes that 425,790 Michigan residents held a Concealed Pistol License (CPL) in May 2013, and that men are four times as likely to carry as women. Assuming that the Michigan population’s ratio of men to women was roughly what the Michigan Department of Technology, Management, and Budget projected for 2012, there were about 88,359 female CPL holders in Michigan. Michigan Department of Technology, Management, and Budget, Estimated Population by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 2010-2012, Michigan.gov http://www.michigan.gov/cgi/0,4548,7-158-54534-305736–,00.html (last visited June 13, 2016)—click on “Estimated Population of the Michigan by Single Year of Age and Sex: 2010-2012” and compare estimated 2012 populations for men and women.

[9] People v. Wardlaw, 475 N.W.2d 387, 387-88 (Mich. Ct. App. 1991).

[10] For example, the evidence provides solid support for the conclusion that Mr. Zimmerman stopped following Mr. Martin when instructed to do so by the police dispatcher, and corroborates Mr. Zimmerman’s claim that Mr. Martin was atop Mr. Zimmerman, straddling and beating him.

The call suggests that Mr. Zimmerman stopped following Mr. Martin about 30 seconds after he began. On two occasions during the call Mr. Zimmerman indicated that he did not know where Mr. Martin was; in second instance, he even feared saying his address out loud for fear that Mr. Martin was nearby and might, presumably, learn where he lived. See Trymaine Lee, “Trayvon Martin Case: 911 Audio Released of Teen Shot by Neighborhood Watch Captain (AUDIO),” Huffington Post, March 16, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/16/trayvon-martin-911-audio-_n_1354909.html (click on the first audio link after the fifth paragraph); transcript of George Zimmerman’s 911 call to Sanford Police Department, http://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/326700/full-transcript-zimmerman.pdf.

Two of the prosecution’s witnesses testified to seeing Mr. Martin beating Mr. Zimmerman, one of them admitting that he saw Mr. Martin “ground and pounding” and “raining blows down on . . . George Zimmerman.” Seni Tienabeso and Matt Gutman, “George Zimmerman Was Beaten, Two Prosecution Witnesses Say,” ABC News (June 28, 2013), http://abcnews.go.com/US/george-zimmerman-beaten-prosecution-witnesses/story?id=19517236 (video of trial testimony includes both quotes). See also Lizette Alvarez, “Clash of Styles in Court Opens Trial in Young Man’s Death,” New York Times, June 25, 2013, p. A11.

[11] Fla. Stat. § 776.012(2) (2014).