Gun Populism and Gun Militarism


Kevin Dooley: Guns etc. (CC)

by Jennifer Carlson

Violence occupies a ubiquitous but ambivalent place in American society. It animates the narratives of heroes and villains that drive our favourite TV shows, comic books and movies, even as we know the breathtaking scars it leaves on American society. It titillates us as a means of solving problems – but also terrifies us for the same reason. It reflects and reproduces a perilous racial double standard in American society – whereby violence becomes a mark of criminalisation for some people (particularly black boys and men and people of colour), but a means of empowerment for others (particularly white boys and men).

Accordingly, it leaves us with the fool’s errand of trying to painstakingly draw lines between courageous, heroic, defensive violence and cowardly, terroristic, criminal violence as we try to process the dizzying array of ways that Americans have turned to the means of violence – particularly guns – as a means of responding to the uncertainty, disorder and crisis that 2020 has dealt us. Amid the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic,  the ATF has reported unprecedented surges in gun sales. When protests grew in June surrounding police killings of people of colour, especially African Americans, armed patrols of private vigilantes aimed at “defend[ing] our city…from evil thugs” (in the words of one Facebook post) became increasingly commonplace. And leading up to the US presidential elections in early November, some were preparing – in the words of Oath Keepers founder and leader Stewart Rhodes – to “stand up and protect people on election day”; in the weeks since Trump lost the election, the Oath Keepers and others have offered armed “aide” to Trump and have promised to resist as illegitimate any law enacted by the Biden administration. In a variety of corners, the line between the celebration of the armed militia as a cornerstone of republican civics and the promotion of domestic terrorism as a defence of tyranny has become razor-thin.

Over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st, Americans have often looked to public law enforcement to keep them safe from terror and violence, but 2020 tells us – if we didn’t already know – that police are also violence’s aiders and abettors. Members of public law enforcement pull the trigger in more than 1,000 deaths of private civilians every year; they offer support for armed citizen patrols; they even populate the ranks of groups like the Oath Keepers. These, of course, represent a minority of public law enforcement. But they intimate something about law enforcement’s decisive role in distinguishing good violence from bad violence, in separating the good guys with guns from the bad guys with guns, and, ultimately, how racial ideas drive that distinction.

Five years ago, I set out to understand some crucial, but often overlooked, elements of gun politics in America: how gun laws are actually enforced in practice by law enforcement and how those enforcers make sense of gun law. Pew data show that police support gun rights 3:1 over gun control and that police are twice as likely as the general public to oppose a ban on assault weapons. Meanwhile, police are largely left out of public debate surrounding what kinds of gun laws we should or shouldn’t have on the books.

Accordingly, I spent years talking to police chiefs across the country, querying them about their thoughts on gun criminality, gun rights and gun law. I watched police administrators decide who should or should not receive a gun license in cases that required additional review due to flags on applications (e.g., an unpaid parking ticket, arrest or a referral by local police). I studied newspaper coverage of police attitudes on guns, as well as the roles of the gun control and gun rights lobbies in shaping them. As I did so, I found a pattern – one that revealed divergent and longstanding racial narratives about the place of guns in American society: gun populism and gun militarism.


I was interviewing a police chief in a rural part of Arizona buzzing with tourists, retirees and cattle ranchers. There was nostalgia everywhere – even in our interview, as the chief explained the bucolic antics of small-town crime. But the tone shifted on the topic of the 1999 Columbine shooting, a watershed moment in how Americans understand and experience the threat of gun violence. “How could we have allowed this to have happened? Here, we waited outside while kids were being killed. And that was really our attitude – we were failures…and I would say that…we found it offensive that some people went to gun control. Because we felt like we let society down.”

He wasn’t a responding officer that day – even though he talked as if he was. The experience rattled him and police more broadly: after Columbine, the law enforcement community transformed how they responded to active shootings. And for this chief, as with others, he would never again doubt the value of first responders – whether police or armed citizens.

Over and again, I heard from chiefs about the devastation, agony and shame of not meeting active shootings with enough stopping power to save the lives of innocents in churches, schools and movie theatres – a sentiment evident in the public shaming and subsequent firing of a Broward County sheriff’s deputy who declined to enter the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as it erupted into an active shooting. One chief told me, “Say I’m in a movie theatre, and there’s a shooting, and I am there, but I can’t do anything because I don’t have a gun? I would feel devastated. Ashamed. Guilty. I would feel like all of those lives lost were on me. And it would ruin me forever.” Police chiefs, I found, saw themselves as armed citizens – and armed citizens as police.

Chiefs often saw armed citizens as broadly beneficial to their work as police. As one chief told me, “If there’s an off duty cop next to me in the store when I need back up, I’m going to want that back up. And I don’t see what’s the difference between that off-duty cop and the responsible citizen. There is zero difference.” There was a lot of variation here: some chiefs vigorously endorsed armed citizens as crucial to public order, while others saw armed citizens only as a stopgap for saving lives. Almost every police chief I interviewed endorsed some version of gun populism: the idea that armed private citizens can be collaborators with police in the maintenance of social order.

From this perspective, they often saw gun carriers as salt-of-the-earth types, describing them as “normal people”. Chiefs used archetypes – the “rancher with a gun”, the “teacher with a gun” or the “farmer”. The “teacher” evokes public service; the “farmer” and the “rancher” evoke Thomas Jefferson’s yeoman republicanism, which lionised early white settlers as “real” Americans by virtue of their ethic of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. Police chiefs did not explicitly and exclusively portray whites as the bearers of legitimate firepower, but they repeatedly appealed to these ideals that aligned with symbols of white, middle-class respectability.

Gun populism isn’t an abstract idea – it’s born and bred in the racial politics of the contemporary US that tends to cast white criminality as deviance and white suspects as less-guilty than their counterparts of colour. Gun populism helps explain why Kyle Rittenhouse – an openly armed white 17-year-old – could be met with appreciation by police just days after officers shot at Jacob Blake, an African American 29-year-old who was apparently neither armed or actively involved in a felonious crime, in front of his children. It suggests that Tucker Carlson was merely asking a rhetoric question to his viewers when he pondered: “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” And it explains why President Trump could give Rittenhouse the benefit of the doubt so easily: had he not himself killed first, “he probably would have been killed.”


The chief’s office was on a high-floor of a sky-rise building set in the downtown area of a mid-sized Midwestern city that, despite the sleepy veneer of its rural environs, had a bustling scene of petty crime and violent offences. That day, the chief broke down how violent crime played out in his city, pulling out a composite photograph of homicide victims: “It’s very concentrated among a network of people. Let me show you a picture. Besides those two [portraits], they are all the same: black men who are between 18 and 24. It’s gang-related.”

We know that gun violence is often concentrated within a small group of offenders and victims. But this chief did more than merely convey this empirical trend. At times, chiefs divided up entire jurisdictions as criminal versus law-abiding, buttressing racist stereotypes about those involved in urban gun violence and noting, as one chief did, “We like to keep our enemies on the other side of the gate.” This language reflects a presumption, as the sociologist Nikki Jones notes in her book The Chosen Ones, “regarding the value placed on black life…: violence is only a problem when it spills outside of the black community.”

Gun militarism – which captures the idea that police need to disarm and overpower the armed enemy by any means necessary (e.g., aggressive policing, prohibitive laws and tough mandatory sentencing) – repeatedly appeared in my conversations with police chiefs who emphasised “tough on crime” approaches to gun violence. Though they doubted the efficacy of these approaches, the chiefs I interviewed were staunch supporters of zero-tolerance for gun crimes associated with typecasts of urban criminality. Across the US, African Americans are far more likely to be sanctioned for a variety of gun-related offenses than whites. Gun militarism doesn’t exist in opposition to gun populism, but alongside it, constituting a racial-double standard, whereby guns become vehicles of criminalisation for some people, yet vehicles of empowerment for others. Gun militarism animates our debates about guns and the way law and policy responds to those debates.


The stories, the evidence (e.g., racial disparities in prosecutions for unlawful gun possession) and the analysis overwhelming suggests that racial ideologies about guns matter in shaping the differential life chances of people of colour – especially African American boys and men – versus whites. This is visible in the racial differences in who is able to claim self-defence in homicide cases in Stand Your Ground States. It is observable in the juxtaposition of high-profile cases (e.g., Philando Castile, Kyle Rittenhouse) that reveal a racial double-standard to self-defence. Armed and unarmed boys and men of colour – caught in the literal crossfire and deemed to be threats on sight – reveal that this is not just a political debate. The racial politics of self-defence are a matter of life or death for those wishing to exercise what is now, as a result of legal and cultural shifts over the last few decades, broadly understood as a right of American citizenship.

Like the National Rifle Association members who spoke out against the NRA’s silence in the aftermath of Philando Castile’s death, some police chiefs recognised, as one stated, that “racial profiling is real.” Further, chiefs recognise that racial stereotypes open up a lethal margin of error in cases where police confront armed private civilians. One chief I interviewed was memorably exasperated about the racial disparities he saw, but felt powerless to combat, saying, “I get that there’s a lot going on…but I’m not trying to solve the world’s problem.” Likewise, a handful of chiefs were adamant about their reluctance to use lethal force themselves, seeing it as a sign of weakness, a compromise on their morals or simply a sign of shoddy police work.

But, ultimately, these maverick police cannot counter the strong tide in which we live in the United States: regardless of their personal beliefs, police are still wrapped up in an institution that reproduces racial ideologies – gun militarism and gun populism – that justify certain kinds of violence and criminalise others. And we – the broader public – too often collude, not just by unthinkingly embracing racist ideologies, but also by refusing to see gun politics and the politics of policing as interlocking, and mutually reinforcing, projects. To move forwards means recognising how the politics of race shapes violence and understanding how the politics of guns is integral to today’s policing apparatus.

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Frontpage image taken from Mike Lewinski: Liquor and Guns No. 1 (CC)

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