Concealed Carry, Whiteness, and the Myth of Protectors

Last week Ohio joined dozens of other Republican-controlled states in further loosening its gun laws to lower penalties for carrying firearms in prohibited areas and expanding the list of public places a person could enter with his hidden weapon, including police stations, airports, and day care facilities. This legislation was a compromise from original proposals to eliminate all restrictions on where concealed weapons could be taken and even dropping requirements that aspiring pistol packers take gun safety classes and apply for special permits.

Of particular concern to Ohio academics is a provision of the bill that grants state universities the latitude to allow concealed firearms on campus.   At Bowling Green State University a number of professors raised the issue through a campus faculty email discussion group and urged their colleagues to contact their state representative and register their opposition the bill. Tipped off to this lobbying activity, the Buckeye Firearms Association filed an open records request and obtained a list of BGSU employees who called or emailed their representatives. The Buckeye Firearm Association then published their names along with their email addresses on their website and other social media along with an article incorrectly claiming that these faculty members had violated both state law and university policies in pressuring the Ohio legislature. The BFA’s story was quickly picked up and reposted by numerous Tea Party groups.

Several of the professors named in the BFA story were soon inundated with hate mail raising concerns across campus that the BFA’s posting of faculty members’ names was meant to intimidate. Academics shared some of these letters through their discussion group in order to illustrate how the gun lobby had spread a climate of fear.

Upset at this assault on their ivory tower, professors generally ridiculed these letter-writers as rubes, making much of the fact that one of the letter writers’ day job was as ‘choo choo’ the clown. They easily picked apart the logical, factual, and grammatical errors in the gun advocates’ messages. However, it was clear from their characterizations of the gun advocates’ arguments that few academics took seriously the other side’s ideas and concerns, instead flattening them into a caricature of Cliven Bundyite vigilantes who love their guns more than their society. Professors tended to see the issue as simply one of safety versus a perverse right-wing interpretation of constitutional rights.

While this episode certainly raises important issues of free speech, academic freedom, and simple democracy, reading these messages also affords a glimpse into the cultural forces animating the concealed carry movement.

The Paradox of Gun Ownership and the Concealed Carry Movement

The Concealed Carry movement is probably the most successful political movement of the last decade. In 2014 Illinois became the 50th state to allow its citizens to carry concealed guns with a license, but this watershed did not mark the end of the movement for the expansion of gun toting rights. Rather, gun advocates have successfully pressed for expanding the list of public places into which guns can be carried and reducing the requirements for obtaining a license or even dropping the requirement of obtaining a state permit at all.

In 2014 Missouri’s Republican legislature overrode a Democratic governor’s veto and passed a law (modeled on one passed in South Dakota the year before) allowing school employees to carry guns in school and lowered the minimum age for obtaining a concealed carry permit from 21 to 19. Georgia went further that same year and passed the “Safe Carry Protection Act” which not only allowed gun owners to bring their hidden weapons into schools, bars, churches and other public places, but bars police from checking gun permits.   Arizona’s legislature, which had already scrapped the usual requirement of obtaining a permit to carry a concealed gun, has passed the same bill expanding the public places concealed guns can be taken three times in four years, narrowly falling short of overriding the governor’s veto. In 2011, Iowa rewrote its gun permit laws to prevent state officials from denying anyone a concealed carry permit on the basis of disability, including blindness. This year Texas became the eighth state to specifically allow the carrying of guns onto college campuses. In April Kansas became the fifth state to allow any citizen to pack a hidden gun without a permit while nine additional states have similar pending legislation.

Yet it is a mistake to view the success of the Concealed Carry movement as an epiphenomenon of America’s love of guns. In fact, the great political paradox of our time is that the Concealed Carry movement has succeeded in the face of persistent declines in gun ownership across the nation over the past generation. Gun ownership in the U.S. has steadily declined over the past 40 years, according to figures compiled by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The number of American households that own a gun has dropped forty percent from its peak in 1977 when more than half of all Americans owned a firearm. Today fewer than a third of families have a gun in their household.

Most of this decline is due to a broad cultural shift away from the sport of hunting, though non-hunting gun ownership has fallen as well at much slower rate. These trends have flipped the politics of gun policy as hunters, once a healthy majority of gun owners, have become today a minority within their own gun lobby.

How is it that the concealed carry movement has succeeded at the same time that Americans’ interest in owning guns continues to fall? After all, if actual concerns about personal protection, whether from criminals or the state, was propelling this movement, wouldn’t the number of gun owners also be increasing?

A crucial fact for understanding American gun culture is the huge gender, racial, and age gap in gun ownership. Since data on gun ownership was first collected in the 1970s, female gun ownership has remained uncannily unchanged, hovering in a narrow range around ten percent of all women. The rate of white gun ownership is twice that of blacks and Hispanics, while people over age 65 are twice as likely to own a gun as people as under age 35. Today about one in five Americans personally owns a gun, the great majority of them older white men.

The Protector Rhetoric of Concealed Carry

A William Ferry of Bay Village, Ohio, wrote to Professor Jim Evans on Dec. 1, 2015, objecting to Evans’ statement (obtained by the Buckeye Firearm Association and published on their website) that he felt threatened by the prospect of gun-toting students in his classroom. Ferry wrote, “The mere carrying of a concealed firearm by a fellow citizen, especially one who has undergone the concealed carry license training (which is best done via the National Rifle Association’s “Basic Pistol Course”), is no threat to Professor Evans.” In this passage Ferry’s possession of a firearm is what elevates him to the status of “fellow citizen”. Moreover, this possession is the symbol of his particular role as protector and his specialized and accredited skill in that role derived from his NRA approved curriculum.

In contrast to his valorization of silently armed citizen protectors, Ferry posits the unarmed public as less worthy because of their helplessness and therefore actually complicit in the success of terrorists by their passivity: “Professor Evans instead advocates to keep students, faculty, and staff from carrying concealed firearms.  This is a very welcome environment for a madman with a gun.  All the targets are unarmed, completely helpless, and unable to protect themselves and others….Professor Evans in his knee-jerk philosophy against firearms is the true threat to the safety and security of the students, faculty, staff, and public.” Ferry concludes by reiterating his dichotomy between citizen defenders and those afraid of guns and therefore a threat to the body politic. “Professor Evans is in more danger today than he will be after our Legislature finally enables the good citizens of this state, including the young ones, to protect themselves EVERYWHERE they go. I urge BGSU to support the effort of our Legislature to allow Ohioans to defend their lives, by firearms if necessary.  The other position is a threat to our national security.”

A “Doug P.” echoed precisely Ferry’s worldview when he wrote to a BGSU genetics professor: “I am deeply regretful you haven’t been watching the news in the last several years. Just for you to discover that college teachers do not rate as protectors over our young men and daughters. This is a profession far beyond your grasp. The house bill 48 is a small step in insuring safety within the school. If you want to work in a day care center go for it, you should be able to handle something on this level. As for when someone enters your office to have a rant with a weapon, because you have empowered him what WILL YOU DO? I was raised to protect myself, all children, and those whom are unable to. It sounds like from the e-mail you agree that you fall into the latter case. I do wish you were better equipped physically and mentally to handle this protection. But since you admit you are not, you should by all rights leave and pick up employment elsewhere. I would hate to see someone get hurt due to your lack of ability.”

National concealed and open carry groups employ similar rhetoric in describing the purpose of their organizations. Usually, the carrier is portrayed as a protector, providing a crucial public service. The U.S. Concealed Carry Association homepage is centered a on a quote: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” (Notably, the USCCA does not mention that the man who said those words was Nelson Mandela) And then continues: “And THAT is how the Responsibly Armed American lives their lives. We are NOT free from fear. Rather, we arm ourselves with education, knowledge and training. And it’s this education, knowledge and training that allows us to conquer the fear. It allows us to be the protectors and defenders we were MEANT to be.”

This rhetoric of a nation imperiled by the gun shy and shielded by armed citizens needs to be taken seriously to understand how the carrying of concealed weapons is one powerful solution to a deepening crisis of identity among a certain group of mostly white men. A concealed weapon is not powerfully attractive to this group because it is physically empowers them or adds to their sense of personal safety, though as a symbol both of these meanings can and are attached to it, but rather its greater satisfaction is its ability to clarify the holder’s imagined social role thereby unifying a fractured self-identity. Through the hidden gun, the carrier is able to conceive of himself as worthy, as an important member of the social and political community in ways that tap powerful ancient currents of American political culture.

Such rhetoric underscores why the largest demographic of non-recreational gun owners is the same group that has experienced the greatest sense of social anomie of any group since the beginning of the Civil Rights Era. Prior to that time white male privilege was so deeply engrained in law, politics, social life, and American culture that it was practically invisible to its beneficiaries in its ubiquity. The initial shock of the loss of racial legal privilege in the 1950s was buffered by the continued strength of gender privilege and the massive federal investments being made to increase white economic privilege through discriminatory housing subsidies and investments in higher education and the continued resilience of the color bar in employment.   By the 1970s, a rising women’s movement challenged casual patriarchy while a spreading counter-culture undermined the cultural symbols and assumptions of white male authority. Republicans turned this white male angst into political hay between the invention of Nixon’s Southern Strategy and Reagan’s swaggering assertion of traditional values but then used this newly cobbled majority to extend corporate power over that same majority. In response to this astonishingly complete political success, the Democratic party abandoned its traditional blue collar white base and modelled itself as a friendlier and more competent version of corporate leadership. Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, the tearing down of working class trade protections, financial deregulation, and corporate tax cuts were all bipartisan policies. The structural damage to the white middle class wrought by these political shifts was not fully apparent until the Great Recession of 2008 when the center could no longer hold.

Over this period the middle and working class white man not only experienced an absolute decline in living standards and security, but a loss of identity. The American republic was founded on a civic republicanism that premised full inclusion in the body politic on a theoretical self-sacrificing independence that only a minority of even white men could attain through ownership of property and slaves. Male identity was firmly rooted in the separation of men’s and women’s spheres with men delegated to sole responsibility for economic and political life. White men were providers and as members of militia and slave patrols, protectors as well.

While the political history of America is in one sense a story of the progressive incorporation of non-white and non-male people into political rights, such expansion of the elective franchise was not perceived as a zero-sum game as long as the white majority remained firmly and demographically in control. But even the certainty of white political supremacy began to erode, first with the election of black mayors in the nation’s largest cities, the inclusion of non-whites and women in the Cabinet and the Supreme Court, and then most jarringly with the meteoric rise of Barack Obama in 2006.

Gun ownership by itself does little to fill the gaps in white identity that all these historic changes have chipped away. Simple gun ownership is a private activity, restricted to the home which, after all, is a traditionally female space. Concealed or open carry is a public act, asserting rights and membership in the larger civic world. It is an act that restores to the carrier the role of protector and citizen, roles lost to him not only by the dilution of white power in a multiracial nation but by the corporate takeover of democracy through the neoliberal abandonment of electoral financing laws. A man with a concealed gun in his pocket is a self-deputized protector of the public, and though gun advocates will admit that the chances of actually being a life-saving hero are microscopic, individuals can still imagine that their presence is making the space around them safer because the cumulative effect of millions of carriers is believed to deter crime. Thus, even if they never draw their piece, concealed carriers identify as “protectors” and active important citizens fulfilling a vital role in society. A role as white men they have lost in other ways.

Tim Messer-Kruse is a Professor of Ethnic Studies in the School of Critical and Cultural Studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.