Jennifer Carlson

Jennifer Carlson immediately gets to the point of her just released book, “Policing the Second Amendment: Guns, Law Enforcement, and the Politics of Race”: “This book is an attempt to unravel the relationship among legitimate violence, public law enforcement, and race through the lens of gun politics and gun policy.”

A timely topic for a nation grappling with gun policies, police brutality, urban unrest, white supremacists plotting to undermine a state government, and a president stoking political division while calling for law and order, the Princeton University Press book and its author will be the focus of a Thursday, October 22, streaming event hosted by Labyrinth Books and Princeton Public Library.

Carlson is an associate professor of sociology and government and public policy at the University of Arizona who has previously taken aim at American gun use in her 2015 book “Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline.”

She also has written about gun use for the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post and oversees National Science Foundation-funded projects examining gun violence survival and the 2020 surge of U.S. gun purchases.

Carlson says her above mentioned unraveling was done by exploring “contemporary American gun politics, gun policy, and gun practice across state and society (and back again).”

That led her to see how “race shapes not only how gun politics unfold but also how public policies regarding guns are mobilized to distinguish between legitimate violence and criminal violence. This distinction has profound consequences for how we live and die by, and how we debate and deliberate about, guns — whether guns on the hips of private civilians or guns in the hands of the police.”

The book was created in part through interviews with dozens of police chiefs “who agreed to share their perspective and experience on gun politics, gun policy, gun violence, and gun law enforcement.”

The result, she says, is a book that “claims that within the United States, coercive social control is organized by racialized understandings of gun violence. And it shows that, although the contemporary terrain reflects a historical legacy of racial domination in the United States, the racial delineations between legitimate versus illegitimate violence and between public versus private legitimate violence are actively reproduced and, at times, resisted.”

Carlson then focuses on “three key brokers that play crucial roles in staking out the boundaries of legitimate violence for private and public gun wielders. The first is the NRA. Although the organization is known for its transformation of the cultural and legal landscape of gun rights among private civilians, it has also advocated on behalf of police as professional gun wielders since the early 20th century.

“The second is police chiefs. Although they may not be on the front lines of gun law enforcement in the sense of conducting regular stops and searches, they are uniquely and acutely attuned to the complex politics surrounding gun policy by virtue of their accountability to the their respective agencies, to the politicians who appoint them, and the broader public on whose behalf they serve.

“The third is gun board administrators who issue, reject, revoke, and suspend gun carry licenses. Although gun boards exist in only a few states, they provide a rare window into understanding how representatives of the state — here again, public law enforcement — broker the boundaries of legitimate violence for private civilians looking to wield legitimate violence in the form of a concealed firearm.”

Carlson says each of these brokers provides a vital vantage point to unravel “gun talk,” or, as she puts it, “discourses through which we make sense of guns, including criminal guns and lawful guns as well as private civilian guns and police guns.”

She says such talk provides a means of “tracing sensibilities regarding the social dynamics of legitimate violence. Who has the capacity for it, and based on what statuses or qualifications? In what contexts? And according to what norms, justifications, or authority?”

The above, along with her studies of NRA practices and gun board polices, has led Carlson to examine two brands of “gun talk” that link the politics of guns with the politics of the police through two references: “gun militarism and gun populism.”

The references are significant as Carlson writes, “I hope to convince the readers that these terms are more useful than the usual terms of the gun debate (i.e. “gun control” and “gun rights”) for understanding the surprising affinities and aversions among those invested in the politics of guns.

“Under gun militarism, the division between state and society is deepened with regard to legitimate violence, and this chasm is galvanized by racialized imagery of a ‘bad guy with a gun’ to justify aggressive gun law enforcement.

“In contrast, under gun populism, the boundary between state and society is blurred with regard to legitimate violence, and the putatively color-blind imagery of the ‘good guy with a gun’ is mobilized to justify expanded gun access.

“Always coexisting, oftentimes complementary, and sometimes dueling, these two racial frames serve as guideposts in mapping out contemporary gun talk.”

Carlson says the two frames show that current U.S. debate regarding guns as “much more than a disagreement over private gun regulations” but “a debate about the license for and the limit of legitimate violence — of private civilians as well as the state.”

Broken into several sections, the 296-page book is a both an authoritative and accessible read.

It also provides a perspective missing in other public discourse.

For example, in the chapter “Gun Politics in Blue,” Carlson examines the NRA’s involvement with American police and gun control debates — and touches on the tough-on-crime rhetoric heard during the current presidential election.

“The often-overlooked common ground of the gun control and the guns rights lobbies in the late 20th century: both endorsed policies that harshly sanction the kinds of gun criminals associated with urban street crime. But where the gun control lobby aimed to further restrict gun access in communication with these measures, the NRA sought to otherwise expand gun access.

“For the NRA to win back the allegiance of the police with the platform the organization doubled down on ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric and subtly reminded cops that gun control was supported by liberals — and liberals were notoriously soft on crime. They also institutionalized the relationships between police and the NRA that could better weather the dicey moments when gun rights appeared to endanger police. Finally, the NRA pushed one step further . . . it made good on its message that gun rights could directly benefit police . . . to make sure that (the police) had access to, and were trained in, the kind of firepower they felt they needed as police, both on and off duty.”

In “War on Guns,” a term Carlson says she uses in place of “gun policy,” she examines a “tangled web of policies, practices, strategies, and sensibilities that all aim to establish a state — that is, a police — monopoly on legitimate violence. The war on guns is made possible by the prisms through which urban gun violence is viewed by the public and the police alike, one that delimits gun violence as a particular kind of problem and that racializes gun offenders as particular kinds of people.”

In a section examining what makes a gun illegal in the first place, Carlson says the definition is “legally, socially, and morally complicated. This is, perhaps, because illegal guns are never just about guns themselves but also about the people wielding them, as evidenced by the lengthy list of attributes that disqualify a person from possessing or purchasing a gun, including a felony record, age, a documented history of severe mental illness, and dependency on illicit substance.

She then focuses on race, noting that “early gun laws and gun customs enforced a color line that equated freedom, citizenship, and arms-bearing with whiteness,” and touches on “racial tropes that mark guns in the hands of black and brown hands as inexorable threats to public safety, public order, and police power.”

In “When the Government Doesn’t come Knocking,” Carlson analyzes “gun populism as a distinct form of gun talk, whereby, police understand private armed civilians as productive of social order alongside institutionalized law enforcement.”

She also notes, “Police are not as interested in a strict monopoly on legitimate violence as accounts of gun militarism might suggest. Instead, they tend to accommodate the reality — and accept the broad benefits — of a widely armed populace, sympathizing with legal gun carriers, and even understanding them as protective of social order.”

She later adds, “Gun populism helps us unravel how and why mainstream gun rights sensibilities resonate with police as law enforcers. Under gun populism, police may undermine the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence as they tout their alienation from legislators or emphasize their alignment with legally armed civilians . . . Police may take on these stances not to undermined police legitimacy but to enhance it . . . In this way, police may well benefit from the politics of private self-defense by deriving from it a justificatory gun talk regarding state use of violence.”

After compelling and supported instance after instance about guns and “gun talk,” Carlson offers three paths to address gun violence in the United States.

The first one continues to debate gun politics and the politics of the police as separate concerns, refusing to see how the politics of race shapes both of the issues in ways that add up to the broader question of legitimate violence in American Society.

Her second route takes a “reform-minded approach to the politics of the police” in a manner that identifies “the ‘bad apples’ in law enforcement as well as ensure that ‘good guys’ have guns while ‘bad guys’ do not” while circumventing “the broader issue of legitimate violence by focusing on reforms that largely aim to address criminal or illegitimate violence.”

And, finally, a third path “that considers gun politics and the politics of the police as co-constitutive — can meaningfully advance public debates and public policy about the place of gun violence, whether legitimate or criminal in American Society.”

Her last thought on the subject is that “together, gun populism and gun militarism form a foundation for reinforcing stark racial divisions surrounding how we live and how we die; how we disparately defend and protect lives; and whose deaths are recognized as worth grieving. There is an alternative to the reductive, unproductive debate about gun violence in the United States, and it starts by refusing to see the gun debate and police reform as isolated political projects.”

The book and event are part of that important discussion at an important time.

“Policing the Second Amendment: Guns, Law Enforcement, and the Politics of Race,” Princeton University Press, $29.95.

Author Jennifer Carlson will be in discussion with Michael Sierra-Arvalo, University of Texas sociology professor and author of “Peril on Patrol: Danger, Death, and U.S. Policing,” a livestream event presented by Labyrinth Books and Princeton Public Library. Thursday, October 22, 7 p.m. Free. Register at

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