Since the 1960s, the national conversation on firearms in both political and academic circles has revolved around one main question: Do guns increase crime or reduce it? Are guns tools of escalation or deterrence?
Lately, however, social science researchers have become interested in a different question — not the relationship between guns and crime but the relationship between guns and people.
A new generation of sociologists takes as its point of departure the sheer preponderance of guns: an estimated 300 million firearms in the hands of civilians, and more than 11 million concealed carriers. We want to understand why Americans do not just own but also carry guns. To us, cultural politics matter at least as much as instrumental value.
Gun-carry culture is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. Many cite Florida's 1987 "shall-issue" law as the turning point. Now states as diverse as Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon and Pennsylvania have laws on the books that make it relatively easy for residents with clean criminal records to obtain a license to carry a concealed weapon.
I set out to Michigan — an unlikely pro-gun state given its reputation as a politically liberal place — to interview gun carriers. I spent time on shooting ranges, at "open carry" picnics, at activist events and firearm instructional seminars.
Carrying a gun has become normalized in Michigan; it's a way of life for hundreds of thousands of residents, partly conditioned by the idea that crime could happen anytime, anyplace.
One man with a concealed-carry permit likened his gun to a wallet: "You know, anytime you're without, you never know when you're going to need [a gun]. So it's best practice to have it at all times.... Just like carrying a wallet." Others told me they felt "naked" without a gun.
Crime has dropped in much of the United States, but this decline has been uneven. Although Michigan does not rank among the 10 most violent states, Detroit and Flint still top lists of "most violent cities." In 2012, Detroit had its highest homicide rate since the early 1990s. For those who live in these cities, crime is an everyday reality; for those who live outside them, crime is a highly charged — if often abstract — concern.
But the appeal of guns is hardly reducible to fear of crime, whether rational or irrational. I found that men — the vast majority of gun owners are men — may also carry weapons as a reaction to broader socioeconomic decline.
When I asked Corey, a Flint resident, why he carried a gun, he said, "Before, it was all blue collar, shop workers and a little bit of welfare. Now it's all welfare, and things are different."
The men I interviewed discussed Michigan's past nostalgically, not only as a place that promised safe neighborhoods but as one in which their fathers had clear, vital roles to play. Men were entrusted with supporting their families; they made happy suburban home life possible.
Corey and others suggested that breadwinning now is harder than it used to be. Indeed, men's participation in the labor force has been on a steady decline since the 1970s. Well-paying manufacturing jobs have dried up.
Frankie, a retired Detroiter, told me that in the 1970s he "got a job at General Motors, and they were hiring people off the street with zero education, and they could work 20 years, and they could make a living. You can't do that now."
As men doubt their ability to provide, their desire to protect becomes all the more important. They see carrying a gun as a masculine duty and the gun itself as a vehicle for a hardened kind of care-work — caring for others by shielding them from danger, with the threat of lethal force.
Brad, another Flint resident, told me, "The child's born. Mortgage, marriage. I have a kid. I'm paying for all this stuff on a truck driver's wage.... I wanted to protect them all, so then a firearm comes along."
My interview subjects cast themselves as "good guys with guns" tasked with assisting the vulnerable among us. As they practiced shooting their firearms, they imagined scenarios in which women and children might need their help: a man with a rifle in a schoolyard full of kids; a woman being raped in an alley; an armed robber targeting a diner waitress.
The gun carriers I met did not frequently attempt to stop crimes, but when they did, they tended to play the role of hero, defending a damsel in distress. Two gun carriers told me they had intervened in domestic disputes, both relying on their firearms to persuade the assailant to desist.
We tend to get mired in public policy debates that isolate the impact of guns on violence, and nothing more. We wonder to what degree they contribute to suicide rates or homicide rates. But firearms have a larger purpose in our postindustrial society. In Michigan and other places hit hard by the economic downturn, men's guns can address social insecurities far beyond crime.
The gun rights platform is not just about guns. It's also about a crisis of confidence in the American dream. And this is one reason gun control efforts ignite such intense backlashes: Restrictions are received as a personal affront to men who find in guns a sense of duty, relevance and even dignity.
Jennifer Carlson is the author of "Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline."