In the Crosshairs: a blog about race, gender, and firearm violence by Dr. Caroline Light
By Dr. Caroline Light
Introducing “In the Crosshairs: On Gender, Race, and Firearm Violence”
Welcome to “In The Crosshairs,” an interdisciplinary blog about U.S. firearm violence and the social landscape and inequalities that make it so difficult to eradicate. I’m a historian who studies the enduring power structures that render particular populations more at-risk for homicide, suicide, and injuries involving firearms. I’ve long been fascinated with our national obsession with and investment in firearms – our unique “gun culture” – alongside an on-going, largely unsuccessful struggle to mitigate what some have called an epidemic of gun violence. Like so many at the forefront of gun violence research and resistance, I frame gun violence as a public health issue, meaning that firearms and their frequent misuse result in devastating health consequences for thousands of Americans each year. According to the Gun Violence Archive, 2020 was our deadliest year to date, with over 43,500 gun related deaths, of which roughly two-thirds were suicides. Compare these alarming statistics to 2019, in which we witnessed 39,389 gun deaths, 23,941 of them suicides, and it’s clear that the problem of gun violence is not going away.
As the national body count increases annually, so does the number of firearms in circulation. The U.S. holds only 4% of the world’s population but more than 45% of the world’s guns, and we experience significantly more firearm related deaths and injuries than any economically comparable nation. Even as gun violence claims more lives with each passing year, we continue to produce, distribute, and consume firearms at a rate unparalleled across the globe. We witnessed an unprecedented spike in gun sales in 2020, with the FBI reporting 3.9 million background checks performed in June alone.
Ours is a nation of increasingly armed citizens. According to the General Social Survey, 26% of U.S. adults reported owning guns in 2020, with 37% reporting living in a home with a gun. Not only do many civilians own guns, they are increasingly taking them into places where guns weren’t ordinarily allowed or welcome. In the twentieth century, guns were most often kept in people’s homes, taken on hunting trips, or used at the shooting range. Now, more people than ever are carrying their firearms with them wherever they go. As of August 2021, 20 states have adopted “Constitutional (or Permitless) Carry,” which allows eligible citizens to carry firearms without background checks, training, or licensing. Texas’ new law enables any “law-abiding” citizen to carry a firearm, regardless of whether that person has any experience with or training in gun use. The spread of Constitutional Carry means that, in states like Missouri, Texas, New Hampshire, or Vermont, we should “consider everyone armed.
Why is the social geography of guns changing so rapidly? This is due in large part to a cultural shift in thinking about the primary purpose of guns: where most twentieth century gun owners viewed them as tools for hunting and recreation, the contemporary gun owner is more likely to view them as vital instruments of protection or self-defense. This new attitude towards guns received support from the Supreme Court in 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller. In his majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia interpreted the Second Amendment as supporting “an individual right to possess firearms independent of service in a state militia and to use firearms for traditionally lawful purposes, including self-defense within the home.” As this decision helped normalize an individual right to have and use guns self-defensively in the home, the states passed laws allowing civilians to carry concealed firearms into public spaces and to respond with lethal force without first trying to retreat. While concealed carry was illegal in most states in the 1980s, by 2014, all 50 states had authorized varied forms of civilian concealed carry.
According to the oft-repeated dictum of the NRA, armed citizens are the “good guys (or women) with guns” who will protect our society from the ubiquitous “bad guys with guns.” This promise of self-reliance is of great comfort in a nation that prides itself on rugged individualism and exceptionalism, not to mention one that struggles to address its violent past. For the “bad guy” is a figure of alienation with deep historic roots: from the “savage Indian” that helped justify the so-called “Indian Wars” and a cruel campaign of Native genocide and removal, to the “Black beast rapist” whose untamed lust for white women validated a state sanctioned rampage of racial terror. The mythological “bad guys” of our past were imagined as male and as non-white, and their ideological progeny – “criminal thugs,” “bad hombres,” “gang-bangers,” and “looters” – continue to haunt our perceptions of security and freedom today. In spite of decreasing violent crime rates over the past few decades, suspicion about dangerous criminals helps drive an impulse to accumulate firearms for self-defense. From widespread desire for a greater sense of security, a peace of mind based on the belief that we are our own best protectors from the multitudes of encroaching “bad guys,” the gun manufacturers and adjacent security industries are literally making a killing.
But who really gets to “keep and bear” firearms in this nation, and under what circumstances? And who’s most likely to be the target of U.S. firearms, and why? Our contemporary patterns of gun use and carry reflect the nation’s historic exclusionary ideals and practices. In theory at least, we all possess the right, and in some people’s opinions, the obligation, to “keep and bear arms” for our individual self-defense. However, the shooting deaths of Jemel Roberson, Philando Castile, and Emantic “EJ” Bradford reveal that racial profiling and widespread implicit bias – the same patterns that produced the mythological “bad guys” of our past – make it especially risky for Black men to be “good guys with guns” today. Castile, Bradford, and Roberson were law-abiding, licensed, and trained gun owners, and each was shot and killed by police who misidentified them as “bad guys with guns.” Bradford and Roberson were killed while performing responsible “armed citizenship,” trying to protect people from an armed aggressor. Castile was killed by an officer who pulled him over in a Minnesota suburb after he informed the officer about the presence of his licensed gun in the car. Each tragic case illuminates the lethal stakes of Black men’s participation in armed citizenship, and their vulnerability to misidentification as threatening criminals, whether they are armed or not. According to the non-profit database Mapping Police Violence, non-white men are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be killed in their encounters with police. As a glaring counter-example, consider the many instances in which armed, white “bad guys” – including mass shooters – are taken safely into custody by police.
If the invitation to be a “good guy with a gun” rings hollow given widespread perceptions of Black men as “bad guys,” what about “good women” who take up firearms to protect themselves and their loved ones? Contrary to much of the gun rights lobby’s emphasis on threatening strangers, women’s largest statistical threat remains their own intimate partners, exes, and acquaintances. One of every three women killed per day is killed by a partner or ex-partner, and more than half of all mass shootings in the U.S. are perpetrated by men who have been involved in domestic or family violence. In the context of the Covid19 pandemic and the concurrent wave of public resistance to police violence, it appears that more women are turning to guns as a means of self-protection. Given widespread appeals to armed self-defense, the gun holds out a seductive promise of safety in a dangerous world.
But the promise is an empty one. In spite of overwhelming evidence of women’s disproportionate threat from men they know (and often love and trust), those who use firearms against their abusers experience an uphill battle defending their rights in court. Marissa Alexander, Melissa Roberts, and Brittany Smith all encountered the law’s critical incapacity to uphold women’s armed self-defense. Each woman used a firearm to defend herself from a violent attack, not from a stranger, but from a male acquaintance or intimate partner who had harmed her before. In spite of “Stand Your Ground” laws, which eliminate the duty to retreat when a person reasonably perceives a threat, and popular rhetoric about a woman’s “right to choose her life over that of her abuser,” each of these survivors was criminalized and incarcerated for defending herself. Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old Black woman who had just given premature birth, fired a warning shot to escape an attack from her estranged spouse. In spite of her insistence that she was in fear for her life during this encounter with a man who had harmed her before, a white, female prosecutor characterized Alexander as “angry.” This familiar stereotype of Black womanhood resonated with the jury, which found Alexander guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Marissa Alexander’s case and many others shine a spotlight on the hypocrisy of our nation’s prevailing gun culture and the supposedly universal invitation to “armed citizenship.” I created this blog to unpack and reflect on the seemingly intractable problems of gun violence using an intersectional and interdisciplinary perspective. Rather than focus only on white supremacy or misogyny as significant mitigating factors in understanding gun violence and its roots, I address these and other vital vectors of identity simultaneously. As the above examples show, the prevailing logics of our contemporary gun culture are rooted not only in racialized and gendered perceptions of threatening “bad guys;” they also depend on gendered and racialized ideas about where danger lurks and who is most at risk. As I wrote in my book on the history of “Stand Your Ground” laws, our nation’s contemporary struggles with violence are based in long-standing traditions of gender, race, and class injustice. The belief in heroic “good guys with guns” depends on the existence of easily-identifiable “bad guys,” or dangerous strangers against whom all good citizens must be prepared to fight for our very lives. And this has long been the case in a nation that fostered armed violence against Indigenous, Black, and Brown people. That violence did not end with the closure of the western frontier, nor did it end with the criminalization of slavery, nor in the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment promising equal citizenship and protection for all born on U.S. soil. The legacies of settler colonialism, slavery, and gender-based violence are embedded in the social and economic fiber of this nation, and they influence our prevailing understandings of security and criminality. They shape our understandings of what the “good guy with a gun” looks like. Dismantling our stubborn patterns of gun violence and the legal and social architectures that sustain them will require a deep and honest engagement with uncomfortable truths about the nation, as well as new and innovative methods that apply multiple, overlapping frameworks rather than one narrow lens.
While we need to illuminate and to explore the individual cases – past and present – that reveal the exclusionary patterns of firearm use and violence, it is also important to track these patterns across the “archive” of public health and criminological data. As I encountered the limits of my historical training to expose contemporary patterns of gun violence, I discovered that working alongside statisticians, epidemiologists, legal scholars, journalists, and applied mathematicians provided critical new dimensions to the effort to understand why and how gun violence is so prevalent in our nation. It didn’t take long for me to realize that understanding this puzzle would require more than a careful analysis of the nation’s turbulent past. To maximize the interdisciplinary reach of this effort, I co-author each post with a colleague from another field. I have invited friends from across the disciplines to share their original research on gun violence, and to make this research accessible and available to as wide and diverse an audience as possible.
In the words of literary and legal scholar Karla Holloway, “the pathological detritus of the past does not necessarily stay in the past.” I took her to mean the national habit of downplaying or denying past brutality in ways that provoke the recurrence of similar violence. I find this to be the case with our national crisis in gun violence, where widespread assumptions about “bad guys” and “good guys,” about safety and danger, draw from a deep reservoir of “pathological detritus” that we ignore at our peril. I want this series to help us question the widespread and historically rooted assumptions – some of which have become common sense – about guns and the effects of gun violence on our culture and in our lives.
Like what you read?
More from Dr. Caroline Light here.