THE HIDDEN TERMS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN MEN’S GUN LICENSES

By Jennifer Carlson

In July 2016, Philando Castile, one of 16 million-and-counting Americans with a license to carry a firearm concealed, was pulled over by a police officer in a Minneapolis suburb. Earlier that day, Castile recognized that as an armed African American man, he foremost had to “comply” with police. As his mother recalled, “That’s the key thing in order to survive being stopped by the police”. His sister was apprehensive: “I really don’t even want to carry my gun because I’m afraid they’ll shoot me first and then ask questions later.” During the stop, Castile disclosed his status as a licensed gun carrier to the officer. Castile was then shot several times, dying on the scene as he gasped, “I wasn’t reaching for it.” Almost a year later, a jury found Castile’s killer not guilty of manslaughter and other charges. Commentators across the political spectrum questioned the verdict, often situating Castile’s killing alongside other highly publicized police killings of African American boys and men.

Alongside police violence, the Castile case—particularly his conversation with his sister about “compliance”—also suggests subtler ways in which the state punitively disciplines men of color looking to carry guns legally. In my article, “Legally Armed but Presumed Dangerous,” I examine this punitive discipline by using observations of now-defunct Michigan’s county-level gun boards to detail the gendered and racialized terms on which African Americans are licensed by the state to carry firearms.

The gun board meetings I observed were staffed almost entirely by law enforcement and served as public forums for claimants with denied, suspended, or revoked concealed pistol licenses to contest their cases. I learned from my observations that African American men were not just disproportionately represented among claimants with suspended, denied or revoked licenses; they were also subject to a different kind of treatment. For example, administrators disproportionately lectured them (as compared to white men) regarding their behaviors during police stops; their relationships with their girlfriends, wives and fiancés; and their financial responsibilities to their families.

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Rather than coercive social control, I analyze these public admonitions as examples of punitive discipline: African American men who are called to gun board are held accountable to controlling images of Black masculinity in both the public sphere (i.e., the Thug) and the private sphere (i.e., the Deadbeat Dad). Arguably, a parallel can be drawn between African American women’s experiences with the welfare state and African American men’s experiences with the gun board: as a “price” of provision (whether consumable goods or the means of protection, respectively), claimants become accountable to racial/gender stereotypes and expectations in the public forum of gun board. These dynamics resonate with other scholarship—such as Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve’s excellent Crook County—that documents how due process procedures double as racial/gender degradation ceremonies for people of color.

Existing scholarship on American gun culture, such as Angela Stroud’s Good Guys with Guns and my book Citizen-Protectors, often emphasizes the cultural links between masculinity and protectionism that drive men, particularly white men, to bear arms. The experiences of legally armed African American men revealed a different, but complementary, social reality: gun licensing can be deployed by state agents as a mechanism for placing African American men in a zone of provisional citizenship.

Jennifer Carlson is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Arizona. Her research focuses on gun culture, policing, and conservative politics. Her book, Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline, was released in 2015 with Oxford University Press. Her next book, Policing the Second Amendment, examines the intersection of public law enforcement and gun politics.

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