Jennifer Dawn Carlson on Gun Politics in America

As part of my ongoing effort to understand “Gun Culture 2.0,” I was fortunate recently to host a leading sociologist studying American gun culture, Jennifer Dawn Carlson.


Dr. Carlson is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, but despite working north of the border she is an American and primarily studies American society. She has published a number of newspaper opinion pieces which attempt to speak across the divide between “pro” and “anti” gun camps. Among these are: “The Gun Debate Misses the Mark in Detroit” in the Detroit News and “The NRA’s Hidden Power” in the Los Angeles Times.

Carlson’s presentation last month was based on ideas she is developing in a forthcoming book called Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline (Oxford University Press, 2015). The book draws on research conducted on gun carriers — both open and concealed — in and around Detroit, Michigan, hence the “age of decline.” She argues that within the context of socioeconomic decline in general and personal decline experienced by men in particular, gun carriers reassert their relevance by identifying themselves as “citizen-protectors” (her term, not theirs).

In Carlson’s analysis, the social identity of the citizen-protector: (1) “Redefines lethal shooting, under certain circumstances, as a morally upstanding response to violent threat and an affirmation of one’s love for life,” (2) “Draws on the duty to protect as a historically male-dominated social function,” and (3) “Emphasizes protection as an esteemed form of masculinity.”

Thus, to understand why a growing number of Americans are getting licensed to carry handguns in public (or are exercising their right to open carry without a license where that is allowed) requires getting beyond the gun itself. Carrying a gun is about more than personal self-defense; it is an assertion of “relevance, dominance, and dignity.”


One thing I find particularly valuable about Carlson’s work is her valiant effort both to understand where gun carriers are coming from and to explain this to those who come from outside the gun culture. Her ability to speak across the divide, I hope, is enhanced by the fact that she did all that she could (as a young female from the People’s Republic of Berkeley) to walk-the-walk with gun carriers. She got a Michigan concealed carry license and carried a firearm regularly, she became an NRA Certified Firearms Instructor, and she even open carried a handgun into a Detroit police station as part of a protest by open carriers. Short of actually shooting someone in defense of self or others, she did all she could to establish her bona fides.

Because I read it in draft form, I will not give away one of the punch lines to her book, but Carlson draws some important conclusions based on her time interviewing and hanging out with gun carriers. Conclusions she could only reach by hanging out with gun carriers. I am anxiously awaiting the publication of Citizen-Protectors to see whether those conclusions resonate with a broader audience.

Gun Digest Magazine Shows How NOT to Create a Pie Chart

Thumbing through the February 13, 2014 issue of Gun Digest magazine, I was excited to see data on a recent survey of first-time gun buyers, attributed to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the trade association for the shooting, hunting and firearms industry.

Two pie charts, shown below, describe (1) the percentage of new shooters who engage in certain activities (target shooting, hunting, plinking, etc.), and (2) how frequently new shooters shoot.

These are both very important pieces of information, but what’s wrong with this picture?

Gun Digest magazine, 13 February 2014, p. 11
Gun Digest magazine, 13 February 2014, p. 11

If you answered that the pieces of the pie chart do not add up to a meaningful whole, you are correct. The first pie chart totals 264% and the second totals 80.3%. A meaningful whole in this case would be 100% of new shooters.

Pie charts are appropriate visual displays of information when we want to show the relative sizes or proportions of different phenomena as a part of a fixed whole. If one slice of the pie grows, another slice has to shrink. You can’t just expand the pie (to 264%). If you remove a slice of the pie, the other slices have to grow. You can’t just shrink the pie (to 80.3%).

A pie chart is not appropriate for a situation in which a single respondent can choose more than one category (a new shooter can be a target shooter and a hunter and a plinker, for example). Or when there are categories of responses that are not displayed (19.7% of new shooters shoot less than once a week or did not respond to this particular question, we can infer). In these cases, a bar chart is more appropriate to display the relative sizes of phenomena.

For a really excellent discussion of pie charts and their potential pitfalls, see “Understanding Pie Charts” on the eagereyes blog.