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Q&A: Chad Kautzer on Gun Culture

Chad Kautzer is an associate professor in Lehigh’s Department of Philosophy specializing in Critical Theory; Social and Political Philosophy; and Race and Gender Theory.  Recently, Kautzer was a Copeland Fellow at Amherst College where he began work on a book, tentatively titled Good Guys with Guns: Whiteness, Masculinity, and the New Politics of Sovereignty, in which he analyzes aspects of American gun culture related to race, gender and the law.

1. Can you explain the connection between philosophy and an exploration of North American gun culture?

My philosophical interest in these topics arose from personal experiences I had while I was a professor at the University of Colorado Denver. In 2012, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the University of Colorado system must allow concealed carry on its campuses. I and other faculty who opposed this change responded by organizing our colleagues and lobbying our representatives to sponsor a bill that would allow our Board of Regents to continue to regulate firearms on campus.

Resistance to our efforts, which concerned workplace safety, was fierce, national and extremely political. Although the university had never previously allowed guns on campus, our desire to continue this long tradition and retain local control was portrayed as anti-democratic and anti-American. The Colorado Springs Gazette published an editorial denouncing me as a fanatic for promoting “gun-free zones” that stripped people of their freedom.

The arguments in the Gazette and at the state capital were based on a radically revisionist history of the role of firearms in the U.S. and were motivated above all by the identity politics of the new gun culture. Having grown up around firearms and hunters in Wisconsin, this was an eye-opening experience and raised important philosophical questions for me about notions of security, freedom, rights and social identities.

The discipline of philosophy has a variety of methods and subject matters. My philosophical training is in a particular tradition of thought called Critical Theory, which tends to be interdisciplinary and applies philosophical methods to practical questions. One of the goals of Critical Theory is to contribute to contemporary political debates, social engagement and public policy, which is what I hope to do with my project.

2. In broad terms, what does your current book project, Good Guys with Guns: Whiteness, Masculinity, and the New Politics of Sovereignty, explore? 

Debates about guns in the U.S. generally involve two distinct and often clashing commitments: A commitment to individual rights (particularly the right to own and carry a firearm) and a commitment to public health, which concerns the reduction of the high rates of gun-related deaths and injuries. The center of these debates is typically the degree to which, if any, the government should regulate firearms. In addition to these debates becoming highly partisan, which has inhibited policies that recognize both commitments, they tend to make us overlook other significant developments in American gun culture, developments which are not directly related to government regulation or public health.

My book project focuses on these often-overlooked aspects of the gun culture, which include the changing ideas of sovereignty, freedom, security and social identity, particularly since the 1970s. These changes are important because they are contributing to a dangerous shift in our political culture that is eroding social institutions, promoting privatized forms of violence, and supporting gender and racial identities that are incompatible with democratic and moral norms. Until these personal, social and cultural aspects of U.S. gun culture are recognized and engaged directly, there will be no movement in our public debates about guns. My book seeks to identify, describe and critically engage these developments.

3. What is the source, or sources, behind the recent expansion of gun rights in America, such as the proliferation of legislation related to the concealed carry of weapons?

Organizations like the National Rifle Association (NRA) did not politicize the Second Amendment or focus on the expansion of gun rights until the late 1970s—indeed, before that time they helped write regulatory legislation. For the first century of its existence, the NRA’s membership and mission focused on marksmanship and hunting. After a dramatic change in the leadership of the organization in 1977, the NRA moved its headquarters to D.C. and fueled a conservative politicization of the U.S. gun culture with the help of gun manufacturer money and other conservative political and legal organizations. This culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), which for the first time in U.S. history interpreted that Second Amendment as guaranteeing an individual right to bear arms for self-defense.

Armed with Heller and gun manufacturer financing, the NRA has vigorously lobbied over the past nine years to expand right-to-carry laws at the state level, particularly through the America Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that connects corporate-sponsored legislation with state legislators willing to sponsor such legislation in their home states. This effort, combined with a robust media campaign to instill fear in the public, despite declining crime rates, has proven to be a very successful model for rapidly changing our political and legal landscape.

4. Can you elaborate a bit on how particular concepts of race and gender such as whiteness and masculinity (referred to in your book’s title) are related to cultural gun norms in North America?

My research is about how violence and the willingness to use violence shape racial and gender identities and how our institutions and cultural traditions are organized around them. Racial and gender identities are different from physical characteristics; they change over time and we can accept them or work to change them. They are historical, rather than biological, and they are always defined in relation to other racial and gender identities.

One prominent form of masculinity in the U.S. has, for example, been characterized by a readiness to use violence and, relatedly, to assume the role of protecting some notion of femininity, often characterized by weakness and vulnerability. This “protection” was, of course, often just another way of describing the dependency women experienced in a society that denied them the legal, political and economic means of independence otherwise granted to men, or at least to white men, in U.S. history. And the vulnerability to violence that has historically characterized femininity is vulnerability to male violence. Thus, our laws, institutions and social norms—including those within the gun culture—can enable or inhibit the development of certain gender and racial identities.

Once violence and the carrying of firearms become closely associated with these identities, attempts to reduce violence or regulate firearms (or in my case, even to write about them) are often viewed as an existential threat. Nothing stirs the passions more than the feeling that your identity is under threat. From a political perspective, it also generates single-issue and motivated voters who exercise an outsized influence at the ballot box.

5. In your view, what societal changes could lead to productive engagement and movement on gun-related issues?

There have certainly been significant changes in U.S. gun culture over the past few decades. A large portion of it has become political, partisan and even tactical. It has become dogma that concealed or open carry should be allowed in every public place. It is now common to see militia members—mostly white men—carrying military-style weapons at political protests or acting as private security for conservative public figures. Whereas earlier militias operated in rural areas, they are now increasingly participating in political events in urban centers, such as the recent alt-right demonstration in Charlottesville, at which a counter-protestor was murdered and many more were injured.  

Part of the politicization of this tactical gun culture involves a strong association of patriotism with firearms. Carrying a gun as an expression of the Second Amendment is, of course, no more patriotic than my publications are patriotic for expressing the First Amendment. In short, there’s no logical connection between patriotism and contemporary gun ownership. Personal defense is not patriotic, nor is any particular form of ownership. This association is however constantly reinforced in elements of contemporary gun culture and it contributes to a political identity with strong racial and gender overtones. When you make one racial identity “patriotic”—so-called “real Americans”—other racial identities are viewed as less so.

President Trump’s and Chief of Staff John Kelly’s recent defense of whites who took up arms against the government to defend slavery is evidence of this racialization of armed citizens, as is the leniency and even explicit support shown by media and politicians to Bundy family members and various militias who took up arms against federal and state law enforcement officers in Nevada and at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Conversely, and despite the rise of real armed white-identity groups, the FBI has recently created a new category of domestic threat: Black Identity Extremism.

This politicization of firearms has also become highly partisan, much the way climate change and even science has become partisan. Talk of gun regulation is thus interpreted as an attack on a political party and the members who identify with it. Productive political engagement in debates about guns must be attentive to this new reality, which means going beyond questions of regulation or the presentation of public health or crime statistics. Such approaches, while important, barely touch the surface of the deep cultural norms and identities at play here. Only when these more fundamental factors are also addressed will we see movement on this important issue. 


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