Paranoia, projection, and denormalizing gun ownership

AP Photo/David Goldman

While the gun control lobby is hard at work infringing on our fundamental right to armed self defense through legislation, litigation, and regulation, activists are also playing the long game of trying to denormalize gun ownership and gun owners themselves. With 100-million or so Americans embracing their right to keep and bear arms and more than a million firearms sold each month for the past four years I’d say that’s a Sisyphean task for the anti-gunners, but it make some sense from a tactical perspective. Fewer gun owners means fewer voters who care deeply about protecting their Second Amendment rights, and the fewer of us there are the easier it is for the gun control lobby to enact the kinds of broad restrictions (and ultimately prohibitions) they want to put in place.


A big part of this effort is treating gun owners as if they’re “others”, as opposed to our friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers. They want to treat us as some foreign tribe to be studied and scrutinized, and Arizona State professor Jennifer Carlson appears to be playing the role of cultural anthropologist in her new book “Merchants of the Right: Gun Sellers and the Crisis of American Democracy”, at least based on the hyperbolic review of her work at The New Republic.

Carlson interviewed some 50 firearm retailers back in 2020 for her book, smack dab in the middle of the biggest surge in gun sales seen in decades. The New Republic’s Jack McCordick seems desperate to cast most of these gun sellers as conspiracy-fueled racists who “furthered a culture of armored individualism, unhinged conspiracism, and extreme partisanship”, expressing skepticism that the 2A community was genuinely pleased to see Americans from all walks of life and political ideology embracing their right to keep and bear arms.

Only one of the sellers Carlson interviewed—a vanishingly rare self-described liberal—permanently shut down the public-facing section of her store at the onset of the pandemic, citing the “blatant racism” and “us versus them” mentality of gun lovers. The vast majority that remained open were rewarded handsomely for doing so. They arrived at work to find “jammed parking lots, lines already formed at the doors, and phones ringing off the hook.” One store in California saw its daily sales increase fifteenfold overnight, while one in Michigan made as much in one day as it usually made in a month.

The buying spree brought a newly diverse clientele to gun stores: more women, racial minorities, LGBTQ+ people—all populations much more likely to be politically liberal. Many gun sellers genuinely relished seeing their businesses fill up with “all 31 flavors,” as one put it, referring to the Baskin Robbins ice cream slogan. Giving their newly diverse clients a gun rights crash course offered daily confirmation of the pro-gun mantra that “God created people, but Samuel Colt made them equal,” buttressing gun sellers’ belief in gun ownership as a universal instrument of emancipation. “For the first time, regardless of your demographic, regardless of your background … everybody is … looking at the future and realizing, ‘Shit. I’m not necessarily guaranteed anything tomorrow,’” one told Carlson. Another claimed to “delight when I put a gun in the hands of any marginalized or discriminated minority group.”

Industry publications and organizations echoed gun sellers’ nominally pro-diversity message. Bearing Arms ran a headline bragging that there was “more diversity at a gun range than a university faculty lounge.” In March 2020, the NRA tweeted a video featuring a disabled, immunocompromised Black woman wielding an assault rifle and evangelizing to Covid preppers. Repeating an oft-used NRA talking point, the woman argued that the pandemic could augur a repeat of “what happened during Hurricane Katrina,” when “police actually went door to door stripping our society’s most vulnerable people of their guns.” While the woman acknowledged her vulnerability to “the deadly coronavirus,” whether she ultimately survived the pandemic, she said, was “up to God.” “What’s in my control is how I defend myself if things go bad to worse.”


I appreciate the shout out to Bearing Arms as part of McCordick’s list of “nominally pro-diversity” activities on the part of gun owners, but I can’t help but notice that he completely ignored who wrote that particular story. I’m thrilled to have Ranjit Singh as a contributor here at Bearing Arms, and it’s insulting for McCordick to insinuate that he’s merely paying lip service to the idea that the right to keep and bear arms is a right of all the people. In fact, all of us here at BA have written extensively about the growing diversity of gun owners since 2020, and I challenge McCordick to find a single piece that’s critical of that undeniable fact. Why would it be? The right of the people to keep and bear arms isn’t a right of the Right or of one particular race, color, or creed, no matter how hard the Left tries to portray gun ownership as the exclusive refuge of white conservative males.

While the gun owners I know see this growing diversity as a good thing it’s absolutely terrifying to gun control fans like McCordick (and presumably Carlson herself), who view the rise in gun ownership as evidence of an existential threat to small-d democratic politics.

It would be too easy, however, to place blame for this bitter development solely on the right. Over the past two decades, a majority of U.S. citizens came to believe, against all available evidence and in a striking reversal from the turn of the century, that guns make their homes and streets safer. This startling about-face, Carlson observes, coincided with “the grim harvest of emaciated social bonds and a fallow government hollowed out by neoliberal defunding of education, welfare, mental health care, and other social safety nets,” a development presided over by both political parties.

Yet certainly the development only favors the right. As the writer Matthew Sitman pointed out last year, “The right benefits from people becoming more isolated, hunkered down, wary of others, and doubtful that a better future can be built.” By pairing millions of mini-arsenals with a cultural “tool kit” of armed individualism, arch-conspiracism, and a no-holds-barred form of partisanship, armed conservatives are working toward a democracy not of the ballot but of the bullet. As Carlson’s book shows, they’re well on their way.


For someone who bemoans the supposedly paranoid and nihilistic worldview of gun owners, Carlson seems to take a pretty dim view of the current state of the union herself, and McCordick doesn’t disagree. But despite their belief that gun owners are largely driven by unreasonable fears, studies have shown that gun owners are generally less likely to express fears or phobias than non-gun owners.

What’s most striking about McCordick’s re-telling of Carlon’s thesis is its utter incoherence. Gun owners are supposedly hyper-individualists who demand conformity and bigots who embrace diversity, along with being paranoid and conspiratorially-minded. The truth is that there is no single type of gun owner, and it’s impossible to gather any real knowledge of gun culture by speaking to a handful of FFLs in four out of fifty states. Based on McCordick’s review of Carlson’s book, however, it doesn’t sound like this is a real effort to understand why so many Americans from across the political spectrum have become gun owners over the past few years, but to demonize them for making that decision and to discourage others, particularly on the left, from daring to do the same.

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