I was recently asked to review Guns in Law (University of Massachusetts Press, 2019), for CHOICE, a monthly publication of the Association of College & Research Libraries designed to help librarians decide which books to add to their collections.
I was excited to have the assignment because I know the first editor, Austin Sarat, from my participation in “The Social Life of Guns” symposium at Amherst College. Sarat was also one of the editors of the book that came from that symposium, The Lives of Guns, to which I contributed an essay on technologies of concealed carry in Gun Culture 2.0. I also saw that two of the seven chapters were written by sociologists, Jennifer Carlson writing about her work on police and the Second Amendment and Laura Beth Nielsen on “Good Moms with Guns.”
The first page of the introduction by Sarat, Lawrence Douglas, and Martha Merrill Umphrey was notable for quoting Cicero on the morality of self-defense, but by page two my excitement had faded considerably.
The paragraph in the image above betrays a frustrating anti-gun bias, invoking non-scholarly ideas that are neither necessary nor helpful in making the analytical point the authors wish to make.
Sarat, Douglas, and Umphrey begin by drawing on Elizabeth Anker’s essay, “Mobile Sovereigns: Agency Panic and Gun Ownership.” (Side note: In the footnotes they cite this as an unpublished manuscript from 2017, but in fact it was published in The Social Life of Guns in 2018, early enough to get the citation correct in Guns in Law.)
This sloppiness notwithstanding, they write:
Carrying a gun, Anker suggests, “reinstantiates a type of individual sovereignty when other forms of sovereign power seem out of reach.” It is an expression of what she calls “mobile sovereignty” and a source of “omnipotent power” that masks or removes insecurities and feelings of inadequacy or helplessness.
Although I don’t agree completely with Anker’s take, her concept of “mobile sovereignty” bears some similarity to the old idea of “law abiding one-man armies” and offers a novel perspective on concealed carry as DIY security.
So far, so good. But the passage just quoted ends with a footnote (#16, in the image below) that is quite revealing of the authors’ true feelings about guns and gun owners.
For no reason whatsoever, the authors’ invoke a statement from the historian and advisor to President John F. Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger: “men doubtful of their own virility cling to the gun as a symbolic phallus and unconsciously fear gun control as the equivalent of castration.”
They cite as the source of this quote B. Bruce-Briggs (FWIW: incorrectly leaving off the hyphenation between the two last names), but the passage is easily traceable to Schlesinger’s book, Violence: American in the Sixties (Signet, 1968).
Schlesinger’s book is not a work of historical scholarship, but a polemic, and the idea of people clinging to guns as a symbolic phallus is not the product of scholarly research but merely a long-standing pseudo-Freudian bias. (About which I have written before on my other blog: “Paging Dr. Freud” and “Psycho-Sexual Analysis of Guns, Part 2”).
Schlesinger calls his biased POV a “psychiatric suspicion.” Below is the original context of the passage in Schlesinger’s book.
Despite its weak scholarly foundation — Bonnie and Clyde! — the gun as a “symbolic phallus” line was so choice that it was one of 5 passages highlighted in the front matter of Schlesinger’s book.
And it is unjustifiably given scholarly credibility by being invoked without comment or reservation in Guns in Law.
From here, the paragraph which began so promisingly with Anker’s concept of mobile sovereignty only gets worse. Without indicating that they were quoting someone other than Anker, the authors write:
A gun “makes a little man feel big, a stupid man feel clever, a frightened man brave, and an insecure man feel sure.”
The reference here (footnote #17) is to a 4 page essay by Walter Menninger, “Guns and Violence: An American Phenomenon,” published in the American Journal of Social Psychiatry, which had a short-lived existence in the 1980s (1981-1987). But it turns out, these are not Menninger’s words.
Although the AJSP is not significant enough to be accessible through my campus library, I was able to find the source of this quote through other means. The quote is not even from a scholarly source. It is taken from a story in the New York Journal American newspaper from 1965.
I know this not because I was able to find the original story (which I am still trying to get through inter-library loan), but because I found another reference to it in a book by Carl Bakal, The Right to Bear Arms (McGraw-Hill, 1966).
Don’t let the title fool you; this is not a pro-Second Amendment book. Like the editors of Guns in Law, Bakal invokes the guns make “a stupid man feel clever” line approvingly. Bakal says the idea that “it makes a little man feel big,” etc. sums up the view of psychiatrists and criminologists. I will be quite interested to get my hands on the original article to see the basis for this “summing up” claim.
Bakal, who was a photographer not a social scientist, continues by approvingly listing the types of persons who feel comfort in carrying a firearm: (1) “The basically insecure individual,” (2) “The criminal sociopath,” and (3) “The psychotic.”
Although Sarat, Douglas, and Umphrey do not explicitly endorse this perspective, by sneaking this line in between quotes from Anker, they raise questions as to whether they would.
A final note on the sources of these ideas. Schlesinger invokes the movie Bonnie and Clyde to support his gun as symbolic phallus idea. For his part, Bakal draws his Freudian analysis from the novelist Ian Fleming (as seen in the image below, in material on the same page as his discussion of the New York Journal American story).
This highlights a problem that often manifests itself when one’s understanding of something is largely mediated by popular culture. It reminds me of the line in the movie Malibu’s Most Wanted when the white wannabe rapper from Malibu, Brad “B-Rad G” Gluckman, is asked how he knows “what goes down in the ‘hood.”
B-Rad responds, “B.E.T.”
I’m not sure I trust those whose knowledge of gun owners is largely based on popular culture and stereotypes to teach me about guns any more than I trust B-Rad G from Malibu to teach me about South Central L.A.
Now I need to find the motivation to read past page 2 of this book.