Freedom & Firearms in a Nation in Flux

The rights of gun owners in the United States have increased dramatically in the past decade. The landmark 2008 Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller interpreted the Second Amendment to include an individual’s right to possess a firearm for personal use, such as self-defense, for the first time. There has also been a rapid proliferation of laws protecting the right to carry a concealed weapon.

The definition of self-defense has also expanded, with at least 24 states adopting “Stand Your Ground” laws that affirm the right of individuals to use force without retreating to defend themselves or others against threats or perceived threats.

Meanwhile, over the last 25 years, all categories of violent crime in the U.S. have been on the decline.

So, what forces are behind these legal and legislative changes?

Chad Kautzer, associate professor of philosophy, is exploring this question in his current book project, tentatively titled Good Guys with Guns: Whiteness, Masculinity, and the New Politics of Sovereignty. In it, he examines a U.S. gun culture that increasingly views gun ownership as essential to individual freedom and uses critical theory, a method of applying philosophical methods to practical questions, to critically engage these developments.

Kautzer is particularly interested in exploring how self-defense practices and extra-legal forms of violence produce structures of subordination and contribute to the formation of racial and gender identities. He argues that the recent rise of a deregulated and tactical gun culture is in response to a shift—either real or perceived—in the state’s willingness to support social structures of dominance that racial justice and feminist movements have challenged.

Kautzer uses a theory of social justice developed by contemporary German philosopher Axel Honneth to diagnose a modern social pathology that he calls “self-defensive subjectivity,” in which the right to bear arms takes precedence over any other rights. In an article published in Law and Critique, Kautzer describes this as “a stubborn, agitated and aggressive form of subjectivity, perpetually suspicious and perceiving threats all around.” It has a fundamental commitment to an unfulfillable expectation of absolute security and fuels racial and gender conflict. Taken together, he argues, these conditions undermine the very freedom the tactical gun culture claims to defend.

Kautzer’s interest in U.S. gun culture arose from personal experiences he had when he was a professor at the University of Colorado Denver and opposed what was at the time a new law allowing individuals to carry concealed weapons on campus. He encountered arguments in favor of the law that he says 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,” says Kautzer. “It raised important philosophical questions for me about notions of security, freedom, rights and social identities.”

Illustration by Zim & Zou

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