Open Carry and the Politics of Personal Power

I’ve been very slowly reading Power: Its Forms, Bases, and Uses by Dennis Wrong (but it feels so right). I say slowly because it’s both a dense academic read and every time I get a few pages in, I start thinking about various forms of power in practice.

I keep coming back to the open carry mindset. By that, I mean gun owners who support openly carrying or wearing holstered firearms in public places. There’s some speculation that openly carrying a gun deters crime – criminals see armed citizens and decide against robbing that 7/11. Speculation, but little conclusive proof. To me, that’s the closest I get to agreeing with the open carry mindset. It’s like having a bunch of uniformed officers walking around a troubled neighborhood. The power of the visible.

But open carry is more about expressing the power of the individual carrying. It’s a show of potential force that indicates the guy with the gun has power. They never need to act on that show – in fact, it’s a sign that their power is weak if an individual or entity has to resort to using force. But the display itself is their source of power.

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Most of the open carry supporters have a strong mistrust of the government in all forms, preferring the smaller, tribal unit of the family. And the gun is there to protect the family. To show that this family unit is strong and can defend itself. The comedian, Bill Burr, talks about the standard paranoid situation where someone breaks into your house with the sole intention to kill you and your family. But that’s just paranoia. In 2011, there were about 100 homicides associated with burglaries. A small fraction of the total deaths in a year.

This and other justifications used for openly carrying guns – the imminent and constant threat of crime, a tyrannical government oppressing you – are fears that a malicious actor will impose their will on you by force. To counteract that potential force, they need to have access to force themselves.

When you are afraid of being acted upon, you feel powerless. The gun is their access to power. As Mao Zedong said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” It applies to all forms of power, though, as having access to force, you can compel others to do your will. Or, in this case, prevent others from forcing you to do their will. It’s a strangely logical mindset when you burrow into it.

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The difference between myself and the open carry movement is that I don’t believe there is a reason to arm myself in public. I would rather support better policing, as I believe in the promise of government. The far right sees government as a dangerous other, drunk on power and ready to take advantage of us. I see government as us, the collective expression of the population’s will. But maybe we’re both projecting on government, I with my hope and trust of fellow man and the paranoid right’s fear of being taken advantage of, placing on it those qualities we guard like diamonds in our hearts.