Focusing on 79 interviews with police chiefs in Arizona, California, and Michigan, this talk draws on police attitudes on gun policy to argue against the Weberian assumption that states and state agents monopolize legitimate violence—or at least struggle to do so. It starts from a simple analytical move: Whereas the bulk of scholarship on US public law enforcement focuses on urban settings, this talk juxtaposes police chiefs' perceptions of urban, suburban, and rural gun violence.

The talk details how police chiefs across jurisdictions construct criminal gun violence according to two overarching tropes: (1) gang- and drug-related gun violence involving black and brown perpetrators and victims in urban spaces and (2) active shooting-related gun violence involving white perpetrators and victims in suburban and rural spaces. To address these divergent forms of gun violence, the analysis shows that police chiefs embraced two distinct models of policing: police militarism (according to which police chiefs support punitive “tough on crime” gun laws) and police populism (according to which police chiefs support the arming of law-abiding civilians as potential “first responders").

Overall, the talk uses US public law enforcement’s understandings of gun violence in order to contribute to debates surrounding the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence. 

Jennifer Carlson (PhD, UC Berkeley) is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Government & Public Policy at the University of Arizona. Her research examines guns, policing, and politics. She is the author of the book Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline (2015; Oxford University Press).