Vol. 31 No. 6 (June 2021) pp. 103-105

POLICING THE SECOND AMENDMENT: GUNS, LAW ENFORCEMENT, AND THE POLITICS OF RACE, by Jennifer Carlson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020. 280pp. Hardcover $29.95. ISBN: 9780691183855. ISBN (e-book) 9780691205861.

Reviewed by Staci L. Beavers, Political Science Department, California State University San Marcos. Email: sbeavers@csusm.edu.

Though researched and written well before summer 2020, Jennifer Carlson’s POLICING THE SECOND AMENDMENT resonates perhaps even more profoundly in spring 2021. Reading her work in the aftermath of both the summer 2020 protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder and the January 2021 insurrection by a horde that included white supremacists with law enforcement ties was both chilling and insightful, despite not revealing any true surprises.

Carlson succinctly argues that attitudes about race, most specifically attitudes about African Americans, overwhelm rational debates about law gun use, gun ownership, and the 2nd Amendment itself, specifically within the law enforcement community. Importantly, Carlson brings together an academically rigorous analysis with clear and engaging writing accessible to a wide-ranging audience. For those willing to engage in good-faith debates about gun policy, Carlson’s work provides helpful insights and perspectives.

Horrifyingly, source material on police killings of Black men abounds. Carlson’s opening hits the reader with the irony of Philando Castile’s last hours: Castile was a Black man shot and killed by police just hours after explaining to his mother the importance of following the rules of registered gun ownership to protect his own and others’ safety (p. 1). Despite his care in following the rules, the last moments of his life were captured on his fiancĂ©e’s cell phone as he was shot by a police officer. As Carlson puts it, “For Castile, there [was] no space for compliance [with gun regulations], no real opportunity to submit without being misrecognized as a violent threat” because of his race (p. 2). Noting the National Rifle Association’s markedly ambivalent stance on Black gun owner Philando Castile’s rights in the wake of his death, Carlson’s opening anecdote encapsulates her broader point: Race pervades and trumps all other aspects of the debate over guns in the U.S., as race both heavily influences public policy and shapes its enforcement. Carlson’s own data show a desire within the law enforcement community for flexibility to enforce gun regulations and to use force against those with (or without) guns at their own discretion, as mediated by their own racial views.

Carlson’s perspective and methods are sociological, and this work brings together multiple analyses to provide an overarching assessment. Chapter 1 provides historical context for today’s gun debates with a brief review of the origins of law enforcement across the U.S. and an overview of the National Rifle Association’s (NRA’s) evolving relationship to the law enforcement community over the last century. She then turns to analyzing interviews she conducted with 79 local police chiefs from three separate states with very different gun cultures and policy environments: Arizona, California, and Michigan. Third, and most intriguingly, [*104] she analyzes observations she made of since-defunct public gun licensing board meetings in two separate Michigan counties, at which local officials interacted directly and openly with applicants for gun permits. Throughout, race suffuses the data and compels her analyses.

Carlson’s brief review of U.S. law enforcement history starts with slave patrols in the South, encompasses early 20th century efforts to control immigrant populations in the North, and covers the genocide and terrorizing of indigenous populations across the Southwest and West. It is this section of the book that gives the most attention to a range of minority communities. In Carlson’s historical summary, the common thread driving the rise of American law enforcement was protection of a public order to protect whites’ asserted property rights and asserted superiority against the perceived dangers and threats posed by people of color. From her perspective, the 20th century militarization of law enforcement simply escalated trends in law enforcement’s growing reliance on firearms, nurtured over decades by the National Rifle Association. Analyzing media coverage of the NRA over time, she demonstrates both the organization’s uneven but ultimately deepening ties with the law enforcement community and its simultaneous leveraging of “a racial politics of crime” (p. 21) by advocating for policy efforts such as prison expansion and “aggressive [but racially disparate] gun law enforcement” (p. 50) to help fill those prisons (citing Annin 1992).

While continuing to provide historical context as her analysis progresses, Carlson pivots to devoting the better part of three chapters to analyzing interviews with local police chiefs from three states. Landing interviews with nearly 80 local police chiefs is itself no small feat, and the patterns of comments and insights that her interview subjects shared with her, while likely not surprising, remain disturbing. Despite the distinct gun cultures and gun policy environments she described in Arizona, California, and Michigan, racialized patterns of thought were shared by local police chiefs across state lines. While not monolithic, racial stereotypes abounded across the conversations, illustrating deeply held perceptions of whites as over-regulated “‘normal people’” juxtaposed against “urban gun criminals” (p. 131).

But perhaps most Carlson’s most notable source of evidence is her public observations of Michigan’s since-defunct local gun boards. These boards were unusual bodies of public decision-making while they were in place (p. 145), so the data and insights collected here are all the more notable now. Observing 936 cases from multiple sessions of two different boards’ public meetings in both a poorer urban county and a more affluent, more heavily white county (p. 186), Carlson witnessed distinct patterns of disparate behavior towards Black and white gun permit applicants. Given what gun board members, many with law enforcement backgrounds, were clearly willing to say to applicants’ faces in a public setting and as a matter of public record, the reader hopefully cringes to think what these same decision-makers and their colleagues say and do in other settings.

Carlson pulls the threads of her research together into a cohesive whole to demonstrate the race-laden politics of gun possession in the U.S. Carlson’s historical background on both the NRA and law enforcement conceptualizes the findings culled from the police chief interviews. These insights from local law enforcement leaders then further contextualize the public comments of local gun [*105] board members and their interactions with both white and Black gun permit applicants. The cohesive whole of the separate analyses is critical to her argument’s strength.

Carlson concludes with a brief discussion asserting the need for change in framing gun policy debates to acknowledge the intertwining of “gun politics and the politics of police” (p. 179) but stops short of offering concrete policy recommendations. While initially frustrated at the book’s abruptly ending without specific proposals, I appreciate the scholar’s decision to hand the “what do we do now?” baton to those firmly within the policy realm.

As interesting and important as a research study may be, it’s not unusual for its backstory to be equally (or sometimes even more) intriguing. Carlson’s appendices discuss her methodology, and they proved a stand-alone read that could provide an excellent introduction to contemporary social scientific research methods. Here, Carlson discusses the influence of her own “positionality” on both her efforts at data collection and analysis (p. 192). She also provides insights to the human aspects of producing contemporary social scientific research, including the rigors of receiving human subjects approvals from three separate universities and the protocols utilized to protect her interview subjects. These few pages provide a thoughtful yet accessible introduction to ethnography and interviewing ethics that could be tremendously useful to introductory-level college students and even to a broader audience interested in understanding the work of social scientific research.

While Carlson’s perspective and methodologies are sociological, the potential reach of this text is quite broad. As a political scientist with an interest in federalism, I was particularly intrigued by Carlson’s state-level analysis of gun policy cultures and her data analysis on decision-makers across state lines. Social scientists and policy makers interested in gun policy, racial justice, and law enforcement are obvious audiences, but Carlson’s clear and engaging writing make the book readily accessible to a wide audience of folks interested in any and all of these topics.


Annin, Peter. (1992, January 13). “The NRA Woos the Cops.” NEWSWEEK. Retrieved from ProQuest.

© Copyright 2021 by author, Staci L. Beavers.