Gun culture expert Jennifer Carlson awarded MacArthur Fellowship

Jennifer Carlson

Jennifer Carlson

Courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

University of Arizona sociologist Jennifer Carlson has been awarded a prestigious 2022 MacArthur Fellowship in recognition of her work examining gun politics, culture and trauma in the United States.

Carlson is among 25 scholars, scientists and artists from across the country who each will receive an $800,000 stipend from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The fellowships are awarded annually to talented individuals in a variety of fields who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits, the foundation said.

The MacArthur Fellowships, often called "genius grants," are a no-strings-attached investment in the recipients' originality, insight and potential. The fellows are nominated anonymously by leaders in their respective fields.

"With her balanced and rigorous approach, Carlson is a sought-after voice on the nuances of gun culture in the United States," the MacArthur Foundation said in a statement. "Carlson's insights into how gun ownership has become a highly charged political issue offer a potential path toward overcoming the entrenched social divisions that characterize gun policy discussions."

Carlson, an associate professor in the School of Sociology and the School of Government and Public Policy in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, has spent over a decade examining the politics of guns in American life. Through research with gun owners, gun sellers, law enforcement, gun violence survivors and state licensing bodies, Carlson investigates the forces that shape gun culture in the United States.

Carlson's work regularly is featured in the media, in publications including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The Atlantic. She was recently featured in a PBS documentary on gun violence titled "Ricochet: An American Trauma."

"I am thrilled that Dr. Jennifer Carlson is receiving this impressive acknowledgement of her accomplishments and potential," said Lori Poloni-Staudinger, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. "Jenny is a leading researcher and public commentator on issues related to gun culture and gun violence at a time when in-depth and rigorous analysis of these topics is desperately needed. We are so proud to have her at the University of Arizona and in the College of SBS. I'm excited by her research agenda and look forward to her future impact."

'In a state of shock'

Carlson was in the middle of an interview with a gun violence survivor when the MacArthur Foundation called to notify her she received the fellowship.

"When an unknown caller came across my phone, I quickly silenced it," Carlson said. "It rang again, and I assumed it was a spam caller, so I once again silenced it. Only when I finally answered the call – after I had finished my interview – did I have any idea that it was very much not spam. I was absolutely in a state of shock to find out who was really calling."

Carlson continued, "Prior to the call, I knew about the MacArthur Fellowship and have been in awe of the incredible artists, intellectuals and innovators who have received it. Never did I consider that I would join their ranks. It's an honor beyond words, which is probably why it took me a good five minutes just to utter a complete sentence when I received the call."

Carlson is still contemplating how she will spend the fellowship funds.

"The no-strings-attached nature of this fellowship is overwhelming – I see it as both a wide-open invitation as well as an immense responsibility," Carlson said. "I have a lot of thinking to do about plans for the fellowship, but I do know that this fellowship reflects not just my efforts but also the incredible support of all kinds from my mentors and my family. In the spirit of 'passing it on,' I will be using a portion of the award funds to support graduate students in sociology at the University of Arizona."

Understanding gun culture

Carlson's first book, "Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline," published in 2015, examines why individuals choose to own and carry firearms. Her interviews with gun carriers reveal the civic and moral duties they attach to gun ownership. Carlson also traced the development of gun carrying as a political practice to support, in part, the agenda of the National Rifle Association.

In her second book, "Policing the Second Amendment: Guns, Law Enforcement, and the Politics of Race," published in 2020, Carlson identifies two mentalities associated with policing and gun carrying: gun militarism and gun populism. Drawing on in-depth interviews with police chiefs, observations of local gun board meetings and research into the NRA's relationship with law enforcement, Carlson demonstrates how the politics of race shape the terms in which Americans exercise the right to keep and bear arms.

Carlson's forthcoming book, "Merchants of the Right: Gun Sellers and the Crisis of American Democracy," focuses on the dramatic increase in gun sales in 2020 against the backdrop of pandemic insecurities, police violence and political polarization.

Carlson is currently working on a large-scale study of trauma among people affected by gun violence. Roughly 45,000 people are killed and at least another 80,000 injured by guns every year, Carlson said. 

"And even those figures fail to put the impact of gun violence on American society into its proper perspective: Gun violence impacts families, friendship circles, schools, workplaces and communities," Carlson said.

Carlson believes that looking at gun trauma can help us better grasp the full impact of U.S. gun violence and help reframe conversations about guns in the U.S.

"My goal as a sociologist isn't to solve the U.S. gun debate. That's for us as a society to work through," Carlson said. "Rather, my goal is to help people better understand how guns matter in such starkly different ways to different people in the U.S. I believe that is key to transforming our current, deadlocked debate about guns in the U.S. No doubt, this fellowship represents an extraordinary chance to think big about just how to do that."


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