U of T’s Centre for Ethics hosted a talk about how American police understand and justify the use of force, leading to discussions about how similar trends might arise in Canada. The event, which took place on February 5, was titled The Police Man’s Burden: Emotional Labor, Masculinity, and the Ethics of Force.

The talk was based on the research of featured speaker Jennifer Carlson, who is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Government & Public Policy at the University of Arizona.

Carlson spoke about increased gun carry among both civilian and off-duty police in the United States. She said that her studies point to a shared justification for gun carry as a form of masculine care work, with men caring for the community by filling the role of protector. She argued that the rise in civilian gun carry represents a devolution of the police monopoly on force.

In her interviews with police officers, she found that they borrow from civilian gun carriers’ sense of obligation and masculine care work in that they feel obligated to carry and use guns to protect their loved ones.

In a climate of mass shootings, post-9/11 concerns about terrorism, and hostility toward law enforcement, police feel they must be prepared for violence “anytime, anywhere” and embrace their role as off-duty gun carriers, said Carlson.

Given that 16 million people currently have a license to carry a gun in the United States, Carlson described the increasing possession of licenses for concealed gun carry in the United States as an “assertion of relevance.” She pointed to the declining manufacturing industry putting men out of work, arguing that as men can no longer act as providers, they are embracing the idea of becoming protectors.

Beyond simple self-protection, gun ownership and lethal force have been “reframed as a civic duty,” argued Carlson. Gun owners see themselves in a “supplemental kind of relationship” with police.

Despite differences in gun laws and culture between the United States and Canada, Carlson said that the neighbouring countries may not be as different as they might seem.

Though Carlson noted that both countries have similar problems with racial profiling, when it comes to how police chiefs in the US talk about guns, she had “a really hard time imagining police chiefs in Canada saying similar things.”

However, that is not to say that gun culture will stay the way it is in Canada, according to Carlson. Alt-right groups in Canada could have similar relationships with police, she said, which presents worrying implications for due process and civil rights.

“I would ask the question of what is their relationship to the police and those organizations, as informal as they may be,” said Carlson. “The work that is out there really suggests the ways in which rights, due process, all sorts of things are circumvented by these interesting informal collusions between armed civilians and police.”