Guns, Identity, and Nationhood

8 Pages Posted: 15 Nov 2019

See all articles by Mugambi Jouet

Mugambi Jouet

University of Southern California Gould School of Law

Date Written: November 5, 2019


The article provides a theoretical perspective on the symbolic meaning of the right to bear arms in modern America, especially among its conservative movement. Neglecting this issue, scholarship on gun symbolism has commonly focused on guns possessed by offenders in inner-cities, such as juveniles or gang members. Offering a multidisciplinary and comparative outlook, the article explains how guns have become symbols of a worldview under which armed patriots must stand ready to defend America from “tyranny,” “big government,” “socialism,” and other existential threats. In particular, the U.S. conservative movement does not merely perceive the right to bear arms as a means of self-defense against criminals, but as a safeguard against an oppressive government that “patriots” may have to overthrow by force. The article examines the hypothesis that guns foster a sense of belonging in this conception of nationhood. This worldview is not solely limited to politicians, elites or activists, as it can encompass rank-and-file conservatives. Group identification can rest on sharing radical beliefs that enhance cohesion, including rallying against perceived threats. This mindset helps explain resistance to elementary reforms to regulate firearms. If one believes that an unbridled right to bear arms is not only key to protecting the United States, but also key to what it means to be an American, concessions on gun control become difficult to envision. While conservatives in other Western democracies tend to support significant gun control, a key dimension of American exceptionalism is the relative normalization of a conservative identity in which firearms have acquired a peculiar symbolic value.

Keywords: Criminal justice, guns, right to bear arms, mass shootings, American exceptionalism, American polarization, Canada, Europe, Bourdieu, asymmetric polarization, populism, market fundamentalism, Christian fundamentalism

Suggested Citation

Jouet, Mugambi, Guns, Identity, and Nationhood (November 5, 2019). Nature - Palgrave Communications, vol. 5, no. 138, 2019, Available at SSRN:

Mugambi Jouet (Contact Author)

University of Southern California Gould School of Law ( email )

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