The Hidden Arm of the Law: Examining Administrative Justice in Gun Carry Licensing

Published date01 June 2017
Date01 June 2017
The Hidden Arm of the Law: Examining
Administrative Justice in Gun Carry Licensing
Jennifer Carlson
Responding to callsto “decenter” American penality beyondthe carceral appa-
ratus, this articleethnographically examines administrative process anddissects
how it interlocks with criminal justice. To do so, it draws on an admittedly
unusual, but theoretically generative, case: administrative gun boards, charged
with issuing,denying, revoking, and suspendinglicenses to conceal carry a fire-
arm. While scholars have examined gunownership and gun carrying as a social
practice,less attention has been paid to gun licensingas a state practice. Drawing
on observations of over 900 cases from gun board meetings in two counties in
Michigan, this pap er examines how a dministrative pro cess mimics,supplements,
and facilitates criminal justice through three mechanisms: procedural pains, in
which administrative process resembles criminal justice; parallel punishment,
in which administrative process supplementscriminal justice throughwithhold-
ing of benefits, entitlements or licenses;and valve-turning, in which administra-
tive process funnels, or threatens to funnel, claimants into the criminal justice
system. Revealing how administrative process and criminal justice become
mutually reinforcing, the findings extendand integrate scholarship that shows
the material, symbolic, and psychic implications of criminal justice contact, on
the one hand, with the increased tendency of administrative contexts to resem-
ble criminaljustice institutions, on the other.
In recent decades, criminologists, sociologists, political scientists,
and legal scholars have interrogated the expansive ramifications
of the U.S.’s penal apparatus. According to the Bureau of Justice
Statistics, by 2015s end, 6.7 million Americans were under correc-
tional supervision, including 2.1 million incarcerated in prisons
and jails (Kaeble & Glaze 2016). Though declining in recent
years, these staggering figures continue to mark penal
I am grateful for insights throughout the development of this project that were provid-
ed by Jennifer Alexander, Randol Contreras, Kelly Hannah-Moffat, Melanie Heath, Val-
erie Jenness, Paula Maurutto, Sally Merry, Josh Page, Poulami Roychowdhury, and
Mariana Valverde. I would like to especially thank Phil Goodman for his generous feed-
back as I developed this manuscript. Generative questions and comments from colloquium
participants at University of Arizona, University of California, Irvine, University of Califor-
nia, Riverside, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and University of Ottawa also sharp-
ened the analysis. All errors are the author’s. This study was funded by the University of
TorontoConnaught New Researcher Award.
Please direct all correspondence to Jennifer Carlson, Social Sciences 400, P.O. Box
210027, Tucson,AZ 85721-0027; e-mail: jennifercarlson@e
Law & Society Review, Volume 51, Number 2 (2017)
C2017 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
exceptionalism in the United States. Not only have scholars dis-
sected the carceral state and the impact of incarceration on civic
engagement (Lerman & Weaver 2014), family relations (Comfort
2009), and community ties (Rios 2011; Wacquant 2001), but they
have also examined post-carceral (Pager 2003; Uggen et al. 2014)
and noncarceral punishments such as probation (Phelps 2013)
and misdemeanor justice (Kohler-Hausmann 2013).
Alongside a focus on the carceral state, however, punishment
scholars have increasingly focused attention on broadening the
analytical scope of the contemporary penal complex, characterizing
a much larger apparatus of state control as a “shadow carceral
state,” a “carceral archipelago,” and even a “penal mobile” (Beck-
ett & Murakawa 2012; Foucault 1977; Velloso 2013). As Zedner
(2016: 5) notes, “until we displace the dominance of the prison in
our theorizing to recognize financial and non-custodial penalities
as core cases of punishment, our ability to conceptualize penality
or chart its boundaries is limited.” I extend these interventions by
moving beyond the criminal justice system to ethnographically
examine administrative justice as a mechanism of penality.
Administrative justice involves decision-making processes in
administrative contexts, such as welfare hearings (Garland 1981;
Gustafson 2011; Lens 2009; Lens et al. 2013), disability hearings
(Mashaw 1983), municipal boards (Valverde 2012), driver’s license
hearings (Earl 2008), immigration hearings (Bosworth & Kaufman
2011; Gilboy 1988), and gun boards (the present a nalysis). While
administrative justice constitutes a penal field (Page 2012) that
complements criminal justice mechanisms (Beckett & Murakawa
2012; Velloso 2013; Zedner 2016), administrative mechanisms are
conceptually, practically, and legally distinct. Administrators oper-
ate in a realm of “quasi-penal measures” (i.e., welfare benefits,
driver’s licenses, or gun licenses lack de jure status as penal sanc-
tions but may function as such de facto; Zedner 2016: 8). Because
administrative procedures fall under less strict due process
requirements as compared to criminal procedure (see Goldberg v.
Kelly [1970] and the due process revolution), administrative justice
can be accomplished by means distinct from criminal justice.
While existing scholarship often mobilizes legal and theoreti-
cal approaches to unpack the administrative-criminal justice nex-
us, this article contributes an ethnographic lens in order to clarify
the microlevel mechanisms by which this nexus is achieved and
sustained. I examine administrative gun boards in Michigan.
Staffed largely by officials drawn from public law enforcement,
these boards were charged with issuing, denying, revoking, and
suspending licenses to conceal carry a firearm, known as Con-
cealed Pistol Licenses (CPLs). In most U.S. states, residents can
legally carry firearms under so-called “shall-issue” laws.
Carlson 347
According to these laws, licensing officials are required to issue
licenses if licensees fulfill statutory requirements. Roughly 13 mil-
lion Americans are licensed by their state to carry a concealed
gun (Burnett 2016). Scholars have explored reasons why Ameri-
cans own and—by extension—carry firearms, including concerns,
often racialized, about crime and police inefficacy (Smith &
Uchida 1988; Young 1985; Young et al. 1987); status anxieties,
particularly among white working class men, about declining
political, economic and social power (Burbick 2006; Melzer
2012); and conservative cultural dispositions toward risk (Kahan
& Braman 2003). Gun owners and gun carriers themselves over-
whelmingly assert they are motivated by self-defense and person-
al safety (Carlson 2015; Swift 2013). Finally, the CPL also
functions as an employment credential for members of the pri-
vate security industry. Thus, the stakes for prospective licenses
can be wide ranging: an ideological assertion of identity, a desire
for protection from crime, and a concrete means of financial
security. As my analysis shows, gun board claimants typically
voiced concerns regarding crime and employment.
While scholars have examined gun ownership and gun carry-
ing as a social practice, less attention has been paid to gun licens-
ing as a state practice (be see Ewald 2016; Dubber 2001). To that
end, I analyze observations of 936 cases from gun board meet-
ings in two counties—one lower-income, predominantly African-
American urban county and one middle-to-upper-income, pre-
dominantly white suburban county. At the time of my research,
gun boards in Michigan provided a public forum dedicated
exclusively to hearing complaints regarding CPL decisions. That
said, a note about generalizability should be made upfront: While
a handful of states maintain similar systems (Rose 2013), most
states have no public board dedicated to this purpose; instead,
claimants must file a court appeal (as is now the case in Michigan)
or submit a written administrative appeal. In this article, there-
fore, my goal in using gun board observations is not to make a
general argument about gun licensing as much as to use gun
boards to understand how administrative process and criminal
justice reinforce one another.
Drawing on gun licensing procedures, I examine three mech-
anisms through which administrative justice mimics,supplements,
and expands criminal justice. First, I show that administrative jus-
tice resembles criminal justice to the extent that it mobilizes the
tactics and techniques usually associated with the procedural
punitiveness of misdemeanor justice (Feeley 1979; Kohler-
Hausmann 2013). I use the term “procedural pains” to capture
how administrators mobilize paperwork and bureaucratic hurdles
as a penal mechanism as claimants move through the licensing
348 The Hidden Arm of the Law

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