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In Northern Ireland what is known as the marching season takes place between April and August. There are lots of parades during this period. By far the most contentious are the Orange Walks, parades that take place mid-July and which commemorate the victory of Prince William of Orange over James II at the Battle of Boyne. This battle cemented the subjugation of Catholic Ireland to Protestant England, and Orange Walks have functioned to ensure that Catholic Irish don’t forget who it is who runs the show in the North.

The Orange walks are contentious because they focus unresolved tensions among two cultural groups that often view each other with suspicion and fear. The Orangemen represent the folks who have historically had the lion’s share of the meager Northern Ireland pie, a situation that is perhaps finally changing in the wake of  decades of civil strife known as the Troubles. Though the largely Catholic nationalist population is beginning to succeed in more equitably integrating into public and economic life, the tension between the groups persists and finds one of its most tangible and occasionally violent expressions in the Orange walks.

I bring this up because St. Louis County has recently had its own experience with civic unrest in the suburban city of Ferguson. As in Northern Ireland, the ongoing Ferguson protests express the conflict between culturally distinct, mutually suspicious groups, one of which  is historically privileged over the smaller, politically subordinate group. I’d also like to suggest that we saw the same impulse that animates the triumphalist Orange Walks surface in downtown St. Louis. I’m referring to the 40 open-carry advocates who paraded through St. Louis Saturday afternoon, sporting “pistols in holsters and long guns slung from their shoulders.”

Understand that I’m not directly comparing the sparsely attended open-carry march with the powerfully organized Orange marchers. I’m just pointing out that when people feel that their privileges are threatened, they’re apt to react defensively. The Orangemen, for instance, refuse to avoid nationalist areas or negotiate their passage; they insist on claiming right-of-way. So, in this context, ask yourself why white St. Louis gunmen feel it’s important to show off their guns in a predominently Black city? Just why is it necessary to, as one marcher put it, “exercise the newly codified rights in the Missouri Constitution” in such an in-your-face way?

Reasons for the march given by participants had to to with proselytizing for guns because, “more people with guns will ‘keep the streets safer’,” and, more tellingly, “we should always be prepared for an attack.”  Do these responses satisfy? One blogger has noted that the issue has lots to do with just who has the guns and is part of a larger pattern of cultural conflict:

It’s the same pattern you see with conservatives on a lot of issues pertaining to “rights.”  They love going on and on about “freedoms” and “Constitutional rights,” but what they really mean is that they’re fighting for these rights for only those who they feel should have them.

When they talk about religious rights, they mean Christian.  When they talk about protecting equal rights, they mean heterosexuals.  When they talk about shrinking government, they only mean laws that are preventing them from getting away with what they want to get away with.

So when they talk about “open carry rights” they’re really only talking about those people who they feel safe around.  Because I really can’t imagine a group of rural country folk sitting in their local diner feeling at ease with a group of 30 openly armed African-Americans strolling in.

Sociologist Angela Stroud has investigated what makes gun ownership attractive to certain middle class white men. In her research concerning concealed carry, she concludes that “part of the appeal of carrying a concealed firearm is that it allows men to identify with hegemonic masculinity through fantasies of violence and self-defense.” I bet that she’d find that to be the case in spades when it comes to openly brandishing those guns in public. Stroud also identifies a specifically racial aspect to the appeal of guns, noting that:

No figure makes these men feel more physically vulnerable than the specter of the Black criminal. They ascribe a violent masculinity to men of color, and construct a sense of self in contradistinction. Because they assume that the Black men they encounter are potentially armed and dangerous, they want to carry a concealed handgun. Having a gun allows them to maintain a confidence that they are capable of responding to any threat …

See why it might be appealing to some to stage an open-carry parade just as the Ferguson demonstrations begin to cool down? When change is not welcome and conflict emerges, there are lots of folks who can’t help feeling that they should always be “prepared for an attack.” The flaunting of weapons on the part of individuals who are motivated by fantasies of fighting off violent threat is, however, potentially toxic. The blogger I quoted earlier perfectly describes the effect of open-carry laws:

The cultural effect of all these laws is to encourage a kind of hypervigilance that’s simultaneously paranoid and arrogant. It encourages armed citizens to seek confrontations and escalate them, confident that they can end them definitively.

In this context, it becomes difficult not to see a post-Ferguson celebration of open-carry as anything other than an invitation to “bring it on,” issued by frightened white men (and women)* trying their best to live up to an heroic, masculine, cultural ideal. I don’t want to labor the point, but in researching this post, I came across a Website maintained by a comic book author who calls himself D.W. Ulsterman (Northern Ireland is also known as Ulster), who asks:

Is it coincidence that a gathering of marchers who support the pro-2nd Amendment open carry laws of Missouri found nary a sign of Ferguson type protesters attempting to confront them?

WhooHooo! Real men arise and grab your guns! We’ll show those Fergunson types! With any luck, we too, just like Northern Ireland, can enjoy twenty or thirty years of well-armed tit-for-tat murder as we turn the culture wars from a metaphor to a reality.

* Stroud earlier interviewed several women who applied for open-carry licenses and concluded that women want guns in order “to feel as powerful as men in a culture where women are taught to feel vulnerable.” Same dynamic, slightly skewed.

N.B. Text edited slightly for clarity.