© Josh Sager – November 2013
In November 2013, the peer-reviewed scientific journal Plos One published a study which correlates symbolic racism and gun ownership. The authors of the study—Kerry O’Brien, Walter Forrest, Dermot Lynott, and Michael Daly—conclude that symbolic racism and gun ownership have a strong positive correlation (more racism = higher likelihood of gun ownership) in white America households.
The data which the authors of the study used to draw their conclusions comes from the American National Election Survey’s public opinion polling. Symbolic racism was identified in the ANES study participants through questions which dealt with racial stereotypes (ex. “How well does the word ‘violent’ describe most blacks?”), using a 5-point scale (“1 = extremely well, to 5 = not at all well”)
After controlling for factors which could skew their comparisons (ex. socioeconomic status), the authors of the study quantified the correlation between gun ownership and racism: For every 1-point increase in symbolic racism, the likelihood of the person’s household owning a gun increased by approximately 50%.
In addition to finding a strong correlation between gun ownership and racism, the study also reached several other conclusions:
- Conservatism and anti-government sentiment are correlated with gun ownership, but at lower levels than racism
- White males are more opposed to gun control than white females, even when racism is taken into account
- Education has a negative correlation with gun ownership (more educated people own guns at lower rates)
While this study presents a very interesting correlation, much more research must be done before any conclusions or policy decisions can be based upon this trend. It is also important to note that nobody is trying to make the arguments that gun ownership creates racism or that all gun owners are racists (in fact, the authors expressly deny both of these conclusions).
Personally, I agree with the study’s findings that racism and gun ownership are correlated, but I would argue that this correlation is due to a third factor that has a causal relationship with both gun ownership and racism.
Fear is a very powerful motivator that is intrinsically linked to both racism and weapon obsession. In my opinion an overwhelming fear within segments of a population has created both the desire by these people to oppress others and to ensure that they are in possession of powerful weapons. In this, the correlation between gun ownership and racism is similar to how increased ice cream sales and power outages appear to be correlated because a hot summer can cause both.
A fear of the “other” (IE. a person not like them) leads many people to act out in immoral and bigoted ways. People naturally identify differences between themselves and others (ex. race, religion, skin color, etc) and some see the “other” as a potential threat. This instinctive tribalism and fear is hardwired into the brain and can result in unthinking racism unless it is tempered with reason and understanding.
White racists in the south focused their racism against blacks by identifying the “threat” that black people will take their jobs and their women—this racism is born out of a fear of competition and the idea that treating an entirely new class of people with equality could result in them taking something that some whites saw as their right (ex. a good job).
People who hoard guns are often terrified and paranoid individuals who overcompensate for their fear by buying weapons. It is certainly true that some people have a valid reason for buying guns (ex. hunters), but many American gun owners have turned their weapons into an extension of a very dangerous hoarding disorder—they equate guns with safety, yet are plagued with constant unease, thus are compelled to keep buying even more “safety” in order to keep their fear in check.
In these peoples’ minds, something (whether it be the “oppressive government” or the “big scary black man”) is out to harm them and they must take every step possible to fortify themselves. As guns are the most powerful legal weapons available, they are a natural choice for a paranoid mind to cling to when afraid.
While gun nuts would have us believe that they are tough, powerful people, most of them are simply scared individuals who cling to their guns like a child with a safety blanket.
Fear, Guns, and Racism
Fear feeds racism and causes some people to feel the need to be heavily armed. Unfortunately, this study tends to indicate that there is a significant level of overlap between the fearful racists and the fearful armed in the United States.
Studies of the human brain have linked an increased fear response in the human brain with a variety of characteristics. People with larger fear centers in their brain (the amygdala) tend to have less tolerance for unknown stimuli, change, and those who do are seen as unlike themselves than those who have smaller fear centers. When applied to sociological and political outcomes, these characteristics make people statistically more likely to hold conservative political ideologies and racist viewpoints.
It is my hypothesis that a brain study would demonstrate that gun ownership is another characteristic which is bolstered by an overactive fear response in the brain. People who are born with an overactive fear response hard-wired into their brains require an outlet to make themselves feel more safe—the ownership of powerful firearms and the accompanying sense of superiority in any armed conflict that comes with them is such an outlet.
At the end of the day, we must do more research into the roots of fear, racism and gun obsession, but we must also take immediate action to prevent the gun murder epidemic in the USA. Catering to the lizard-brain fear of many Americans and letting them own powerful firearms will make them feel better, but it will also result in a lot of fearful, unbalanced, and paranoid people being allowed to own weapons that can kill a lot of people quickly. Conversely, making it harder for people to get guns will enrage and terrify those who rely on gun hoarding as a coping mechanism, but it will be a step towards making everybody safer.