The U.S. has more guns per person than any other country, a ranking that is unlikely to drop even in the wake of the latest high-casualty mass shootings. Why are guns so pervasive here when they take so many lives? Which Americans are the most strongly tied to their guns—and why?
Baylor University sociologists F. Carson Mencken and Paul Froese tackled these questions in a study published last month in Social Problems. They surveyed 577 gun owners about how their guns make them feel, creating a “gun empowerment scale” designed to measure owners’ moral and emotional attachment to their weapons. They also surveyed these owners on what they believe are the principal causes of gun violence, and what they think of various gun policies. Scientific American spoke with Froese about the findings:
1. Gun owners are more likely to be male and white, but of course, there’s diversity within that population. What we found was that people at the highest level of the gun empowerment scale, as we called it, were 78 percent white and 65 percent male, and much more substantial than just a gun issue—was that it was white men who had experienced an economic setback who were most attached to their guns.
That suggests to me that there’s something cultural happening. We have white men who have expectations about what it means to be a white man in America today that are not being met. Economic realities are changing in the United States, and there’s this whole population of working-class white men who feel embittered, in the sense that maybe they don’t feel as economically successful or as powerful in their communities as they think they should be. For those men, we find that the gun has become a symbol through which they’re trying to regain a nostalgic sense of masculinity.
Women and nonwhites who suffer from economic setbacks are not more likely to find empowerment in weaponry. They’re apparently finding it somewhere else if they are finding it at all.
2. Gun owners who are deeply attached to a religious community are less likely to feel empowered by their weaponry. This suggests that the white men who are genuinely attached to their guns are using guns as a substitute for other cultural sources of meaning and identity. We had this group of white men in the U.S. who were benefitting from hierarchies of power and economic inequalities that gave them a sense of self and purpose. When they lost that—or they perceived that they were losing that—they searched for other ways of feeling masculine, and the gun was a natural segue.
3. Our findings speak to something even deeper than the gun issue—and that is that amongst white men who are feeling economically embattled is a search for narratives to explain their experiences. Some of the narratives that they are attracted to are narratives of embattlement—the idea that there are forces out there that are trying to undermine them. Much of conservative media says that the government is always out to get you—out to take away your guns and your money—and so these kinds of narratives all feed together. What’s so fascinating is that you have a group of Americans—again, namely white males—who proclaim that they’re patriots. And, in fact, they say that their gun ownership makes them feel patriotic. But they’re the group that’s most likely to say that it’s okay to take up arms against the government.
4. People who were very high on the gun empowerment scale were the ones who had the most pro-gun gun policy attitudes. They were the ones most likely to say that arming the public will make them safer and arming teachers will make schools safer—so there is this kind of belief or faith in the “good guys with guns can solve a problem” narrative. That narrative is not supported empirically, but at the same time it’s repeated, and it plainly has a lot of believers. If your source of identity is gun ownership and you think it makes you a better member of your community, it would create some cognitive dissonance to turn around and say, “Well, actually, we need to make sure not many people have guns.”
A core theme in all of my research is the human search for meaning. Many people find meaning through religion, but that’s not the only way. The gun was a great topic to study because on some level it’s a lot simpler than religion because it’s one thing. It’s an object, and it has particular purposes, so we can home in on how somebody feels about a gun and then get a sense of how emotionally and spiritually attached they are to the weapon. I’m not particularly interested in the gun policy itself but rather in how meaning and cultural symbols affect people’s understanding of the world, which in turn then makes us to better able to understand their actions.