While guns go hand in hand with “God and country” in American popular culture, leading to a stereotype that gun owners tend to be more religious, a new study finds that the subset of gun owners with the strongest pro-gun policy views are actually the opposite.
The people most likely to oppose gun control report a different, more emotional reason for owning guns: Their firearms are symbols of empowerment that give their lives meaning in the same way that other Americans find meaning in family, religion, or professional or monetary success.
They are also most likely to be economically disenfranchised white men, who aren’t strongly religious, meaning they don’t regularly pray, go to church or read religious texts. This group tends to be staunchly in favor of gun rights and to strongly oppose gun control measures, such as bans on handguns, semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.
But the study didn’t just look at people who like guns ― it examined who is most likely to gain a sense of meaning from owning a gun. Identifying why this variation among gun owners exists could inform our understanding about how different types of gun owners perceive gun policy and gun violence.
The study, which was published in the journal Social Problems on Nov. 20, utilized data from the 2014 Baylor Religion Survey of 1,527 Americans. The survey asked the 577 respondents who reported owning firearms about their reasons for gun ownership (recreational vs. protection vs. collection), their views on gun policies measures like semi-automatic weapon bans and arming teachers to protect schools, as well as how owning a gun made them feel (safe, responsible, confident, patriotic, in control of their fate, more valuable to their family, more valuable to their community, respected).
“Men have been socialized their entire lives that ‘being a man’ includes being a good provider and a good protector,” said Carson Mencken, professor of sociology at Baylor University and author of the study.
“The historical events that led to the Great Recession also created economic disenfranchisement for many,” he said. “We argue that this disenfranchisement affected the ability of men to deliver on the ‘provider’ role.”
‘They cling to guns or religion.’
And as the researchers point out, when Barack Obama was campaigning for president during the economic recession in 2008, he hit on their thesis as he noted the bitterness of downtrodden working-class voters: “They cling to guns or religion,” the future president said, “as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Obama’s use of the conjunction “or” is key, the researchers explain. Despite the fact that religion and gun rights are lumped into conservative politics, in the study, religious gun owners were less likely to feel that their guns were an empowering object that gave them a sense of meaning.
The researchers’ initial hypothesis about the relationship between economic frustration and deriving life meaning from gun ownership only held true for white men. In comparison, disenfranchised gun owners who were people of color felt less empowered by owning a firearm.
“We theorize that non-white gun owners are more accustomed to dealing with economic difficulties, and therefore did not have their sense of self-worth threatened by the economic turmoil that affected so many,” Mencken said.
White men, who are less accustomed to having unsure economic footing, may see firearms as a way to hold onto some semblance of authority.
“Less religious white men in economic distress find comfort in guns as a means to reestablish a sense of individual power and moral certitude in the face of changing times,” the study authors note.
With 33,000 people dying by firearms every year, understanding Americans’ relationships with guns will be an important factor in preventing gun violence.