Several studies conducted in recent years have given us great insight into the psychology of gun ownership; meaning the beliefs and behaviors frequently exhibited by gun owners and the motivations behind them keeping weapons.
As it turns out, cultural context, racial biases, political affiliation, and anger issues are all related to gun ownership. Here’s a sampling of some of the exciting research that’s out there:
- Those who own guns tend to be part of a “social gun culture.” In a 2015 study, Bindu Kalesan, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, found that there is a strong association between exposure to social gun culture and gun ownership. According to Dr. Kalesan’s research, the average gun-owning America is “white, married or divorced, high income, and over 55 years old.” The social gun culture includes “unseen codes of behaviour and powerful predictors of behavioural intentions and health behaviours.” Dr. Kalesan measured exposure to social gun culture by using the following questions:
- Would the individual’s family or social circle think less of them if they did not own a gun?
- Does their social life with family and friends involve activities including guns?
- Men who carry guns suffer from a “crisis of confidence.” Jennifer Carlson, author of “Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline,” explained in a recent op-ed why men feel the need to carry guns in public. One man told Carson he felt “naked” without his gun. Carlson found that men might carry guns in public “as a reaction to broader socioeconomic decline” or because carrying a gun is seen as a “masculine duty.” Psychologically, carrying a gun can help men “address social insecurities far beyond crime.” Carlson concluded by noting, “The gun rights platform is not just about guns. It’s also about a crisis of confidence in the American dream. And this is one reason gun control efforts ignite such intense backlashes: Restrictions are received as a personal affront to men who find in guns a sense of duty, relevance and even dignity.”
- Gun owners tend to be angry and impulsive. A June 2015 study found that “310 million firearms estimated to be in private hands in the United States are disproportionately owned by people who are prone to angry, impulsive behavior and have a potentially dangerous habit of keeping their guns close at hand.” There is a “co-occurrence of impulsive angry behavior and possessing or carrying a gun among adults with and without certain mental disorders and demographic characteristics.”Almost 9% of people who “self-report patterns of impulsive angry behavior” also have a firearm at home, and 1.5% (or nearly 85 people out of 5,653 surveyed for this study) carry their guns in places other than their home. The authors found that, when studying violence and anger, it is more effective to look at the arrest history of individuals rather than seeing if they have a mental illness. Arrests could show “a history of impulsive or angry behavior (for example, criminal records of misdemeanor violence, DWIs and domestic violence restraining orders),” which “would likely serve as a more feasible and less discriminatory indicator of an individual’s gun violence risk.”
- Holding a gun can make you paranoid. In 2012, James Brockmole, an associate professor of psychology at Notre Dame, found that “Wielding a gun increases a person’s bias to see guns in the hands of others.” Participants holding a toy gun during an experiment were more likely than participants holding a neutral object, like a ball, to think that people on a computer screen in front of them were also holding a gun. Participants were shown images of people that changed throughout the experience: sometimes the people in the image would be wearing ski masks and sometimes the computer would change the race of the people. Participants holding guns were “more likely to classify objects held by others as guns and, as a result, to engage in threat-induced behavior.”
- Those with racist views are more likely to oppose gun reform. In an October 2013 study, Kerry O’Brien, Walter Forrest, Dermot Lynott and Michael Daly concluded that “Symbolic racism [is] related to having a gun in the home and opposition to gun control policies in U.S. whites.” The study defined symbolic racism as “racial resentment…an explicit but subtle form and measure of racism.” While the reasons for owning guns and being opposed to gun violence prevention legislation vary and are complex, “it has been suggested that sociocultural factors such as fear of black violence may be associated with gun ownership, and with opposition to gun controls.” Professors Benforado and Young also supported this statement in their respective works. In his 2010 study, Benforado writes, “Advances in implicit social cognition reveal that most people carry biases against racial minorities beyond their conscious awareness. These biases affect critical behavior, including the actions of individuals performing shooting tasks. In simulations, Americans are faster and more accurate when firing on armed blacks than when firing on armed whites, and faster and more accurate in electing to hold their fire when confronting unarmed whites than when confronting unarmed blacks.” Similarly, in his 1985 study, Young writes, “The ownership of firearms for protection is influenced by the interaction of racial prejudice and perceptions of crime and crime fighters. Moreover, the impact of prejudice is sufficiently strong that the mere physical proximity of a relatively large black population is enough to increase gun ownership among highly prejudiced men, even in the absence of concerns about crime.”
- Conservatives are far more likely to own firearms than others. A 2014 General Social Survey found that “half of Republicans live in households with at least one gun, which is twice as high as ownership among Democrats or independents.”
- Risk-taking students are more likely to have guns at college. A September 2002 Harvard University study by Matthew Miller, David Hemenway and Henry Wechsler found that “gun-owning college students are more likely than their unarmed counter-parts to drink frequently and excessively and, when inebriated, to engage in activities that put themselves and others at risk for life-threatening injury.”