Last week, Sen. Chris Murphy made a small splash by filibustering on the Senate floor until, he said, Republicans agreed to allow a vote on a modest gun control measure. When the nation has debates like this, commentators often focus either on what was meant by the Second Amendment, or on who supports and who opposes such regulations, examining public opinion divisions along partisan, geographical, or other lines.
My research has identified a different factor, however, that affects public opinion about gun control, and it plays a bigger role than observers often appreciate. That factor is race.
Here’s the racial breakdown in gun ownership and beliefs about gun regulation.
Eighty-four percent of gun owners in the United States are white, according to data from the 2012 American National Election Study (ANES). Since whites make up 63 percent of the U.S. population, their representation among gun owners is higher than their share of the general population.
Polls show that whites also make up the majority of those who oppose stricter gun regulations. In a July 2015 Pew poll, for instance, 57 percent of whites said it was more important “to protect the right of Americans to own guns” than to “control gun ownership.” Among blacks and Hispanics, that number was just 24 percent. In a 2015 survey conducted through the University of Illinois in Chicago, we asked respondents to rank the importance of key government guarantees. Eighty-five percent of whites ranked the “right to bear arms” among the top three, while only 24 percent of blacks did.
Research finds that support for gun rights is strongest among whites who are racially prejudiced. In a study conducted by Kerry O’Brien and colleagues using data from the ANES, “racial resentment,” a common measure of racial prejudice, is correlated with both gun ownership and opposition to gun control. For each 1-point increase on the 5-point racial resentment scale, there is a 50 percent increase in the odds of owning a gun. Similarly, those who score high on racial resentment are 25 percent less likely to support “making it more difficult to buy a gun” than whites who score low. Those results withstand controls for respondents’ demographics, political preferences, and values.
Our research upheld this correlation.
An experiment I conducted with Noah Kaplan in December 2013 corroborates these survey results. In the experiment, 1,200 whites were randomly divided into two groups. One group was asked to rate the likability and attractiveness of pictures of three white and three black faces.
We told respondents that the purpose of the test was to assess their cognitive ability in rating pictures. We chose to show respondents pictures of both whites and blacks so it would be harder to guess our experiment’s actual purpose, which might have encouraged respondents to give the answers they thought to be socially desirable.
We drew the pictures from a commonly used measure of prejudice: the Implicit Association Test. This is a test designed to measure automatic associations in memory between race and positive or negative concepts. These black-and-white pictures are designed to measure race alone, showing only a person’s face without any clothes, background, or other markings that could signify class status. The second group did not see or rate any pictures.
Then respondents were asked for their opinions on a number of gun policy proposals.
People who saw the pictures were significantly less likely to support gun regulations than those in the control group. From these results, we inferred that when whites are prompted to think about blacks, they are less likely to support gun control.
Racial resentment amplified this effect. Among people who saw the pictures, those who scored higher on racial resentment were less likely to support gun control than those whose racial resentment scores were lower.
These studies, of course, do not suggest that every white person who owns a gun is prejudiced against blacks. Rather, they show that those whites who do harbor such prejudices are more likely to own guns and support gun rights.
That’s not because white gun owners fear black violence
Why might these relationships exist? Although 48 percent of gun owners say they own guns for “protection,” fear of black crime does not seem to drive the relationship. Fear of crime actually increases support for gun control among whites.
Nor are those whites who support gun rights afraid of violent black protests, as another of my studies finds. In one experiment, conducted in March this year, 806 white respondents were randomly assigned to one of four groups. In each group, they read a short article describing a rally — either a violent or a nonviolent rally by a predominantly white group, the tea party, or a predominantly black group, Black Lives Matter. After reading the story, respondents were asked their views on various gun policy proposals.
Compared with those who read about the white nonviolent rally, respondents were actually more likely to support gun control when they read about a black protest, whether violent or nonviolent. There was no difference in support for gun control between those who read about a violent or a non-violent white rally. So, if anything, the thought of black protesters is more likely to push whites to support gun control.
It’s because of the symbolic appeal of guns to white Americans
The theory of racial resentment, developed by David Sears and Don Kinder, offers an important clue as to what underlies this relationship between prejudice and guns. It goes like this. Unlike “old-fashioned racism,” which justifies racial differences in norms and behavior as biological, racially resentful whites believe that many blacks have made a choice to pursue crime and government dependency, behaviors that deviate from traditional American virtues. Some prominent conservative intellectuals have encouraged these beliefs, arguing that blacks have been competing unfairly through affirmative action and that they support color-conscious policies that put whites at a disadvantage. Survey data confirm that 37 percent of whites, and 47 percent of white gun owners, believe that the government “does too much” for blacks.
How is this linked to gun ownership? It may be that the possession of firearms hearkens back to the (white) patriots who founded the United States. The “right to bear arms,” conjures the image of the virtuous, independent — and white — citizen-soldier, and this gives those white gun owners a feeling of a proud, positive racial identity. In this conception, firearms embody whites’ true “American-ness” — and distance them from those perceived to be dependent on the state rather than independent guardians of the Republic, thus violating these “American” values. The symbolism does not quite work for blacks, for whom guns have strong cultural associations not with virtue but with violence.
Since firearms carry such a strong association with notions of virtuous white citizenship, it shouldn’t be a surprise that white Americans who feel socially devalued and who attribute that to unfair black gains would see owning firearms as a symbolic way to regain respect and to be seen as noble and virtuous citizens. This also explains the fierce resistance to gun control among many whites: They see gun regulation not as a way to make their community safer, but as an assault on their identity and disrespect to their racial group.
Alexandra Filindra is assistant professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.