In Georgia, the recent race between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams attracted its share of national attention — and not just because an Abrams victory would have made her the first nation’s first female black governor.
On Election Day, Fox News personality Laura Ingraham tweeted a story from the conservative news website the Daily Caller titled “Armed with Assault Rifles, Black Panthers March for Stacey Abrams.” The story prominently features photos of black men holding rifles and posing next to an Abrams campaign sign. Ingraham referred to the men sarcastically as “peace-loving, tolerant radicals.”
In the past, Ingraham has supported gun rights and characterized the armed response from supporters of Cliven Bundy’s dispute with the Bureau of Land Management as “an act of civil disobedience.” But in this case, her response was different — even though the Black Panthers’ actions were legal under Georgia’s “open carry” law.
This seeming inconsistency illustrates an important feature of public support for constitutional protections. In short, public support depends on how much the public likes the person or group exercising these rights. Our research shows that Second Amendment rights are no different.
Here’s how we did our research
Between June 12 and June 22 of this year, we surveyed a sample of 1,013 Americans. The survey was fielded by Survey Sampling International/ResearchNow. SSI maintains a large online opt-in panel from which participants are recruited. This sample was recruited to be representative in terms of age, education, sex, race and region of the country.
We presented people with a scenario in which a group is preemptively disarmed by the government. One-third of our respondents saw this story: “Earlier this month federal officers seized a large number of firearms, including handguns and assault rifles, from members of an anti-government activist group. A spokesman for the group says they are peaceful, and legally own all of the firearms seized in the raids.”
Another third saw the same story, but instead of the group in question being described ambiguously, these respondents were told that the group was “Posse Comitatus, a white anti-government activist group.” The remaining third were told that the group was the “Black Panthers, an African-American anti-government activist group.”
We then asked the respondents, “Do you think the government seizing firearms violates the group’s right to bear firearms?”
In addition, we also measured feelings toward blacks and whites by asking people to rate the groups on feeling thermometers that ranged from 0 (very cold) to 100 (very warm).
Here’s what we found
First, overall views of the government’s action did not depend on how the anti-government group was described. The same fraction of respondents — about 68 percent — said the government’s action violated the group’s rights, regardless of how that group was described.
But how the group was described did affect the way people’s racial attitudes were associated with their view of gun rights.
Among people who read about the Black Panthers, those holding warmer views toward whites than blacks were less likely to say that taking away guns violated the group’s rights. But among people who read about Posse Comitatus, the opposite was true: Those who viewed whites more warmly were more likely to say the group’s rights had been violated.
What this means
Much political science research has found that attitudes about racial groups influence public opinion on a wide range of topics and can inform voters’ decisions at the polls. Decades of research have also shown that the public finds it easier to extend free-speech rights to popular groups.
Our findings suggest that views of Second Amendment rights are no different. They are strongly influenced by the identity of the group bearing arms. Again, many people don’t recognize rights claims by groups they don’t like.
Logan Strother is an assistant professor of political science at Purdue University.
Daniel Bennett is an assistant professor of political science at John Brown University.