People look at handguns during the Nation's Gun Show in Chantilly, Va. in October 2015. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Racial prejudice could play a significant role in white Americans' opposition to gun control, according to new research from political scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In their paper, published in the journal Political Behavior in November,  Alexandra Filindra and Noah J. Kaplan found that whites were significantly less likely to support gun control measures when they had recently looked at pictures of black people, than when they had looked at pictures of white people. The study, which surveyed 1,000 white respondents, also found that the higher they scored on a common measure of racial prejudice, the stronger negative effect the photos of black people had on the respondents' support for gun control.

Taken together, those two findings "demonstrate that racial prejudice influences white opinion regarding gun regulation in the contemporary United States," Filindra and Kaplan conclude. But why would that be the case?

To explain this, Filindra and Kaplan draw on a rich body of sociological literature about the language of racial resentment, especially among whites. Racial resentment, as Filindra and Kaplan define it, is a prejudice based in the belief that blacks don't value independence and hard work and instead push for special rights conferred by the government. It upholds whites as morally superior while ignoring the structural advantages of whiteness.

Historians have noted how this type of language has often been employed by whites in the post-World War II era to oppose programs like civil rights and affirmative action -- programs that, in some conservatives' views, afford "special rights" to minority groups at the expense of whites.

Using the language of freedom and individualism in this way "creates this duality between a generic deserving group – could be homeowners, students, law-abiding citizens – versus the 'special rights' that government is giving to a 'less deserving' group," Filindra explained in an interview.

There are plenty of examples of this dynamic in history, Filindra and Kaplan write: "'homeowner rights' used in defense of residential segregation, 'taxpayer rights' marshalled against welfare programs and affirmative action, or 'victims' rights employed in support of punitive criminal justice policies," Filindra and Kaplan write. "In each case, the trope of 'rights' was used in defense of white privilege."

Particularly with respect to the modern gun-rights movement that really took off in the '80s and '90s, the language "creates this distinction between 'law-abiding citizens' and 'criminals,'" Filindra says. She points to the type of language that's frequently used by gun rights groups who warn of ever-present threats by "predatory criminals" and a murkily-defined "they" who want to "take your guns away."

"Juxtapositions of 'law abiding citizens' and 'criminals' [are] evocative of racialized themes as crime has long been associated with blacks in the white mind," Filindra and Kaplan write.

Filindra and Kaplan say their research does not imply that all white gun owners are racist, nor that all support for gun control carries racial baggage.

But for a certain subset of white gun-rights supporters, particularly those who are inclined to hold certain prejudicial beliefs, messages about individualism and liberty and rights are understood in a very specific way.

In the mind of this type of gun owner, "I am showing my white nationalist pride in a sort of generic way through gun ownership," Filindra posits. "This is my way of expressing my 'more-equal-than-others' status in a society where egalitarianism is the norm. I can’t say that some people are better and some are worse in terms of racial groups. But I can show it symbolically. I can show I'm a better citizen."

Kerry O'Brien is a researcher a Monash University in Australia who has also investigated the link toward racial attitudes and gun ownership. He notes that the correlation between racial resentment and gun attitudes has been well-established in existing sociological literature going back at least 30 years.

"No one has refuted the research findings in this area with any opposing scientific evidence or contradictory reanalysis," he said in an email. "Filindra's study adds some causal evidence to previous correlational evidence."

"That said, there does need to be a lot more research in this area before we really understand the true strength of this relationship between racism and guns and other policies and more importantly what you might do about it," he added.

Indeed, Filindra says that her study illustrates the limits of trying to change gun policy by appealing to hard evidence. Gun control advocates "have been approaching the subject from the perspective of public health, which has a message all about costs and benefits -- an emphasis specifically on how many deaths, how many injues, all of that stuff."

But these messages are likely falling on deaf ears if many white gun owners' identities are strongly intertwined with gun ownership. "This is really about identity processes, and about how people perceive their changing position in a social hierarchy," she said. "We need to rethink how we can address gun control, how we can decouple the racial and public health dimensions of this."

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