With two mass shootings in one week, in Georgia and Colorado, the United States is again discussing how to prevent gun violence. Within hours of the Boulder shooting, President Biden urged Congress to enact a ban on assault-style weapons. Recent history suggests that no such law will materialize. Studies find that gun rights supporters are highly politically organized and unwavering on their views, while gun regulation supporters are not.
Our research found a reason for this difference: racial differences in rates of gun ownership and beliefs about guns. White Americans are far more likely than any other group to own firearms and oppose gun regulations. To them, guns are potent political symbols. For many people, especially White Americans, guns are integral to who they are as citizens and what it means to be a good citizen.
This link between good citizenship and bearing arms is not new: Historians find that this conceptual coupling developed during the American Revolution, if not earlier. During this time, Americans came to think of good citizenship as involving both political participation and military readiness to protect against domestic tyrants and external enemies. Both dimensions of citizenship — voting and serving in combat — were reserved for White men well into the 20th century (women were enfranchised in 1920 and began to serve in combat in 2015), even though African Americans served in every U.S. war.
Gun violence prevention advocates tend to think about guns in terms of preventing violence and the harms that guns can inflict. But racially conservative Whites — those who score high on measures of anti-Black prejudice — think of guns in terms of good citizenship. This group of Whites interprets attempts to restrict access to guns not as an effort to prevent gun violence but as an attack on their ability to express their patriotism.
Gun owners as good citizens
Both historical research and our studies of contemporary gun ownership and gun control policy preferences suggest that many White people share these beliefs. For a century, the National Rifle Association reinforced such beliefs, we find. By owning guns and supporting gun rights, racially conservative White Americans feel that they are showing their moral superiority as good, law-abiding citizens. At the same time, they implicitly express their contempt for African Americans who they believe have failed to uphold the values of American citizenship, such as self-sufficiency and independence from the state. These White people see efforts to restrict gun ownership as threatening their social and moral status and trying to devalue their status as Americans.
Many racially biased White people believe there’s a link between good citizenship and owning guns
Data from the General Social Survey going back to the 1970s show that the vast majority of people who live in gun-owning households are White. That’s true even though the share of White people in the general population has been steadily declining, as you can see in the figure below.
Our data also show that Whites, and especially White men, are the demographic group most likely to associate gun ownership with good citizenship. Specifically, our 2015 nationally representative survey of 1,900 Americans, conducted by YouGov, found that 43 percent of Whites but only 23 percent of African Americans view owning a gun as a sign of good citizenship. That gap persists when we compare White and Black men and even White and Black men who live in gun-owning households, as you can see in the figure below.
Whites with anti-Black attitudes are the most likely to believe that a good citizen owns a gun, and that owning a gun makes you a good citizen. That’s true even when we account for other important factors, such as a person’s partisan identification, ideology and whether they worry about crime.
Specifically, we find that Whites who think that Black people are violent are 38 percent more likely to believe that gun ownership is a sign of good citizenship than those who do not view Blacks as violent. Similarly, Whites who think that Blacks have too much political influence are 32 percent more likely to believe good citizenship and gun ownership go together than Whites who do not.
These attitudes are broadly shared among White racial conservatives, even those who do not own firearms.
Black people don’t believe this.
We find no evidence of similar associations among African Americans. Black people who think of members of their own group as violent are no more likely to see owning a gun as a sign of good citizenship than those who do not. Nor does this shift whether Black people believe their race has too much or too little political influence. Perhaps more to the point, Black people who think that Whites are violent are no more likely to associate gun ownership with good citizenship than those who do not see Whites as violent.
The consequences of associating good citizenship with gun ownership
Racially conservative Whites associate Blacks with crime and political corruption, not with good citizenship. For them, access to firearms is the bulwark of political liberty. Thus, the prevalence of mass shootings in the United States may be a symptom of the country’s enduring legacy of racism.
Congress’s unwillingness to legislate to prevent gun violence may be in part because of the country’s unwillingness to consider how race and racism animate our varied understandings of citizenship. Gun violence prevention advocates may wish to attend to these deeply held perceptions and incorporate them in their communications strategies. Otherwise the links among racial anxieties, citizenship and gun ownership may continue to influence U.S. policy.
Alexandra Filindra is associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Beyza Buyuker is a PhD student in political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Noah J. Kaplan is clinical assistant professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.