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Why Americans Will Never Give Up Their Guns

New research finds the strongest motivation to buy handguns is the vague but deeply held perception that we live in a dangerous world.
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Visitors view gun displays at a National Rifle Association outdoor sports trade show on February 10th, 2017, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Visitors view gun displays at a National Rifle Association outdoor sports trade show on February 10th, 2017, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Why do so many Americans own handguns, and resist the regulation of firearms? "Protection" is the most common response, but who (or what) exactly are they protecting themselves from? And why do fact-based arguments, such as the reduction in crime rates and the dangers of having a gun in the house, fail to change minds?

Newly published research provides a partial answer. It finds handgun ownership is motivated by two distinct impulses: "The specific perceived threat of assault, and a diffuse threat of a dangerous world."

A research team led by University of Groningen psychologist Wolfgang Stroebe reports that second, vague notion of potential peril is the stronger of the two—and the one most resistant to rethinking.

"Handgun ownership and advocacy is, at least in part, a psychological phenomenon," the researchers write. "Gun ownership is predicted by various levels of perceived risk"—including the difficult-to-dislodge belief that the world is a menacing place.

The research, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, describes three studies. The first featured 839 American men, 404 of whom owned guns. They were asked a series of questions about guns and violence, including how likely they considered it that they would be violently attacked at some point in their lives.

They also responded to a set of statements designed to determine their level of "belief in a dangerous world." For example, they indicated the extent they agreed with the assertion "Any day now, chaos and lawlessness could erupt around us."

The results: Gun owners scored higher on specific personal fears and generalized anxiety. They also "believed more strongly that gun possession is an effective method of self-defense."

The second study focused exclusively on the gun owners. The vast majority owned a handgun, and just over half reported they owned three or more firearms.

"Handgun ownership and advocacy is, at least in part, a psychological phenomenon."

Eighty-seven percent of handgun owners reported that protection/self-defense as their principal reason to own a weapon. (Only 44 percent of those who owned only long guns said the same; presumably, many are hunters who own their weapon for that specific reason.)

The researchers found that, compared to the perceived threat of personal harm, "belief in a dangerous world was the stronger predictor of the need for protection/self-defense."

"This could make it difficult to conduct persuasion campaigns aimed at dissuading handgun owners of the need to own a gun (or support limitations on gun ownership)," they write. That's because "a broader system of beliefs about the nature of the social world, and what people are like, is extremely difficult to influence."

Such mindsets are learned in childhood, and tend to shape one's thinking for the rest of one's life. Mere statistics about crime rates are no match for the strong internal conviction that the world is a menacing place.

The researchers conducted their survey just before last year's massacre at an Orlando, Florida, nightclub. Curious to see if the news coverage of that tragedy moved any minds, they assembled another group of 495 American men and asked the same questions.

The answers were essentially unchanged, which suggests beliefs about guns and protection are so deeply held that they are not swayed one way or another by news of a mass shooting.

This is frustrating news for gun-control advocates. Clearly, many American men learn early on life that a.) it's a nasty world out there, and b.) the best way to protect yourself is with a gun. Change may require the coming of age of a new, better-educated generation.