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For Some Americans, the Gun Is a Sacred Object

New research finds a sub-group of white male gun owners feel symbolically empowered by their weapons.

The gun-control debate in America bypassed rationality long ago. A committed core group of gun owners takes even modest attempts to limit the availability of firearms as a personal affront, and responds with the outrage of devout believers driven to defend their faith.

These gun-rights absolutists—a subset of the firearm-owning population—are overwhelmingly white, male, not very religious, and fearful about their financial future. Owning firearms gives them a sense of masculine strength and authority they otherwise fear is slipping away.

"The gun becomes their sacred object," said Baylor University sociologist Paul Froese. "Gun control for these owners has come to represent an attack of their masculinity, independence, and moral identity."

He and his colleague F. Carson Mencken are the authors of a new study that delves into the emotional roots of anti-gun-regulation sentiment. They find gun owners hold a range of opinions on this topic, but the most hard-line are driven by intense internal needs.

"Less-religious white men in economic distress find comfort in guns as a means to reestablish a sense of individual power and moral certitude in the face of changing times," they write in the journal Social Problems. "The symbol of the gun as morally and existentially empowering is what activates pro-gun policy and anti-government sentiment."

The researchers analyzed data on 1,527 Americans from the Baylor Religion Survey, which Gallup conducted in 2014. Of that group, 577 reported they owned firearms. They were asked a series of questions to ascertain their reasons for doing so, and their views about  issues such as proposed bans on semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.

They also answered a series of questions about their views of the economy, including whether anyone from their household lost a job in the past five years, and whether they "feel at risk of falling to a lower social class."

Most importantly, they reported their level of agreement with eight statements: "Owning a gun makes me feel (a) safe, (b) responsible, (c) confident, (d) patriotic, (e) in control of my fate, (f) more valuable to my family, (g) more valuable to my community, and (h) respected."

Using those responses, the researchers divided the gun owners into four categories of "gun empowerment," and found each has its own demographic profile and set of policy preferences. Female and ethnic-minority gun owners were most likely to report guns do not have significant symbolic power; they were also the most likely to support proposals such as a ban on semi-automatic weapons.

On the other hand, those who felt most strongly that their gun empowers them—a group that is overwhelmingly white, male, and in some degree of economic distress—tended to express strong opposition to such measures. "The greater the degree of gun empowerment," the researchers write, "the lower the probability that gun owners support more mental-health screening for gun purchasers."

While many members of this group find meaning in the American frontier myth, as personified by the manly image of John Wayne, they tend to not have a strong connection to a religious community. This finding, the researchers argue, suggests then-candidate Barack Obama was spot on when he said rural whites "cling to their guns or religion."

"Obama's use of the conjunction 'or' was prescient," they write. "Religious communities offer alternative symbols and identities that (appear to) offset the need for guns as a source of self-esteem and moral standing."

So the decline of religion in American life and ever-stronger opposition to gun control appear to be linked.

Possessing firearms provides many spiritually rootless, economically imperiled white males with an otherwise missing sense of purpose and power. For them, any hint that gun rights are imperiled is an unacceptable threat to their personal identity.

Don't bother praising the Lord. Just pass the ammunition.