As we digest the news of yet another high-profile gun crime, the conversation inevitably comes back to the question of why stricter gun-control laws are so difficult to pass in this country.
There are a variety of explanations, of course, including the political clout of the National Rifle Association. But there are also deeper, psychological reasons why so many Americans would rather endure mass shooting after mass shooting rather than agree to any restrictions on gun ownership.
And one of them, it appears, is ingrained racism.
That’s the implication of a newly published study, which finds a link between gun ownership, opposition to gun control, and “symbolic racism”—racist attitudes that are not overt, but nevertheless color one’s view of the world.
"For each one point increase in symbolic racism, there was a 50 percent greater odds of having a gun in the home, and there was a 28 percent increase in the odds of supporting permits to carry concealed handguns."
A research team led by Kerry O’Brien of Monash University in Australia reports a high score on a common measure of racial resentment increases the odds that a person will (a) have a gun in the house, and (b) be opposed to gun control. This holds true even after other “explanatory variables,” including political party affiliation, are taken into account.
“The statistics on firearm-related suicides and homicides in the U.S. might reasonably be expected to convince U.S. citizens that action on reducing gun ownership and use would be beneficial to their health,” the researchers write in the online journal PLOS One.
“Yet, U.S. whites oppose strong gun reform more than all other racial groups, despite a much greater likelihood that whites will kill themselves with their own guns (suicide) than be killed by someone else.”
They conclude that these “paradoxical attitudes” among American whites—who oppose measures that would reduce their own risk of violent death—can be explained in part by “anti-black prejudice.”
O’Brien and his colleagues analyzed data from several waves of the American National Election Studies, large-scale surveys that take place during federal election years. The sample of voters skewed slightly conservative: “Just over half (52 percent) of the sample had a gun in the home, 66 percent opposed bans on handguns in the home, and 52 percent reported support for permits to carry a concealed handgun.”
After providing detailed demographic information, participants answered four questions taken from the Symbolic Racism Scale. Specifically, they expressed their level of agreement or disagreement (on a one-to-five scale) with statements such as, “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”
O’Brien and his colleagues took a range of variables that could influence attitudes toward guns out of the equation, including age, income, education level, political ideology, party identification, and whether the person lived in the South. They then measured whether implicitly racist attitudes predicted greater support for guns and gun rights.
Indeed they did.
“For each one point increase in symbolic racism, there was a 50 percent greater odds of having a gun in the home,” they write, “and there was a 28 percent increase in the odds of supporting permits to carry concealed handguns.”
In contrast, there was no correlation between attitudes toward guns and the one question that measured overt racism (whether they felt the word “violent” described “most blacks”). The researchers note that fewer than 10 percent of participants strongly endorsed that notion; they suspect a significant number recoiled from its blatantly prejudiced tone and answered negatively “in order to avoid appearing racist.”
O’Brien and his colleagues caution that while the “view that racism underpins gun-related attitudes is plausible and supported by evidence,” their study shows correlation, not causation. It’s conceivable that “simply owning a firearm may lead whites to develop more negative attitudes towards blacks,” they write.
Conceivable, but how likely?
Either way, the researchers note, “the results indicate that symbolic racism is associated with gun-related attitudes and behaviors in U.S. whites.” That unpleasant fact will have to somehow be addressed before more stringent gun control becomes a reality.