The simple, surprising factor that explains America’s gun problem

Jason McDaniel and Sean McElwee
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In America, support for some gun control policies, such as universal background checks, is above 90% percent, and yet mass shooting after mass shooting fails to incite action from politicians.

The popular explanation for this failure to act, so well evoked by commentators like Igor Volsky, is that the NRA has bought and paid for many politicians, who refuse to vote against their paymasters to support common sense gun control measures. And it’s true that the NRA has used its leverage and war chest to apply pressure to politicians and beat back gun control efforts


However, this NRA-centric narrative is inadequate to explain why efforts to control America’s gun violence epidemic keep failing.

Recently, we analyzed two separate data sources about Americans’ attitudes toward guns and gun control, and found that there is major, less-examined factor that influences the gun control debate: the racial identity and racial attitudes of gun owners, and those who support or oppose gun control legislation.


Put simply, America’s gun problem is a white supremacy problem in disguise.

Without understanding how racism is linked to gun control, liberals will continue to fail to pass sensible gun control, and the problem will keep getting worse. Further, our results help explain the double standards regarding police violence: black people who are killed by police are criminalized, even among those who claim to support more lax gun laws.


Racially resentful white people love guns

The first step in our analysis was to understand the individual characteristics and political alliances and beliefs that are associated with gun ownership. To do this, we examined data from the 2012 American National Election Studies survey. Using a model that controlled for race, age, gender, education, income, partisan identification, geography and ideology, we found that racial resentment is highly correlated with gun ownership.


Racial resentment isn’t exactly racism, but it’s pretty close. The concept of racial resentment measures beliefs about race that aren’t captured by stereotypes (e.g. the belief that black people are unintelligent, lazy, or violent) but that are still related to the permanence of race and structure of oppression, such as the opinion that black people should simply “try harder” to succeed, instead of relying upon “special favors.”

ANES uses a battery of four questions to measure racial resentment, including asking survey-takers to agree or disagree with statements like these:

  • “The Irish, Italians, Jews and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.”
  • “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of the lower class.”

Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with these propositions, and we combined their answers into a resentment scale running from 0 to 1 (again, 0 meaning very little racial resentment, and 1 meaning very strong racial resentment).

Using this model, we found that racial resentment—not ethnicity, gender, geographic location, or political preference—was the single strongest predictor of gun ownership.


We found that a white person who scores a 1 on the resentment scale (very racially resentful) is 38% more likely to own a gun than a white person who scores a 0 on the resentment scale (not very racially resentful).

Republicans, men, and southerners were more likely to own guns than Democrats, women, or non-southerners. A black person is about 14% less likely to own a gun compared to a white person, while a Latino or Latina is about 24% less likely.


Racially resentful white people don’t like gun control

We also found that racial resentment strongly predicts opposition to gun control, controlling for race, age, education, partisanship, ideology, geographic region, income and gender. A person who is very racially resentful is much more likely to oppose gun control measures than one who is not.


Interestingly, the impact of racially resentful attitudes is different for Republicans than Democrats. According to the chart below, among those with below average levels of racial resentment, Republicans and Democrats are equally likely to support gun control. However, among those with above average levels of racial resentment, Republicans are much less likely to support control compared to Democrats.


These findings are in line with other research on the subject that has used the American National Election Studies dataset. Previous work has also linked racial resentment (or symbolic racism) to gun ownership.

In order to corroborate these results, we also examined the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a survey of more than 50,000 people conducted in the fall of the election year (every federal election year since 2010) that uses some of the same questions as the American National Election Studies to measure respondents’ levels of racial resentment. We looked at how strongly people with varying levels of resentment toward black people supported (or didn’t support) five major gun-related policies:

  • Background checks for all sales, including at gun shows and over the internet
  • Prohibit state and local governments from publishing the names and addresses of all gun owners
  • Ban high-capacity magazines
  • Ban assault rifles
  • Make it easier for people to obtain a concealed-carry permit

On all five policies, we found that the higher a white respondent’s racial resentment score, the more likely he or she was to oppose laws that would restrict access to guns, and the more likely he or she was to support laws that would make guns more easily accessible.


Even controlling for other variables, racial resentment has a strong effect on the preferences of whites. Moving from the lowest level of racial resentment among whites to the highest would be enough to shift predicted support for an assault rifle ban from majority support among both Democrats and Republicans, to majority opposition among Republicans. Further, the most racially resentful Democrats were less likely to support universal background checks than the least racially resentful Republicans. Again, racial resentment has a greater effect on the views of Republicans than Democrats.


Racially resentful white people are highly passionate about guns

In addition to racial attitudes, gun control efforts are hampered by a concept political scientists call “issue salience”: the fact that the issue of gun control is much more important to some people than others. In particular, our research shows that those who oppose gun control are more mobilized and care more about the issue than those who oppose it.


It could well be this, far more than the NRA’s political donations, that explains why Congress repeatedly refuses to pass gun control legislation, despite large popular majorities in support of specific gun control policies—pro-gun constituents are simply louder and more passionate than those who support gun control.

As the chart below shows, gun owners, and those who care the most about the issue, are least likely to support gun control measures.


Strikingly, those who are most likely to support gun control are Democratic non-gun owners who think the issue is not important. Conversely, a gun-owning Democrat who thinks the issue is extremely important has only a 33% probability of support for gun control legislation. While Republicans are generally less likely than Democrats to support gun control, those Republicans who do not own guns are significantly more likely to support gun control compared to those who do..


To fix America’s gun problem, we have to understand its racial context

Of course, not all gun owners are racist, and many racists don’t own guns. But these data sets clearly show that guns and race are deeply intertwined today, as they have been throughout history. Opposition to gun control—like opposition to immigration, Sharia law, and “political correctness”—has become linked to things that racially resentful whites fear.


The right to own guns and establish a militia was designed to maintain slavery. In the 1980s, gun control was a tool used by the right to disempower the Black Panthers. Today, however, gun ownership and culture is strongly linked to conservatism, particularly the militia movement. Rather than the Black Panthers occupying federal buildings, it is the Bundy family taking over government land. While whites often praise the merits of gun ownership, people of color executed by police officers while carrying a weapon are immediately considered guilty. This double-standard, displayed recently in the murder of concealed-carry permit holder Philando Castile, makes sense once the centrality of racial resentment to attitudes about guns is clear.

In a recent study, whites were split into four groups, and “read a short article describing a rally — either a violent or a nonviolent rally by a predominantly white group, the tea party, or a predominantly black group, Black Lives Matter.” The study finds that those who read about a black protest were more likely to support gun control, even if the rally was non-violent. Reading about a white rally had no effect on attitudes.


It’s important to note that our analysis took place before the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and that these events, combined with the sustained organization around these issues by the Black Lives Matter movement, could mobilize Democrats in support of gun control legislation. But Democrats have not shown much interest in ensuring that their gun control regime works towards more racial justice.

Rather, their most-touted legislation, aimed at using the no-fly list to limit gun ownership, smacks of xenophobia. Such a policy would do little to reduce gun violence, but would further stigmatize Muslims and immigrants as potentially dangerous. Rhetoric that suggests all people on the no-fly list are connected to ISIS not only tramples on due process, it’s absurd as well. (Representative John Lewis, a 7-month old baby and Nelson Mandela were all at one point on the no-fly list.) And policies designed to reduce gun violence could easily fuel mass incarceration by further criminalizing people of color.


As Patrick Blanchfield writes in his masterful N+1 essay on gun control,

[…] white liberals whose primary concerns vis-à-vis “gun violence” more or less boil down to making high-profile rampage killings disappear from their newsfeeds [may] embrace measures that gesture at solving that problem while doubling down on militarized policing, surveillance, and America’s overcrowded prisons is depressingly easy to imagine. As many critics have observed, we would be naïve to think that heavy-handed gun control measures would not involve the same disproportionate racial targeting and police violence we rightly condemn in the War on Drugs and in everyday encounters in places from Baltimore to Ferguson to Cleveland to Oakland.


So, how do we fix America’s gun violence epidemic? It’s not entirely clear. But it’s clear what won’t work: treating gun control as an issue that is fought only in a cultural vacuum on Capitol Hill, between NRA lobbyists and fearful politicians, with no connection to America’s broader cultural wars. There is a real gun coalition in America, and there is a real racist coalition in America, and the two are intimately linked.

Without addressing the racial resentment that underlies gun control, no single policy or bill will do nearly enough to deal with America’s gun violence at its root.


Jason McDaniel is an Associate Professor of Political Science at San Francisco State University who specializes in race and voting behavior.

Sean McElwee is a policy analyst at Demos Action.

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