Disturbing research helps explain white conservatives' obsession with guns

Disturbing research helps explain white conservatives' obsession with guns
Image via Shutterstock.

Too many Americans love guns more than they do other human beings.

There have been at least 50 mass shootings in America since the massacre and apparent hate crime attack against Asian Americans in the Atlanta area on March 16.

The COVID-19 pandemic has done nothing to stop America's addiction to gun violence. Writing at the Nation, Tom Engelhardt explains, "In the first 73 days of Joe Biden's presidency, there were five mass shootings and more than 10,000 gun-violence deaths. In the Covid-19 era, this has been the model the world's 'most exceptional' nation (as American politicians of both parties used to love to call this country) has set for the rest of the planet. Put another way, so far in 2020 and 2021, there have been two pandemics in America, Covid-19 and guns."

Too many Americans love guns even more than money. It is estimated that gun violence costs the United States at least $150 billion a year.

In response to discussions about an assault weapons ban after the mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Sen. Lindsey Graham told Fox News' Chris Wallace, "If there's a natural disaster in South Carolina where the cops can't protect my neighborhood, my house will be the last ones that the gangs will come to, because I can defend myself."

The next day, Graham circulated a video of himself shooting an AR-15 assault rifle at a South Carolina gun range.

For many progressives, liberals and other Americans who are not part of the MAGAverse, TrumpWorld or America's gun culture, Graham's performance of gun-toting hyper masculinity was laughable. His comments about defending his family from "gangs" were also criticized as being especially ill-timed given the recent mass shooting events. But again, as is so many other instances, those outside of the right-wing echo chamber were not the audience for Graham's performance.

The South Carolina senator was speaking to a right-wing culture, moral universe and imaginary where guns, whiteness and toxic masculinity are tightly if not immutably linked together. He was channeling the idea of the white American male as defender of his home and family — and of heterosexual white (right-wing) male power and privilege — against some type of "criminal" or "invader," generally understood to be black or brown. This enemy to be defended against may be a "Muslim terrorist," an "urban" black male or a "Latino gangbanger." He may also be a member of "antifa," the right wing's current bogeyman.

Lindsey Graham's assault rifle and others like it are also central to end-times survivalist dystopian fantasies of societal breakdown and failed government that involve "race war," environmental collapse, another pandemic or other such disaster.

In years gone by, the enemy was the "Indian" attacking white settlers in the Old West. Of course, America's imperial Manifest Destiny project viewed white-settler colonialism as a noble "civilizing" project, in which the gun was an indispensable tool for killing the Other and maintaining control over black human property and other "subject races."

Evoking the mythos of the Revolutionary War, the MAGAverse and TrumpWorld (and ammosexuals and gun fetishists more generally) also consider Lindsey Graham's AR-15 as his "musket" or "freedom rifle."

As signified in an oft-discussed advertisement for a Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle, such weapons supposedly offer their owners a chance to get their "Man Card," which evidently confer godlike power over life and death, and with it enhanced libidinal drives and allure. The totemic power of such assault-style weapons also enhances their "rights" as (white) men and by implication control over "their" women and families, and society at large.

New research from University of Illinois-Chicago political scientists Alexandra Filindra, Beyza Buyuker and Noah J. Kaplan offers insights into these connections between gun ownership, white masculinity, racism and patriotism.

In an essay for the Washington Post, they elaborate:

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.

These scholars' new research points to further conclusions:

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. …

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.

These findings complement other research showing the connection between gun ownership and death anxiety where the gun is understood, on a subconscious level, to confer some form of immortality. Filindra, Buyuker and Kaplan's findings also support other research showing the connections between gun ownership, support for "stand your ground" and concealed-carry laws and racial hostility towards black people.

A majority of Americans — including many gun owners and even NRA members — support commonsense gun laws such as mandatory waiting periods for buying handguns, limiting access to certain types of weapons and ammunition, improving background checks and closing the "gun show loophole." President Biden has repeatedly expressed his support for such initiatives.

Unfortunately, these rational and reasonable approaches to gun violence as a public health problem will do little if anything to heal or fix the way many Americans — especially white men — understand guns as a key part of their core identity and fundamental personhood. As Jonathan Metzl shows in his book "Dying of Whiteness", many white men in America are literally willing to die (and kill) for their guns.

America's gun violence crisis is a public policy problem. But resolving that problem involves overcoming the way that powerful, moneyed interests such as the gun industry and the NRA can manipulate the spiritual emptiness and emotional insecurities felt by many gun owners.

Ultimately, America is sick with gun fever, and will remain so, because too many Americans want it that way.

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