In the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, Americans have once again erupted into a fierce debate surrounding guns, gun safety and gun control. As the teenage survivors of the Parkland, Florida, massacre continue to prove themselves a powerful social and political force, a number of commentators have cautioned that the National Rifle Association and gun rights advocates will be difficult to take on because they are a particularly entrenched variety of single issue activist.
Indeed, the ability of the NRA to dominate the political dialogue surrounding guns shows the disproportionately high enthusiasm among its members for the issue. In his recent piece in the Washington Post, Edward Burmila suggests this reflects the fact that, for gun rights advocates, “gun ownership is central to how they view themselves and define their citizenship.” Others have similarly suggested guns serve as symbols of identity for gun owners and gun control therefore represents an attack not only on the objects they possess, but their very being – making them particularly vocal, entrenched and immovable in their views.
While this might be true for a segment of the gun owning population, research indicates that gun-owning women and people of color aren’t defined by their guns and are potentially swayable as a result.
While the emergence of a “gun identity” archetype is intriguing, it’s worth distinguishing the range of motivations expressed by American gun owners. For example, the Pew Research Center finds only 25 percent of gun owners say owning a gun is very important to their overall identity, while 75 percent indicate gun ownership is only somewhat or not at all important to their overall identity. Moreover, political leaning only partially explains gun identity differentials, with just 31 percent of Republican and 12 percent of Democratic gun owners strongly associating gun ownership with personal identity.
These findings do not indicate the “gun identity” argument is without merit, however. According to a 2017 study by sociologists F. Carson Mencken and Paul Froese published in the journal Social Problems, financially unstable white men are especially likely to view guns as their fundamental source of power and identity because guns make them feel confident, respected, in control of their fate, patriotic and more valuable to their community. In this sense, guns are a symbol of empowerment that restore a sense of control stripped away by their economic distress. Given their inability to provide (a traditionally masculine expectation), they become especially fixated on their ability to protect, which is inextricably tied to their guns. As a result, not only do guns restore their general sense of masculinity, they help cultivate a masculine “hero fantasy.”
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The authors argue that the empowerment associated with firearms render guns “morally and emotionally restorative” for this particular group of men. As a consequence of the symbolic importance of guns to their identity, any attempt to regulate guns represents a regulation of their masculinity and is perceived as an attack on their sense of self, value and worth.
Given this connection between guns and identity, the gun control debate comes to represent a distortion of identity politics where economically disadvantaged white men politically mobilize exclusively around an identity they believe is threatened. Essentially, this particular segment of gun owners fight for gun rights as though their self worth depends on it and are therefore effectively immovable in their position. While they may be very loud, white men in economic distress do not represent the majority of gun owners, however.
The Mencken and Froese study also found that most female gun owners viewed guns simply as tools of self defense and were far less likely to feel guns were central to their identity. Similarly, non-white male gun owners, including those who are financially unstable, did not attach as much importance to guns as their white male counterparts. While an explanation for the weakened impact of guns on identity for economically distressed men of color wasn’t explicitly addressed by the study, the authors suggest that long standing economic anxiety in poor communities of color have led to different coping mechanisms.
While exploring the “gun identity” dimension of the pro-gun movement suggests a segment of gun owners will continue to be highly vocal and immovable in their positions, it’s equally noteworthy that a critical mass of gun owners do not deeply identify with guns, seeing them only as tools for hunting, sport or defense. Guns don’t define them or their self worth. It is these gun owners who are potentially persuadable. Couple this with the steady drop in support for President Donald Trump among non-college educated White women, and gun-owning women and people of color may represent an untapped resource of political allies that could usher in the new era of gun reform that gun safety advocates are seeking.