A crowd of people at a gun violence protest, their faces are out of focus. One sign that reads 'We Can End Gun Violence' is held up above the crowd.
General view during March for Our Lives 2022 on June 11, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for March For Our Lives)
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Gun politics in the U.S. are inextricably linked to race.

Two recent studies have found more evidence that for many white Americans who advocate for gun rights, it isn’t simply about owning and using a tool, but even more about identity and power.

One of the research papers found that the larger the percentage of enslaved people a U.S. county had in 1860, the higher the rate of gun ownership its residents have today. 

The second found that white Americans who express high levels of anti-Black sentiments associate gun rights with white people and gun control with Black people, and they are less likely to support gun rights if they believe Black people are exercising those rights more than they are.

“I started thinking about what about race and racism might be particularly important when thinking about gun rights,” said Gerald Higginbotham, a University of Virginia researcher who was the lead author of the second study. “Because in mainstream conversation it isn’t necessarily framed in the terms of race, even though it is much talked about at least in Black communities that I’m a part of.”

Nick Buttrick at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, lead author of the study that found a significant relationship between enslavement rates and modern-day gun ownership, said he had long wondered why the U.S. has a different relationship with guns than most other places in the world.

“In the U.S., the dominant way of thinking of what a gun does is it protects you,” Buttrick said.

Surveys have shown that two-thirds of gun-owning Americans say it’s a way to stay safe, while people in other countries are more likely to believe the presence of a gun adds risk and danger to their lives.

“Why is it that Americans think guns will keep them safe?” Buttrick said. “What is the history of this?”

Two things stood out to Buttrick and his colleagues. Chattel slavery was different here than in other countries. So was the exit from slavery, called Reconstruction in the U.S.

Reconstruction was a time of instability and extreme violence in the South, when whites saw the destruction of the antebellum norms they knew. The chaos and distrust of the government bred an environment where they turned to guns to maintain order, Buttrick said.

He and his co-author found rates of enslavement prior to the Civil War from Census data. They then used a common proxy to determine current gun ownership levels in counties — a figure that isn’t tracked by the U.S. government — by looking at suicides by firearms. 

That’s how they found the link between places with high levels of enslavement in 1860 and higher rates of gun ownership today. They also found that those high-enslavement counties are the places today where surveying shows the relationship between feeling safe and owning a gun are strongest. Finally, the researchers found that counties outside the South that also have high rates of people saying they own guns for protection have links and social ties to counties with higher rates of slavery before the Civil War.  

Courtesy of Nick Buttrick

“Does this explain everything about gun ownership?” Buttrick said. “No, of course not. What we think it helps us to think about is where does protective gun ownership come from, what is the history. If it’s rooted in a political struggle and an anti-Blackness, that may help to explain some things about the way the modern American gun movement works.”

Higginbotham’s study was also, in part, inspired by history. 

When white Americans talk about gun rights today, they’re often not talking about Black Americans’ rights. Some of the moments when politicians enacted stricter gun legislation came right after times when Black Americans exercised their rights to own guns. A prime example: The California Legislature passed the 1967 Mulford Act, which prohibited the open carry of loaded firearms, after the Black Panthers protested with weapons on the steps of the statehouse.

“If you go back and look at history, gun control laws that were targeting Black people were in many ways to keep Black people from being able to amass power or stay in power,” Higginbotham said. 

This history, discussions among his friends and family and work by other Black scholars made him suspect that when white Americans advocate for gun rights, they’re usually thinking about white gun owners. But he and his colleagues wanted to test it using social-psychological methods.

Courtesy of Gerald Higginbotham

Understanding how race still shows up today in gun policy discussions can help ensure that gun control policies won’t criminalize or otherwise harm Black Americans, he said.

Higginbotham and his colleagues ran multiple studies with 850 participants in total, all white. One showed survey-takers phrases like “gun rights” and “gun control” and evaluated whether they associated those words with the images of Black or white people. Another study showed participants different articles, one where Black Americans were obtaining concealed-carry permits at higher rates than other races and another where white Americans were obtaining the permits at higher rates. Participants were also given surveys to evaluate their levels of anti-Black sentiment. 

White Americans who expressed high levels of anti-Black sentiments associated gun rights with white people and gun control with Black people. They also indicated they would be less likely to support concealed-carry permits after reading that Black people were using them more. 

This was even after researchers ensured that the articles made clear the increased permits among Black people did not cause higher crime.

“It’s important to think about who people are perceiving legal gun rights to be for and who they are perceiving legal gun owners to be, and how Black people, we challenge that and have challenged that through history,” Higginbotham said.

Higginbotham stressed that he doesn’t support gun control advocates using anti-Black sentiment to push their causes, because that can lead to policies that disproportionately impact Black people. But grasping this history is important, he said.

“Understanding how race and racism have long played a role and continue to play a role in politics in this particular policy arena is vital to ensure the policies that are made are equitable, and protecting everyone’s rights,” he said. 

Many laws to keep and bear arms aren’t equally applied to Black and white Americans. For example, the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict and Ahmaud Arbery trial exposed how the Second Amendment is anti-Black, Carol Anderson, chair of African American Studies at Emory University and author of The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, told the Center for Public Integrity last year.

A broader takeaway of both new studies is how closely gun ownership is associated with racial hierarchy. 

“A gun is a thing that doesn’t just protect you, but it protects your place in society,” Buttrick said. 

That means that gun regulation goes beyond regulating a physical object.

“You’re potentially attacking a pretty important part of someone’s identity,” he said. “These things are not just tools, they’re symbolic objects — and the symbolism that is inherent in them may have been there for a very long time.”

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Maya Srikrishnan is a veteran California-based journalist who joined the Center for Public Integrity...