Racism plays limited role in patterns of gun ownership, study reveals

LAWRENCE — Few subjects are more emblematic of the division in American society than race and gun control.

Margaret Kelly
Margaret Kelley

Margaret Kelley, professor of American studies at the University of Kansas, examines the complex and often counterintuitive relationship between the two in a new paper titled “Cognitive and Apathetic Racism in Patterns of Gun Ownership and Gun Control Attitudes.” The results suggest that racism, including fear of other races, is not associated with gun ownership. However, cognitive and apathetic indicators of racism influence gun control attitudes for at least some white individuals.

The research appears in Sociological Inquiry.

“The connections between racism, racial attitudes, gun ownership and gun control policies are complicated,” Kelley said. “Historically, gun ownership has been racialized and largely restricted to white men. Protection from other people is a major reason for gun ownership, especially handguns. Crime has been racialized, such that many whites perceive crime to be likely to be committed by people of color.”

Given these issues, among others, she said racial attitudes may influence viewpoints about rights to carry weapons in public along with restrictions on controlling access to them.

Co-written with Amie Nielsen and Oshea Johnson of the University of Miami and Christopher Ellison and Bryan Gervais of the University of Texas at San Antonio, this research utilizes data gathered from Kelley and Ellison’s Guns in American Life Survey of 2018. This Qualtrics-run survey featuring input from more than 3,000 respondents explores numerous considerations that shape experiences and stances concerning firearms.

Kelley said that most guns are owned by everyday, average people and used for normal, lawful purposes. Very few guns have ever been involved in criminal activity (and only a small percentage will ever be linked to accidents, suicides or other forms of “gun violence”). Additionally, as noted in her survey, gun ownership in the U.S. is extremely common — at least 40% of households and 30% of adults own some type of firearm.

“Lots of people own guns, and some people own lots of guns,” she said. 

“In our data, any initial association between racism and gun ownership is accounted for by other factors — quite possibly political ideology plays a role here, although identifying the precise reasons for the disappearance of significant racism effects in our gun ownership models would require additional investigation.”

One of the contributions of this research is her team’s use of novel measures of racism. Some of the more conventional measures, particularly the standard racial resentment index, are subject to numerous criticisms. But this new approach assesses racism, especially with the cognitive and apathetic racism measures, and goes beyond simply considering perceptions of racial bias. (Cognitive racism is the awareness of racism or lack thereof, while apathetic racism is a lack of empathy toward the issue.)

Kelley also notes that racism has long been associated with other issues potentially linked to crime, including attitudes toward capital punishment and views about police use of force. 

“Although white men have generally been the primary gun owners in the U.S., this pattern has been changing, and that change has accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic. More women and more minorities have joined the ranks of gun owners than ever before,” she said.

Are racists more likely to be gun owners? Or, conversely, are gun owners more likely to be racists? 

“Contrary to some other scholars, our research showed that white people who hold racist attitudes are no more likely than those who do not to own guns,” Kelley said.

“We did not examine the question of ‘Are gun owners more likely than non-owners to be racist?’ What we did investigate is whether people who do hold more negative racial attitudes are more likely to oppose gun controls and to support concealed carry policies. We found support for this, including among both gun owners and non-owners.”

Overall, Kelley believes her study is a reflection of the diversity of viewpoints of all Americans toward race, regardless of whether they own guns.

“Unfortunately, many Americans — including those who do not own guns — hold negative racial attitudes. We do not claim that gun owners are more racist than others. Racial attitudes are one of many issues that are related to Americans’ attitudes toward gun control policies,” she said.

These play a role, but they explain only a small percentage of the variation in gun-related attitudes.

“Acknowledging and working toward understanding the implications of racism for various types of attitudes and behaviors in our society is important,” she said, “and our work in this paper is simply one step toward that broader goal.”

Mon, 02/19/2024


Jon Niccum

Media Contacts

Jon Niccum

KU News Service