If black presidential candidate Barack Obama in April 2008 earned the undying enmity of many white, working-class folks with his comment about economic bitterness causing many to “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them,” Baylor University sociology professors F. Carson Mencken and Paul Froese have just accented the profile of some of these same folks.
But if the researchers seem to target a familiar segment of the gun crowd in their study “Gun Culture in Action,” the ammo comes from the subjects themselves. The profile of white, aging, conservative gun owners who feel emboldened by firepower when so much else in a changing society leaves them feeling culturally and politically adrift comes from a national Gallup survey of 1,572 respondents in 2014.
There’s even an eerie religious slant to the profile compiled, one that suggests gun worship among some but clearly not all gun owners. It finds that, yes, many gun owners attend church more often than other folks “and report greater levels of religiosity.” No surprise there. But those gun owners who find great empowerment in the very symbol of the gun “are low on religious participation, such as worship attendance.”
And, again, this comes from surveys of gun owners. As Froese stressed to me, “I think maybe some people lose that in the translation, as if we’re comparing gun owners to non-gun owners. But, no, we’re not. Within this population of gun owners, we have many people who are like, ‘Yeah, I got a gun, but it’s not the source of anything central in life for me.’ But the final point of our paper is that for people who are very strong in their attachment to guns, it means something. It means they have very different views of gun policy and tend to have different views of the government.” This includes the belief that patriotism may require “insurrectionism” — taking up arms against the government.
Where gun owners more balanced in their view of weaponry, public safety and the Second Amendment might well join most Americans in pushing for common-sense gun control, gun owners with unusually strong attachments to their guns see such measures as, to quote Froese, “an attack on their masculinity, independence and moral identity.” Put another way, the gun makes the man, rendering survival possible in a devolving and often unfriendly world and bolstering self-esteem.
The Baylor analysis is the latest research not only on America’s gun culture but Americans dismayed by an economy that no longer favors them, particularly amid shifting demographics. To quote sociologist Michael Kimmel’s 2013 study, “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era,” some of these men “form the backbone of the tea party, of the listeners of outrage radio, of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists.”
“Groups that are historically disenfranchised — and in the United States that would be women and non-whites — when they suffer economic problems, they have developed over time ways of coping with this,” Froese said. “Or at least ways of expecting things to turn out poorly for them. With white men, there is this kind of expectation that if you work hard and you’re a good guy, things should come your way. And when we have a change in the economy, a change in the culture, where the same advantages are no longer granted to white men, that’s seen as a terrible, upsetting and unexpected consequence. There are a number of studies that show that whites — especially white men — who experience economic problems have severe mental-health problems and physical-health problems that aren’t replicated in non-white groups.”
The consensus on last weekend’s record number of gun checks reflecting huge gun sales is not so alarming as the spike in gun sales after election of the nation’s first black president. And even the NRA, which has often driven gun advocates into a frenzy over gun control and has encouraged this man’s-man-with-a-gun imagery, is behind Republican Sen. John Cornyn’s bill to strengthen our nation’s background-check system, the lawmaker told me Thursday. Prompted by shooting massacres in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, this worthy bill may go to the floor for a vote as early as this week. But the Mencken-Froese study and others make clear that merely strengthening background checks for gun ownership and dismissing mass shootings as the result of evil in some men’s hearts ignore a festering societal breakdown.