Here’s why so many Americans want to own guns — according to science
Yet another mass shooting in the US , but the heated and divided nature of the debate means that a fundamental question is often overlooked; why is it people actively want guns in the first place? The answers are not as obvious as you may think
Once again, we’ve had yet another mass shooting in the US . That the previous sentence can even be written in a serious manner is a bleak summary of the situation. Even President Obama has clearly lost patience with the regularity of such horrific occurrences.
Those opposed to gun control regularly cite the second amendment , granting US citizens the right to bear arms. But having the right to do something doesn’t make it mandatory. I have the right to smear myself in peanut butter and dance naked through my kitchen. But I don’t, because I have no interest in doing so. So why do millions of ordinary people see weapons that use controlled explosives to propel bits of metal at lethal speeds at people, and think “I need that in my house”.
Basically, why do so many want guns?
Given the diversity of gun owners, there isn’t going to be any comprehensive or obvious answer. However, there are a few scientific explanations that could help understand how this comes about.
Despite the preconceptions of many, according to a Gallup poll from 2005 , the most common reason given for gun ownership is protection. Just like large dogs or security lights, guns are something people have to ensure their safety from intruders.
Some might argue this is a cop-out, something gun owners say to seem moral and credible, and maybe sometimes that’s fair. However, it’s also the most common answer given by juvenile offenders incarcerated for gun-related crimes . If you’re already in jail for gun crimes, it should be obvious why you wanted a gun, but still the most common answer among such people is “protection”.
This may seem excessively paranoid to those of us in countries where guns aren’t so familiar, but in the US at least they’re much more commonplace . I remember being struck by this on my one visit there. Even the guy supervising a car park had a gun. Why? How often does a Chrysler go on a rampage and need to be brought down?
Humans are all about self-preservation and prone to anticipating worst-case scenarios , so if you’re surrounded by people with guns, it would be logical to conclude you need one too. This doesn’t address why guns became so widespread to begin with, but it would explain why this situation persists. And if self-preservation rather than aggression is why you have a gun, you’d undoubtedly be loath to lose it.
Another common answer for why people own guns is recreation. Target shooting and hunting are two popular recreational activities, and whatever you think of them, would explain ownership of guns by a substantial number of people. Sometimes the simple explanation is correct; people enjoy hobbies , and hobbies require equipment.
Paranoia, anger and insecurity
Many gun owners confess to feeling vulnerable or “naked” without their guns . Perhaps this isn’t surprising; having a gun gives you considerable power over people.
If you feel small, or weak, or underachieving, or anything like this, dealing with others can induce a great deal of social anxiety . A gun would provide at least one easy way where you can have the advantage over them for once, even if this reasoning only occurs at a subconscious level.
Achieving high social status is important to your typical human, and guns can play a big role in this in cultures where they’re common . Trouble is, of course, if everyone else has a gun too, then it’s not so useful. So you need more guns, or bigger guns, and on it goes. The fact that it’s more often men who own guns suggests masculinity (toxic or otherwise) plays a part too. And while associating gun ownership with mental health issues is (rightly) considered shameless scapegoating, there is some evidence suggesting gun ownership correlates with tendencies towards anger and impulsivity . It’s reminiscent of how Douglas Adams described people who seek power, in that that those who want it the most are least suitable to have it.
Social and cultural pressures
It’s now common to see people queuing up for days on end to buy the latest iPhone . Sacrificing home comforts and hours/days of their lives, even travelling great distances, purely to buy a device which is slightly different to one they already own. Why?
Clearly there are social and cultural factors that mean owning an up-to-date iPhone is absolutely essential to many people. Why wouldn’t this be true of guns to others? If you grow up and are immersed in a culture where gun ownership is the norm, even praised, of course this is going to influence your attitudes .
Earlier suggestions that gun owners are “making excuses” for having firearms don’t make sense when you consider that, for many, owning a gun is a good thing, something to be praised for. They wouldn’t make excuses if they saw nothing that needed excusing.
Guns being a status symbol or highly-valued accessory, like iPhones and the like, would explain sheer variety of guns available, at least in the US . If guns were purely for home protection, then you’d only need one basic sort, maybe two. But no, gun enthusiasts often end up owning a wide variety of them. Unless they anticipate being besieged by armed mobs (which could be the case), this makes more sense when you assume that guns infer social status in the culture in which someone is immersed, meaning more or better guns provide higher status.
Polarisation can push this even further, beyond any rational limits.
There are many other possible factors that could result in someone wanting a gun, most of which probably aren’t even hinted at here.
Gun ownership is more common amongst those with right—wing views , so a stronger self-interest, authoritarian personality and mistrust of other groups may make a gun feel like more of an essential item.
Modern entertainment is saturated with guns , usually in the context of good guys using them to deal with less desirable sorts. What we see in the media can, within reason, affect our views and behaviour, so if guns are regularly seen being used to save the day, then no doubt this will rub off on some.
Similarly, the making and selling of guns is also a very lucrative industry , so the companies behind it are going to promote the benefits of firearms as often as possible.
And, sadly, you always seem to get the people who acquire guns purely to do harm to others, for whatever warped reasoning motivates them.
This piece isn’t meant to justify gun ownership, it’s just an attempt to look at how it becomes so commonplace, and why so many people defend it in the face of an ever-increasing list of tragedies.
Understanding why people want to own a gun should be essential to better regulate them, because if you just rely on condemnation and blanket criticism of gun owners, they aren’t going to simply agree and hand over their weapons. They’re more likely to double down and become even more adamant that they’re in the right , making gun control ever more difficult.
With an issue so serious, this is the last thing anyone needs.
Dean Burnett attempted to write an objective, neutral article on the issue of gun ownership and has no doubt failed spectacularly. He’s on Twitter, @garwboy
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