The cause of gun control in the US is lost unless we address the underlying anxiety that makes people feel safer armed

The future of guns in our society may be better understood if we knew more about what they mean to people and why people buy them.

Fear is a major factor for many firearm purchases. Recent trends in gun sales suggest that many citizens are becoming more fearful: Gallup poll data suggest that Americans are more fearful, at near-record high levels, about big government, compared to big business or big labor. This fear overlays the long-term public fear of crime and terrorism.

Reactions to mass killings, particularly the shooting of first-graders at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut, sparked a national debate about gun control. But that, in turn, has heightened fear about government's role in regulating assault weapons, especially popular semi-automatic models like the AK-47 and AR-15 that are bought and sold throughout both the US and the world.

Public reaction to the latest assault weapon massacre is disturbing in view of worldwide trends. Studies show that price increases for semi-automatic assault weapons reflect public moods and fears about social instability. According to author James Barr, in many countries, "The Kalashnikov index is effectively a futures market for violence." More than 80m AK-47s circulate between countries in predictable patterns that are associated with social instability.

The cost of this weapon doubled and tripled in Iraq and Afghanistan just before the US invasions of those countries. Afghan arms merchants are selling the model favored by Osama bin Laden for $2,000, while Syrians are paying more than $2,100. Demand and prices fall only when citizens believe that things are settling down.

The US has around 4m assault rifles – about 1% of the 310m firearms owned by Americans according to estimates from the FBI. It is critical to understand the symbolic meaning of this weapon in the context of recent skyrocketing sales.

Then, there's the United States' gluttonous assault weapons market: ravenous buyers across the country flooded gun stores and gun shows after the Newtown shooting. AR-15s and other assault weapons became more expensive as citizens became anxious about gun control and depleted supplies.

For example, in Kansas City, AR-15s that, a year ago, sold for about $400 have lately been fetching $925, with some assault rifle models selling for $1,500 or more. Large capacity magazines that sold for less than $20 are now fetching $100; in some places, bullets for these weapons are costing as much as $1 apiece. All of this at a time when the economy is bad and people are cutting corners just to get by.

The demand for assault rifles among people who, in many cases, had not previously owned or fired one can be attributed to the popular culture depictions of the weapon in movies, its numerous mentions in national and international news reports, and a paranoid narrative about government control of weapons and losing constitutional freedoms.

My two decades of research and analysis of news reports show that fear has become a staple of popular culture, ranging from fun to dread. This narrative is repeated as "the discourse of fear" – a pervasive communication or symbolic awareness – and with that comes an expectation that danger and risk are a central feature of everyday life.

Weapons in the United States create a paradox that engenders a cycle of fear: the more firearms are widely available and are used in crimes and incidents of mass-killing, the more media reports there are about gun crime, and that, in turn, leads people to buy more weapons like the AR-15. They do so not only to feel safe, but also to choose a side.

Owning a gun, especially a contested weapon, makes us direct participants in the battle. One gun industry analyst has observed that gun sales speak to the fact "that there are a lot of young men in the US who will never be in the military but feel that male compulsion to warriorhood."

The Friday after President Obama's first election was the largest ever day for gun sales. Much the same occurred four years later, when the volume of gun sales crashed the NICS (buyer identification system) twice upon his re-election. The FBI processing of nearly 2.8m background checks made November 2012 – the month of the presidential election – gunsellers' busiest month.

It is hardly news that the US is politically divided, but the empirical evidence of escalating stockpiling of semi-automatic weapons also suggests that the US is less socially stable. It is hard to see how this frenzy of fear that is driving a spike of emotional intensity over gun ownership will dissipate any time soon. © Guardian News and Media 2013