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A researcher explains how racial resentment drives opposition to gun control

Why do so many white Americans seem to love guns so much?

Whether it's higher levels of gun ownership or opposition to stricter gun laws, white Americans generally tend to be more pro-gun than not, especially in comparison to other racial and ethnic groups.

A recent study, published in the journal Political Behavior in November, provides a potential answer: racial resentment. Looking at survey data going back to the 1990s, researchers found a strong correlation between opposition to gun control and levels of racial resentment.

But the results only found a correlation, so the researchers dug deeper. They asked nearly 1,200 white participants a series of questions online about gun laws. But one half of the group first looked at pictures of white and black people from an implicit association test — to make them think about race — while the other half did not.

The researchers found that white participants who were primed by the pictures were more likely to oppose gun control than white participants who didn't see the images. What's more, primed participants who reported higher levels of racial resentment were even more likely to oppose gun control than primed participants who reported lower levels of racial resentment.

The researchers concluded that there is likely some sort of causal connection between racial resentment and opposition to gun control.

Alexandra Filindra, one of the authors of the study, said the results suggest that guns are seen as a symbolic way for white Americans to declare their racial identity. She references the idea of the white citizen soldier, who stood up to the British in the Revolutionary War and is ready to stand up to perceived tyranny again today — something we've seen in the past several years with the rise of militia groups.

The research in this area is still early, so it will need more investigation in the future to know just how strong of a connection this is. Filindra also cautions that this is only one factor among many for why people support or oppose gun control. And she said the results don't mean that every gun owner is a racist or that every racist is a gun owner.

But the results provide a provocative explanation for a modern political trend about guns. So I reached out to Filindra to walk me through her research. Our conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.

The longstanding connection between race and guns

gun owner Shutterstock

German Lopez: Why did you decide to look at the connection between race and gun policy?

Alexandra Filindra: The question behind the research: What explains the fact that today and over several decades now, white Americans are far more likely to oppose gun control than anybody else in the country?

People tend to associate guns with protection. Except if you look at it from a racial standpoint, this doesn't, as a self-interested argument for opposition to gun control, make much sense, because white Americans tend to live in more secure neighborhoods and tend to be more affluent and tend to be less likely by far to be victims of crime. So why is it that people who don't need the extra protection are the ones who want it?

But people who actually do need it from a realistic standpoint — so African Americans and Latinos who live in poor neighborhoods that are far more crime-ridden, where trust in police is low, where response rates by police are lower, where the quality of policing may also be affected — why is it that they're not rushing to get guns and support gun rights?

"The realistic protection argument for why people are attached to guns and support or oppose gun control may not be the answer"

Just from that perspective, it tells us that the realistic protection argument for why people are attached to guns and support or oppose gun control may not be the answer. Certainly, people who own guns are far more likely to oppose gun control for instrumental reasons, because if you want and like your gun, you want to be able to maintain it. But it still doesn't explain the racial discrepancy in these attitudes.

So when you look at it from a certain vantage point, there are many, many reasons why guns would be attached to a racial identity, and this is not a phenomenon that has to do with fear of crime and need for protection. But really, it's that people are expressing something different — they're expressing an identity through guns and gun ownership.

The research suggests guns are a way to assert white identity

A child with an AR-15 rifle. Ryan Houston/Moment/Getty Images

GL: So what did your research find?

AF: First, we analyzed waves and waves of major data sets going back to the 1990s — that's the earliest data we can find questions of racial prejudice and guns asked in the same wave. What we found was that there was a very strong correlational relationship that persists over time between opposition to gun control and racial prejudice.

In the paper, we measure racial prejudice using a specific measure called racial resentment, which is a very prevalent measure in the literature. But since then, we also validated our finding with practically every other measure of racial prejudice that we can find, so this is not a finding of racial prejudice that is specific to this measure.

We've also used different dependent variables and different measures of gun attitudes. The findings hold regardless of how you measure these things. So we're very confident that there's a relationship.

"We're very confident that there's a relationship"

But correlation is not causation. The question is whether prejudice causes these gun attitudes. There may be an omitted variable or something we haven't included in the model other than racial prejudice.

To account for that, we decided to do an experiment online with self-described white participants. We divided the 1,200 people into two groups randomly.

Half the people received three pictures of black people and three pictures of white people from the implicit association test. We asked them to evaluate these pictures in terms of looks and likability, which essentially is a distractor test — it just lets people spend a little bit more time with the pictures and provides a context for assessing the pictures and looking at them, because just having them go through pictures wouldn't make sense.

The other half didn't get the test. They didn't see any pictures whatsoever. They were not primed for race.

What we find is that, on average, the people who saw the pictures [and had race on their mind] were statistically significantly more likely to oppose gun control than the people who did not receive any pictures. Because there was random assignment and this was a controlled experiment, we can basically say that there's a causal relationship between racial considerations and attitudes about gun control.

Racial resentment measures a new form of prejudice

GL: What exactly do you mean by racial resentment?

AF: Racial resentment is a measure of what's known as modern racism. Traditionally, old-fashioned racism is the kind of explicit, overt racism that is associated with negative stereotypes, with perceptions that African Americans are biologically inferior to whites, [and] with white supremacy.

What we have found is that since basically the late '60s, the percentage of people who are willing to identify with these types of stereotypical notions of African Americans has declined markedly in surveys.

"We know that racism hasn't gone away because of the evidence we have from discrimination studies"

But that doesn't necessarily mean that racism has gone away. We know that racism hasn't gone away because of the evidence we have from discrimination studies. Really, it's very difficult to measure racism directly in terms of surveys and attitudes, because even if you feel that way, you're very likely not going to tell people.

So what research since the '80s has found is that the way white people express their racial prejudice is by a new language, this language of racial resentment. The language of racial resentment is based not on biology but on values; it basically says that black Americans today don't share the values of individualism, hard work, and the Protestant ethic that white Americans have, and that black people want to get ahead not through hard work but by being dependent on government, and that black people are morally inferior. That's racial resentment.

An Oath Keeper stands watch in Ferguson in November.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

GL: To be clear, you don't think the racial divisions on gun attitudes are about people fearing crime, even black crime?

AF: No, this is not about fear.

What we know so far about fear is that when you're actually afraid of crime, you want more gun control. A number of studies have validated that when your subjective level fear or perception of vulnerability to crime is high … your response is actually to want more gun control rather than less gun control.

This is an identity response, a psychological response, an implicit way of showing moral superiority and of expressing this resentment in a symbolic way that doesn't get you into trouble in a sense. You can maintain a perception for yourself — that you support racial equality — but at the same time show that you're white, your positive feelings toward your white group, and your negative feelings toward African Americans. So it's essentially an expression of in-group identity and out-group bias in a symbolic way.

Opposition to gun control is "essentially an expression of in-group identity and out-group bias in a symbolic way"

It has a very long history. It's intertwined with longstanding patterns and narratives in American history. For example, if you go back to colonial times and the revolutionary times, one of the prominent ideas of the Revolution was the idea of the citizen soldier.

The citizen soldier was a civic republican ideal. Civic republicans like Machiavelli and the Greeks believed in a democratic community in which the dual responsibilities of the citizen were participation in politics — meaning you vote and you run for office — and defending the community. So you couldn't separate one from the other, in their views.

In the American context, this idea of citizen soldier is a profoundly white idea. After all, who was the citizen during revolutionary times? It was a white man, essentially. African Americans were slaves.

For example, there were even colonial laws that said when [white indentured servants] were done with their indentured service, their masters were required to provide them with some compensation and a functioning musket. Why would that be? Well, one interpretation is that this is the symbolic way of the person entering into citizenship.

So guns are very strongly connected in American history and the American imagination with citizenship.

The findings don't mean every gun owner is racist

A gun. In someone's hand. Scott Olson/Getty Images

GL: So guns turned into a symbol of white citizenship for a lot of people.

AF: Right.

But it's not for everyone. We're not saying that anyone who owns guns is prejudiced, or that anyone who is prejudiced owns guns or wants to own guns. But there is a strong association — one of the key drivers in this debate over gun control is the issue of prejudice and an understanding of white identity that is associated with a specific, militarized understanding of citizenship.

"We're not saying that anyone who owns guns is prejudiced"

GL: What do you hope to follow up on this research with?

AF: We're actually writing a book on this. We're seeking to tie this more to historical trends — to the history of Reconstruction, the American Revolution, the civil rights movement. So we're going back and trying to tie this to longstanding patterns in US history.

We're also looking at crime more deeply, and racial violence, particularly with recent events like the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore. There is a good theory out there that in the context of social unrest, white support for gun control may increase rather than decrease. Intuitively, that may make sense, and be consistent with the idea that white opposition to gun control has increased because social violence in the past two decades has decreased significantly.

So there are complicated factors about how intergroup relations actually play into this. It's multifaceted; how people respond depends on the racial factors in multiple ways. It is not so simple or clean-cut; it depends on other racial concerns.