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How gun ownership became a powerful political identity

Or, how the NRA won.

A model walks the runway during the NRA Concealed Carry Fashion Show on August 25, 2017 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
A model walks the runway during the NRA Concealed Carry Fashion Show in 2017, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

In the wake of the Buffalo and Uvalde massacres, we need to talk about identity politics: both white identity politics, and the identity politics of gun owners.

Ideological white nationalism appears to have been a key motivation in the Buffalo attack. And in the wake of the attack, gun owner identity politics is likely to spur fierce resistance to any additional gun control measures.

To some extent, this is already happening. “Inevitably when there’s a murder of this kind, you see politicians try to politicize it, you see Democrats and a lot of folks in the media whose immediate solution is to try to restrict the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” Sen. Ted Cruz, whose constituents were murdered in Uvalde, told reporters shortly after the shooting.

The way the responses to the gun massacres over the past week and a half played out was about something deeper: the development of gun ownership into a powerful political identity, one that shapes national politics, even presidential politics, in a profound way.

How gun ownership drives votes

Gun ownership has not always had such a clear partisan tilt. Indeed, gun control was once embraced by right-wing racists as a tool to disempower Black Americans.

“Few people realize it, but the Ku Klux Klan began as a gun control organization,” UCLA law professor Adam Winkler writes in Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. “After the Civil War, the Klan and other violent racist groups sought to reaffirm white supremacy, which required confiscating the guns blacks had obtained for the first time during the conflict.” He notes that a century later, in the 1960s, politicians turned to gun control measures to “disarm politically radical urban blacks, like the Black Panthers.”

Over the course of the past four decades, though, gun ownership has firmly sorted along party lines. In a 2017 paper, University of Kansas political scientists Mark Joslyn, Don Haider-Markel, Michael Baggs, and Andrew Bilbo found that the correlation between owning a gun and presidential vote choice increased markedly from 1972 to 2012.

Gun owner and non-owner voting Javier Zarracina/Vox; data via Joslyn, Haider-Markel, Baggs, and Bilbo, 2017

In 1972, about 66 percent of gun owners voted for Richard Nixon, compared to 55 percent of non-gun owners, for a gap of 11 percentage points.

In 2012, 56 percent of gun owners voted for Mitt Romney, compared to 26 percent of non-gun owners. The gap was 30 percent, almost triple what it was in 1972. Joslyn and Haider-Markel updated their study in 2017, and found that the gap in 2016 wasn’t quite as large as in 2012 — 62 percent of gun owners and 38 percent of non-owners voted for Trump — but it did remain significant and far larger than in the 1970s and ’80s.

Indeed, a SurveyMonkey poll found that in 2016, Trump won gun owners in every single state except Vermont, and lost non-gun owners in every state but West Virginia and Wyoming.

More recently, in 2021, the Pew Research Center found that self-identified Republicans were much likelier (54 percent) to report having a gun than self-identified Democrats (31 percent).

Joslyn (who’s expanded his work into a book, The Gun Gap) and coauthors find that even after you control for gender, race, education, age, rural/urban status, and even party affiliation, gun ownership still correlates strongly with presidential vote choice. Indeed, they find that in their regressions, it “exerts a greater influence on likelihood of voting Republican than gender, education, or rural residence, and rivals age.”

These regressions can’t prove causality — that is, they can’t prove that gun ownership causes people to vote Republican. But they do show that the phenomenon we’re seeing isn’t just an effect of which racial groups or genders are likely to own guns.

Gun ownership on its own appears to matter. Democrats who own guns are likelier to vote for Republican presidential candidates than Democrats who don’t; Black Americans who own guns are likelier to vote Republican than Black Americans who don’t; women who own guns are likelier to vote Republican than women who don’t, and on and on and on.

How gun owners became part of the conservative coalition

Matthew Lacombe, a political science professor at Barnard College, has spent years trying to figure out how gun ownership, and NRA membership specifically, became such a potent political identity.

As part of his PhD dissertation research at Northwestern University, excerpted in a Journal of Politics article, he combed through 79 years of back issues of American Rifleman, the NRA’s flagship publication, from 1930 to 2008, reviewing some 422 staff editorials on political, gun control-related topics. He also analyzed more than 3,200 letters to the editor about gun issues in the New York Times, the Arizona Republic, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Chicago Tribune over the same period.

The NRA’s editorials, he found, were filled with language meant to cultivate a clear political identity for gun owners rather than argue policy issues on the technical merits. And the specific identity the NRA sought to build, based in American traditions of self-reliance, rugged individualism, and the like, was designed to fit well with American conservatism.

“Rather than confronting a situation where the gun owner identity is potentially in conflict with the partisan identities of gun owners, they seem to fit together really well. I think that’s no coincidence,” Lacombe told me in a 2018 interview. “The NRA has been pushing characteristics we now associate with conservatism for a long time, which is why it was so well positioned to become an important part of the Republican Party coalition.”

This isn’t a recent phenomenon, or even one that began in the 1960s and ’70s. “The identity existed, I would argue, all the way back in the 1930s, when the first federal attempts on gun control were made,” Lacombe said. Even then, the group was mobilizing members to call Congress and try to weaken or defeat new restrictions, contrary to some narratives of the group as largely nonpartisan up until 40 to 50 years ago.

American political parties haven’t always sorted ideologically; for decades, even into the 1970s and ’80s, there were quite liberal Republicans (like Charles Mathis or John Chafee) and very conservative Democrats (like Jim Eastland or Larry McDonald) in Congress. But as conservatism became the clear province of the Republican Party over the past four decades, gun owners became a central part of the Republican coalition, creating the trends in gun owner voting that Joslyn and his team found.

This grounding of gun owners’ conservative politics in a deep social identity helps make them a potent base of political support for the NRA and other opponents of gun control. Gun owners are much likelier to report having contacted an elected official about the issue or donated to a pro-gun organization than are non-owners who support gun control.

They’re also likelier to identify themselves as single-issue voters than gun control opponents are, and Republican gun owners are likelier to say their gun owner identity is important to them than Democratic gun owners. Duke political scientist Kristin Goss has documented a clear organizational gap on the issue, with gun control opponents lacking the organizational heft and capacity of supporters.

Work by Joslyn and the political science team at Kansas confirms the existence of this participation gap. “Gun owners are more likely to vote than non-gun owners, both for presidential candidates and down-the-ballot races,” Joslyn told me in 2018. “They are also more likely to engage in other campaign-related activities. On gun issues specifically, gun owners are more active, willing to contribute to gun-friendly candidates, contact public officials about gun policies, sign petitions, etc.”

Lacombe notes that some of the participation gap could be caused by the nonpolitical functions of the NRA. “More than a million people annually participate in NRA programs, which provide real services and experiences for people who enjoy firearms,” he told me, referencing the group’s firearms trainings, shooting ranges, and other events. “Once they’re there, they’re exposed to the NRA’s really politically charged, identity-based appeals. That gives them an advantage a lot of other groups don’t have.”

The cultural attitudes that drive the gun debate

The conservative themes that Lacombe alluded to in the gun debate — an individualist spirit, paired with a respect for traditional family values — can be broken down in a couple of ways.

First, there is a divide between an individualist attitude, which places a premium on individual autonomy, and a communitarian attitude, in which the community or nation is in this together and sometimes needs to make individual sacrifices for the greater good.

Second, there’s a divide between a hierarchical worldview, where traditional practices and distinctions between genders, ages, social groups, etc. are viewed as important and justified, and an egalitarian worldview that views such distinctions as fundamentally arbitrary.

Donald Braman, a professor at George Washington University law school who holds a PhD in anthropology, has, with his Yale colleague Dan Kahan, examined the gun debate through these cultural divisions, using an approach known as the “cultural theory of risk.” Pioneered by the late anthropologist Mary Douglas, the theory holds that people’s cultural environments, particularly the groups of which they’re members, help determine what people view as significant risks: Is the more significant threat “insufficient control of concealed weapons, leaving citizens vulnerable to deliberate or accidental shootings”? Or is it “excessive control, leaving citizens unable to defend themselves from attackers”?

This perception, in turn, colors how people interpret empirical evidence and form conclusions about policy.

Gun ownership is a particularly powerful identity, even starting as early as childhood. “We found that growing up in a household where firearms were present and having a firearm in the home was a strong determinant of how dangerous people thought firearms were,” with people growing up with guns perceiving them to be less dangerous, says Braman. Childhood exposure to guns is also a strong determinant of whether people keep firearms to this day.

And gun control advocates’ views are also, in significant measure, culturally and identity-determined.

For this group, “guns connote … the perpetuation of illicit social hierarchies, the elevation of force over reason, and the expression of collective indifference to the wellbeing of strangers,” Braman and Kahan write. “These individuals instinctively support gun control as a means of repudiating these significations and of promoting an alternative vision of the good society that features equality, social solidarity, and civilized nonaggression.”

Using evidence from the General Social Survey, Kahan and Braman found that respondents’ expression of certain cultural values — support for societal hierarchy versus egalitarian views, support for individualism versus communitarianism — had a strong effect on their opinion regarding gun control.

People with more hierarchical but simultaneously individualistic worldviews are less likely to support gun control, and people of a communitarian, egalitarian bent are more likely. “With the exception of gender, no other characteristic comes close to the explanatory power of cultural orientations,” they write. “Cultural orientations have an impact on gun control attitudes that is over three times larger than being Catholic, over two times larger than fear of crime, and nearly four times larger than residing in the West.”

That leads Kahan and Braman to urge that advocates in the gun debate focus less, when trying to persuade others, on the consequences of given gun policies, since empirical evidence on these policies is filtered through these cultural lenses. “Moderate citizens must openly attend not just to the consequences that gun control laws promote but to the cultural values they express,” Braman and Kahan write.

Is there any way out?

The NRA and the anti-gun control lobby have a number of advantages, most of which, contrary to popular belief, don’t have much to do with an ability to buy off politicians with campaign contributions.

They have an extensive network of events that bring people together into actual, real-life social networks, built on fun activities like going to a shooting range rather than an explicitly political end. Grassroots gun rights supporters have remarkable discipline about contacting politicians.

Lacombe looked through letters and phone calls to the White House about guns over the years, and found that while pro-gun control letters and calls spike after mass shootings, there’s a constant stream of anti-gun control contacts from gun owners, which easily matches and outpaces the calls for stricter regulation.

But this state of affairs isn’t necessarily permanent. For one thing, gun ownership has been on a long-term decline, in part because of the urbanization and suburbanization of American society, and while the pandemic appears to have at least temporarily reversed that trend, far fewer US households report owning guns than did decades ago.

“Many of the characteristics and cultural practices of gun owners have been challenged or threatened because hunting is very hard to do if you don’t have wilderness to go hunting in,” Braman told me in 2018. “There have been shooting ranges and those types of things, but they tend not to be as common as hunting used to be. … We also have a smaller portion of the population involved in the military and law enforcement, so those populations are also not as prominent.”

And while there is no easy-to-build gun control equivalent of the rifle clubs that the NRA uses as its base of support, Lacombe stresses that similar organizing might be possible among supporters of increased regulation. “The gun control side can never have its own version of rifle clubs, but that doesn’t mean it can’t engage in identity building,” he said.

Arguably, this happened in the wake of the 2018 Parkland shooting, with high school students becoming a mobilized group in their own right, a group that, like the NRA, has nonpolitical activities and physical spaces it can use for networking and organizing. It remains to be seen if a similar movement will crop up after Buffalo and Uvalde.

It’s definitely an approach that could help gun control advocates succeed. But it would also intensify polarization around the issue, especially if it challenges gun owners by implying that the gun enthusiast part of their identity is incompatible with parenting.

What no one seems to know is how to make the debate less about identity and more about evidence — or if such a move is even possible. It might be that the most we can hope for is an ever-escalating clash of identities that somehow results, against all odds, in sensible policy.

Update, May 25, 2022, 1:30 pm: This story has been updated to include new research and responses to the Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, mass shootings.

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