Americans who own handguns for self-protection tend to be motivated by not only a fear of crime, but a general feeling that the world is an unpredictable and dangerous place, according to a new study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
In terms of human behavior, “it is not just concrete, specific threats that change our behavior, but also vague, general ideas about threat,” say the authors.
“Even if we cannot pinpoint exactly why we feel threatened, the fact that we are threatened at all can lead us to want to own handguns for self-protection and advocate for more expansive rights to carry and use them.”
The study authors, Wolfgang Stroebe and Pontus Leander (University of Groningen, the Netherlands) and Arie W. Kruglanski (University of Maryland), developed a new theory based on psychological principles, to better understand how these behaviors and beliefs influence American gun owners.
The researchers conducted three studies to explore their model for understanding gun ownership beliefs. They surveyed 839 men in the United States: 404 gun owners and 435 non-owners.
In the first study, the researchers used survey data to compare gun owners with non-owners to determine potential differences in their gun-related beliefs. In the other two studies, they focused on the gun owner survey only to test their theory predictions.
In support of their theory, they found that fear of crime alone did not explain the need for personal protection.
“Different forces are making people feel threatened in different ways, and yet these different types of threat both correlate with increased handgun ownership and stronger beliefs that people have a right to kill in self-defense,” said Stroebe.
Whereas fear of crime was primarily influenced by past crime victimization, having a more general sense of threat about the world being a dangerous place, was “instead more strongly influenced by a person’s (conservative) political beliefs than by past experience with crime victimization.”
The first three surveys were conducted in May and June 2016, before the Orlando Nightclub shootings. An additional survey was conducted a week after the event, replicating their earlier studies with a new group of male gun owners, to see if the mass shooting influenced their beliefs.
“We expected the Orlando mass shooting to move the needle on the belief systems of gun owners, so we were surprised that there was practically no effect,” says Stroebe.
The researchers note that the threat and belief system they tested mainly applies to handgun owners and not owners who only have long guns.
“Long guns such as bolt-action rifles, semi-automatic rifles, and shotguns, are linked to hunting and not really linked to a sense of threat,” says Stroebe.
“Although the gun owners in our sample owned an average of four guns each, we saw no evidence that any of our findings apply to owners of long guns only — that is, those who do not own a handgun.”
The framework presumably only applies to the U.S.
“Guns have been part of US history since the American frontier and the right to own a gun is enshrined in the Constitution, which may change the way Americans think about guns relative to people who live in other countries and cultures,” says Stroebe.