Racially resentful White Americans show reduced support for concealed carry laws when Black Americans are thought to be exercising their legal right to carry guns more than White people, according to new research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
An estimated 7.5 million U.S. adults became new gun owners between January 1, 2019 and April 26, 2021, and Black people accounted for 20% of the first-time purchases. The rise in gun ownership among Black Americans is particularly notable given that, historically, they have been less likely than White Americans to own firearms — in large part because of racist laws, such as the “Black Codes” that emerged after the U.S. Civil War.
The authors behind the current research sought to better understand whether racially resentful attitudes still played a role in promoting opposition to gun rights.
“Growing up in the United States, even more so now, you have to contend with firearms and their general prevalence in our country,” said study author Gerald Higginbotham, a post-doctoral research associate at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.
“But from a research perspective, I became interested in exploring this question using social psychological methods early in graduate school after seeing mainstream gun rights organizations protesting in support of protecting people’s guns from government overreach but who were starkly silent when it came to Black owners’ gun rights (and lives) that were being trampled by the government (e.g., Philando Castile, Jacqueline Dixon, Jemel Roberson).”
“Then going and learning about current Black gun organizations as well as the history of gun control in the United States and its long ties to racism really solidified the need to ask the question, who do White Americans perceive gun rights to be for?”
To examine whether White Americans associate gun rights with their own racial identity, Higginbotham and his co-authors recruited a sample of 100 White Americans (who identified as either Democrat or Republican) and had them complete an implicit association test. Implicit association tests are used to measure the strength of an individual’s automatic association between mental representations in memory.
The test works by measuring the speed at which people are able to pair different words with different groups of people. The faster someone is able to pair positive words with their own group, and negative words with other groups, the more likely it is that they have an implicit bias. The implicit association test has been shown to be a reliable predictor of discriminatory behavior, and it has been used to investigate a wide range of topics, including racial bias, gender bias, and ageism.
The researchers found that participants who scored higher on a measure of racial resentment toward Black Americans were quicker to match photos of White people to gun rights phrases (e.g., self-protection, National Rifle Association) and photos of Black people to gun control phrases (e.g., waiting period, weapons ban, gun free zone).
In other words, participants who agreed with statements such as “If Black people would try harder they could be just as well off as White people” exhibited an implicit bias in which they associated gun rights with White Americans and gun control with Black Americans. The researchers observed a similar pattern of racial bias among those who identified as Republican.
Importantly, 32% of participants reported owning a gun. But controlling for gun ownership did not alter the results.
Next, Higginbotham and his colleagues examined whether White Americans would show reduced support for gun rights if legal gun ownership among Black Americans was highlighted. They used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform to recruit a final sample of 393 White Americans. The participants were randomly assigned to read an article that either reported that Black Americans were obtaining concealed-carry gun permits at a greater rate than White Americans or that White Americans were obtaining concealed-carry gun permits at a greater rate than non-White racial minorities.
The researchers found that racially resentful participants expressed less support for concealed carry permits after reading about Black Americans obtaining them at a greater rate.
Reading about Black Americans obtaining concealed-carry gun permits only appeared to impact the specific gun right that Black people were described as exercising more than White people. It did not appear to impact the extent to which racially resentful White Americans agreed with statements such as “In general, if more people had guns, there would be less crime” and “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”
The findings provide evidence that “racist attitudes play a role in how White Americans think about and support the right to bear arms in the United States,” Higginbotham told PsyPost. “We found that White Americans who expressed high levels of anti-Black sentiment more strongly associated gun rights with White people (and gun control with Black Americans). And, importantly, these White Americans were less supportive of gun rights if Black people are described as legally using them more than White people.”
The researchers replicated their findings in a nationally representative sample of 380 White Americans. Thirty percent of those participants reported owning a gun and 13% reported having a concealed carry permit. As with any study, however, the new findings include some caveats.
“One caveat is the relative nature of our findings, which we outline as a limitation in the research article,” Higginbotham explained. “For example, the implicit association task (IAT) we used in Study 1 inherently measures the relative strength of association between race and gun rights/gun control. We found that racially resentful White participants showed a stronger association of White American with gun rights, but given the relative nature of the IAT paradigm, this also indicates these participants simultaneously showed a stronger association of Black Americans with gun control.”
“This ‘relative’ association leaves open an important question for future research, especially given that the United States is not Black and White, and that is whether people racialize gun rights as ‘for White people’ specifically or as ‘not for Black people’ more generally. An additional question would be whether the patterns we observed in our data are found for other gun policies in addition to concealed carry.”
Higginbotham and his colleagues also emphasized that anti-Black racism should not be used to build support for gun control reforms.
“I hope that this research gets people to more seriously learn about and consider the full history of gun legislation in the United States,” Higginbotham told PsyPost. “I think it’s hard to move forward if we are not all aware of the multiple forces that have led us to our current moment and current psychologies. Learning this history for me, really helped shape my understanding of the long role racism has played in firearms in the United States, even if it is not yet a part of current mainstream discourse.
“In addition, my collaborators and I want to be clear that our results are not intended to suggest racism may be a way to build support for gun control legislation in the current climate of disastrous distressing, and deadly gun violence. Many Black people legally own firearms, go to gun ranges, are members of gun clubs, use guns for their jobs, and value firearms, like any U.S. citizen.”
“I think an attempt to politically weaponize the fact that Black people are lawful gun owners, too, in order to increase some White people’s support for gun control infringes, and dangerously so, upon Black people just trying to live their lives and utilize their rights like any other U.S. citizen,” Higginbotham continued. “But it’s not just dangerous, it is also shortsighted.”
“When thinking about policy in practice, if support for gun control legislation is motivated by anti-Blackness, then does anti-Blackness show up in its intent, its language, its application, for example who it targets? Again, we found that people showed less support only for the specific gun rights that Black people were described as using. This finding may hint that gun regulations garnered by tapping into White Americans’ anti-Blackness may disproportionately target the rights of Black people rather than be focused on meaningfully saving lives.”
The study, “When an Irresistible Prejudice Meets Immovable Politics: Black Legal Gun Ownership Undermines Racially Resentful White Americans’ Gun Rights Advocacy“, was authored by Gerald D. Higginbotham, David O. Sears, and Lauren Goldstein.