Gun Sales, Well-being, and COVID-19

Gun sales have reached record highs since the spring of 2020. Current estimates suggest that 2020’s year-to-date gun sales exceed all of 2019’s sales by one million units (Grant 2020). Even August, which saw the smallest growth in gun sales so far in 2020, had a 57.8% year-over-year increase in gun sales (Grant 2020). Breaking August’s numbers down, we can see that the firearms most commonly associated with self-defense saw the largest year-over-year increases: handgun sales increased by 66% from 2019 to 2020 (Grant 2020). Moreover, guns like the AR-15 and other long rifles also saw large bumps in year-over-year increases (48.4%) (Grant 2020). 

There are two factors that are linked to this surge in gun sales: the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil protests related to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. First, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the U.S. economy to a grinding halt. Many small businesses have been forced to close their doors permanently, and many of the safety measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in the highest number of unemployed individuals in modern history. The result? Many Americans are feeling the pressure of economic precariousness and uncertainty. Research has shown that when Americans, specifically white men, feel economic uncertainty, these Americans seek to restore stability in their lives through gun ownership (Mencken and Froese 2017). 

Second, media portrayals of the BLM movement as violent heighten fears of being victimized. Tucker Carlson has repeatedly stated that “BLM lunatics” are responsible for promoting violence (Klein 2020). Carlson has claimed that BLM is transforming undeserving individuals, like George Floyd, from “criminals into martyrs” in order to destroy the social order (FOX-40 2020). Since many of the media representations of BLM tend to focus on violent demonstrations(i.e., looting or rioting) rather than peaceful protest (Leopold and Bell 2017), Americans who are watching it unfold on their televisions may believe that these portrayals are accurate (Surette 2015). Moreover, these fears aren’t allayed when politicians deliberately stoke division. President Donald Trump has implied that this violence will “invade the suburbs” and “destroy them” (Frias 2020). These types of portrayals increase fears of victimization, which have been linked to gun ownership in the past (Hauser and Kleck 2013). This is because firearms may help their owners feel safer, more secure, and more protected in a world they perceive to potentially be dangerous (Dowd-Arrow, Hill, and Burdette 2019).

Since the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising protests have heightened feelings of instability among many Americans, it makes sense that some individuals would look for an external means of improving their mental well-being. Over the years, gun rights advocates have perpetuated the myth that firearms can improve a person’s overall well-being. Social media outlets, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, are inundated with rhetoric suggesting that firearms can improve sleep, happiness, and overall life satisfaction, while reducing fear and uncertainty. For instance, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has claimed that “individuals sleep better because armed citizens protect them” (Hill et al. 2020a). This statement, which has been misattributed to both George Orwell and Winston Churchill, has appeared on t-shirts and the social media posts of prominent NRA figures, such as Wayne LaPierre and Dana Loesch (Hill et al. 2020a). Moreover, gun owners often justify sleeping with guns next to their beds or under their pillows by claiming that these weapons “comfort” them (Hill et al. 2020a). This has led to the development of certain products (i.e., the “Patriot Pillow” and “The Pillow Safe”) meant to provide easy access to devices of personal protection (Hill et al. 2020a).

We have also seen the promotion of rhetoric suggesting that firearms are a casual factor in happiness, while numerous forums have suggested that individuals can have more satisfying lives through gun ownership (Hill et al. 2020b). Gun lobbyists and manufacturers argue that “money may not be able to buy happiness, but money can buy guns, which is the same thing” (Hill et al. 2020c). Research on gun culture suggests that gun ownership is “exciting,” “exhilarating,” and “cathartic” (Kohn, 2004). It also is common for people to believe that guns are fun and exciting to play with. A 2018 Psychology Today article claimed that “firing a gun releases endorphins—the pleasure hormones—the same ones we experience with sex, with taking certain substances, and with other enjoyable activities” (Garfinkel, 2018). Additionally, some gun owners have claimed that guns are empowering and contribute to a subjective sense of personal control over one’s life. There is a common belief among such individuals that owning guns will make them feel powerful and strong. Guns may be especially stimulating when they are fetishized by their owners or become elements of fantasy. The fetishizing of firearms to create a hero fantasy is prevalent in the social media posts of groups, such as the NRA, which posits that only good guys with guns can stop the bad guys with guns. These types of depictions are especially important since research has shown that these feelings of safety, pleasure, and power contribute to feelings of happiness (Hill et al. 2020c).

Despite these many beliefs and depictions, however, there is little evidence to support the idea that firearms improve the personal well-being of their owners. In fact, most evidence suggests that gun owners are no different from non-gun owners in terms of happiness, sleep quality, and life satisfaction. For instance, research on gun ownership and happiness suggests that marriage explains whether a gun owner is happy – not their firearms (Hill et al. 2020c). Similarly, firearms do not help a person sleep better at night – that is determined by the individual’s beliefs on the safety of their neighborhood (Hill et al. 2020a). Further, recent research has determined that life satisfaction, which is the ultimate measure of well-being, is unrelated to gun ownership (Hill et al. 2020b). There is one aspect of personal well-being that firearms do seem to improve: gun owners exhibit less fear than non-gun owners (Dowd-Arrow et al. 2019). This reduction in fear, however, does not translate into other aspects of well-being. This suggests that while some individuals may express an increase in well-being due to an increased sense of security, this relationship is counterbalanced by some individuals feeling less comfortable because of the risks associated with gun ownership, including increased risks of accidental injuries or deaths or other health-related outcomes. 

Regardless, the persistence of myths suggesting that firearms improve well-being does not seem to be subsiding any time soon. Nor do gun sales, for that matter. 

Dr. Dowd-Arrow is a graduate of Florida State University’s sociology Ph.D. program, and a Visiting Assistant Professor of Public Health at Florida State University. You can learn more about Dr. Dowd-Arrow’s research here.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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