Ph.D. Spotlight: Reshaping the Gun Debate: Race, Gender, and Firearms

The United States (U.S.) has a robust gun culture centered on the Constitutional right of law-abiding citizens to legally own and use firearms. Overall 30% of Americans own a gun and approximately another 11% of Americans live with someone who does. There are more guns than ever in private citizens’ hands – gun ownership has increased 38% since 1994 and handgun ownership, specifically, has increased 71% over that same period of time. A 2011 report published suggests that despite having only 5% of the world’s total population, civilians in the U.S. own approximately 31% of the world’s 875 million guns. In order to protect and expand their rights, many of these gun owners have organized themselves into pro-gun lobbying groups, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The place of firearms in society has become a major point of discussion for Americans. These debates often revolve around ideas of safety and crime prevention, with many Americans disagreeing over possible solutions to the increasing number of deaths and injuries related to firearms in the U.S. In the past decade alone, more than one million Americans have been shot and many more have witnessed gun violence firsthand. From 2014 to 2017, gun deaths in the U.S. increased by 16%, with 2017 having the highest number of gun deaths in 40 years.

Despite evidence of a robust gun culture in the U.S., research related to firearms is sparse. Until very recently, Congress has prevented the federal funding of firearm research through the inclusion of an annual omnibus spending rider, known as the Dickey Amendment. Originally added in 1996, the Dickey Amendment arose in response to researchers framing gun violence as a public health issue. The provision stated that “[n]one of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control” and it stripped away the nearly $3 million dollars which had previously been allocated to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to study gun violence. Further, it stipulated that should the CDC fund any research that resulted in firearms being painted in a negative light, the federal government would strip all funding from them. The end result? Very few comprehensive studies on firearm culture exist.

This lack of scholarship is particularly noteworthy given evidence that the U.S. is unique in its strong cultural association of guns with individual identity and national values. When sociology has examined firearms, most research has focused on two aspects of gun culture: the demographics of gun owners, such as political ideology, and the role that conservative religious ideology plays in gun ownership and gun policy support. Only recently have sociologists explored other outcomes related to firearm ownership in the U.S., such as fear, sleep disturbance, and happiness.

This dissertation expands our understanding of firearms by focusing on two fundamental aspects of structural inequality, namely attitudes about race and gender. Racial and gender sentiments have been shown to be associated with attitudes about policies concerning health care, welfare, and taxation. Internalized beliefs of race and gender could potentially influence one’s decision to own a gun as well as support for policies related to firearms. Understanding the role of racial and gender attitudes is the next logical extension of the literature on firearms. Exploring the influence of beliefs about race and gender is particularly important given that subordinate groups are at a higher risk for gun violence. Additional, evidence suggests that some gun policies, such as arming teachers or expanding concealed carry, may have disproportionally negative health consequences for racial and gender minorities.

This dissertation seeks to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the role of racial attitudes in the gun policy preferences of white Americans?

2. Do the racial attitudes of white Americans operate differently for specific gun policies?

3. Do traditional beliefs about gender roles influence gun ownership?

4. Does the impact of gender role attitudes on gun policy beliefs vary by gender?

5. Do these gendered beliefs operate differently for specific gun policies?

Chapter 1 of this dissertation explores how race and gender are associated with attitudes about guns and gun policy. In Chapter 2, I examine the role that implicit bias has in the decision of white Americans to support or oppose gun control. In Chapter 3, I look at how the belief in traditional gender roles influences one’s decision to own a gun and their attitudes on gun policy. Chapter 4 summarizes the importance of this research and notes future research opportunities.

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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