Historical rates of enslavement predict modern rates of American gun ownership, study shows

The higher percentage of enslaved people that a U.S. county counted among its residents in 1860, the more guns its residents have in the present, according to a new analysis by researchers exploring why Americans’ feelings about guns differ so much from people around the globe.

More than 45% of the world’s civilian-owned firearms are in the United States, where just 5 percent of the world’s people live. This disparity may have something to do with the way the majority of American gun owners view gun ownership.

“Gun culture is one case where American Exceptionalism really is true,” says Nick Buttrick, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of psychology. “We are really radically different even from countries like Canada or Australia, places that have similar cultural roots.”

Pew Research Center surveys show two-thirds of Americans who own guns say it’s a way to keep themselves safe, while in other countries, people are more likely believe the presence of a gun adds risk and danger to their lives, considering, for example, the far higher rates of homicide and suicide in households with guns. Gun culture scholars have also explored the role of race in American gun attitudes for some time, Buttrick says, and the two may be linked.

In a study published recently in the journal PNAS Nexus, Buttrick and co-author Jessica Mazen, a psychology graduate student at the University of Virginia, describe a shift in sentiment away from the predominant, pre-Civil War idea of guns as tools for hunting and sport. In the post-Civil War South, the belief that a gun was necessary to protect family, property and a way of life grew prominent among white southerners. This was driven by a flood of surplus military weapons, the rise of armed, white-supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, and elite rhetoric that Reconstruction governments would not protect the interests of white southerners from newly freed and politically-empowered Black people.

The researchers compared county-level population data from the 1860 census to gun ownership patterns in the present. Because there is no national record of gun ownership, the study uses a widely accepted proxy — the proportion of suicides in a county that involved a firearm, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mortality records from 1999 to 2016.

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