Op-Ed: Why Former Slave States Became the Basis of American Gun Culture

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There are plenty of guns in America – this nation collectively has more civilian-owned guns than we have citizens. Unlike the rest of the developed world, gun ownership in America is widely held, with approximately 40% of American households owning at least one gun; and unlike the rest of the world, Americans who own guns tend to view their guns not as something dangerous, but as something that protects them and their families.

Two-thirds of US gun owners say they own their gun at least in part for self-protection – despite data showing that having a gun in the home doubles the likelihood of someone in the household dying per homicide, triples the likelihood that someone in the household will die by suicide and offers little or no defense against assault or loss of property.

Where does this unique set of beliefs about the protective power of a firearm come from?

Americans didn’t always feel this way: Historians suggest that for much of this country’s existence, firearms were more often seen as tools for hunting and pest control, for a purpose that doesn’t was not primarily to protect a household. Firearms, when advertised, were often displayed on the same pages as household items such as farm tools, with similar language promoting both.

It is only relatively recently that Americans have come to widely believe that firearms keep a person safe. My research with Jessica Mazen suggests that the crystallization and spread of these beliefs occurred largely in former slave states in the aftermath of the Civil War.

The South was a very dangerous place after the war. More than half a million men, with their weapons, returned to what quickly became one of the most heavily armed societies in the world and one of the most violent: the murder rate in the South in during the 1870s was about 18 times higher than in New England – largely driven by white men killing each other.

The post-war period was shaped by the efforts of the Reconstruction administration to extend political power to those who had been enfranchised and the backlash against this attempt. Elite white Southerners saw the empowerment of the previously enslaved population as an existential threat and worked to suppress black political power as completely as possible.

As part of this project, southern white leaders explicitly anchored the protection of their way of life in private gun ownership, arguing that guns protected white people from an illegitimate government unwilling to ensure their safety. The war’s enormous supply of guns made this argument salient.

Using 1860 census data, nationally representative survey data from more than 3.5 million Americans, and records of every death in the United States from 1996 to 2016, we found that more the higher the rate of slavery in a county in 1860—that is, where black political power was more threatening to post-Civil War white elites—the higher the rate of gun ownership in fire was high today. These are also the counties where daily feelings of danger among citizens best predict gun ownership rates.

In other words, counties with a historical prevalence of slavery had both the most guns and the strongest link between guns and feelings of security. These are the places where contemporary American gun culture has taken root.

Even when we include other possible determinants of gun ownership – such as crime rates, police spending, population density, unemployment rates, income, racial segregation, education levels, state gun laws, and political voting habits – we have consistently found that historical rates of slavery predict gun ownership. It was about as good a predictor as the percentage of the county voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

Of course, gun ownership is also widespread outside former slave states – and is also associated with the idea that guns provide household security. How did these beliefs migrate out of the South?

We found that they relied on the mobility that America was historically known for. Americans tend to move around a lot, and as they move, they bring their culture with them. We can see the effects of these moves in Facebook friendship patterns across the country; counties outside the south that are most socially tied to counties with high rates of historical slavery have higher rates of gun ownership. These counties also have a stronger connection between people who feel unsafe and people who own guns. Ideas about owning protective firearms are transmitted socially and dispersed across the country with the population.

Something as complex as America’s relationship with guns cannot be boiled down to a single cause. More contemporary factors – such as the decline of American hunting culture and the pivot of gun manufacturers from advertising shotguns to promoting handguns and assault rifles, modifications federal and state gun laws and political polarization around gun ownership – also play a major role.

Nevertheless, the effort of white Southerners to regain power in the aftermath of the Civil War was the context for the development of the idea that firearms are necessary for personal protection. This conceptual framework is evidenced in the geographic distribution of firearms and beliefs about them today. And that may help explain how Americans think about guns in this country: who guns are “meant” for and against whom they should be used.

Nick Buttrick is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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