Journal of African American Studies

, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 63–73

Race, Fear, and Firearms: The Roles of Demographics and Guilt Assuagement in the Creation of a Political Partition


  • Eric Primm
    • Division of Social SciencesPikeville College
    • Department of SociologyUniversity of Colorado
  • John D. Hewitt
    • Department of Criminal JusticeGrand Valley State University

DOI: 10.1007/s12111-008-9066-1

Cite this article as:
Primm, E., Regoli, R.M. & Hewitt, J.D. J Afr Am St (2009) 13: 63. doi:10.1007/s12111-008-9066-1


The current political debate over guns and gun control is a relatively recent phenomenon going back only 40 to 50 years. To many observers today, the partisan lines drawn on this issue seem perfectly logical and inevitable: just another front on the ideological battlefield between liberals and conservatives. However, few observers seem to critically examine the origins of this particular battlefront and the way these lines were drawn. How and why did those on the political-left become crusaders for “sensible” gun control laws while those on the political right became defenders of the Second Amendment? Our research suggests a combination of factors, including demographic shifts and the historical linking of racial and ethnic minority groups with violent criminal behavior ultimately led to this political division.


Gun controlGun politicsRacism

Few issues in today's political arena are as contentious or elicit as much bitterness and resentment as those surrounding guns and gun control. Proponents of “sensible gun controls” often see and depict their political opponents as knuckle-dragging mouth breathers: wild-eyed, gun toting yahoos who wish to turn our streets and neighborhoods into a modern version of the O.K. Corral in a misguided attempt to prove or reclaim their masculinity. Proponents of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and gun owners' rights will often view and portray their opponents as foppish, effete, elites safely hiding behind the walls of their gated communities, not merely oblivious to the concerns or lives of the “commoners” in the real world, but genuinely malevolent: almost gleefully imposing their political will and warped sense of morality on all who oppose them.

From the perspective of a modern day observer, it may seem as if this political battle is part of the “natural order of things”—two titans locked in mortal combat in a mythic struggle of good versus evil—but this was not always the case. Though this political struggle is rooted in ideological beliefs going back hundreds of years, the particular incarnation of this conflict is a recent phenomenon not fully emerging and taking shape until the 1960s. This paper in not about any particular law, proposed piece of legislation, or policy surrounding the gun control debate, nor is it an attempt to examine the relative merits of one side versus the other. Instead the paper explores and attempts to explain the origins and nature of the debate itself: how and why were the battle lines drawn, and by what processes were sides chosen?

These and other questions have been of particular interest to us over the last several years as concerns surrounding guns and gun rights have gained prominence and affected the political fortunes of players on both the local and national stages (Bruce and Wilcox 1998; Primm et al. 2008). In addition, our interest stems back to the childhood of one of this work's authors and his lifelong attempt to understand and integrate the political and social beliefs learned in his formative years with those from the larger (national) political arena.

Growing up in rural Southwestern Virginia, the first time he remembers hearing the term “gun control” was when Senator Edward Kennedy was challenging President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination in the 1980 campaign. The local evening news had just finished airing a clip of Senator Kennedy on the campaign trail and the author's father said to no one in particular: “He has some good ideas and may make a good President, but he supports gun control.” The then 12-year-old naïvely asked: “What's gun control?” His father explained that some people believed guns were bad and dangerous, so they wanted to get rid of them. Having already been a gun owner for half his young life, the author remembers feeling a strange mixture of pity and contempt. He felt pity because here was an obviously educated, articulate, and thoughtful man (Kennedy) who failed to grasp a fairly straightforward fact of life readily understood by a 12-year-old (i.e., guns were neither good nor bad, and it was their misuse either through malice, carelessness, or ignorance that caused problems); and contempt, because this poor deluded fool had the power and means to impose his will and his beliefs on those of us who did not share his vision of the world. After a few moments with these thoughts of gun control and its advocates swirling around in his mind, the 12-year-old responded to his father's explanation by saying: “Well that's stupid,” to which his father nodded in silent agreement.

Many years passed with this author thinking only sporadically about the topic of gun control. Typically these thoughts arose when new legislation or regulations were proposed, debated, or enacted and the thoughts mirrored that of the 12-year-old: “Well that's stupid.” These thoughts, however, quickly passed because there were always other more “important” and/or immediate concerns that required attention. For all practical purposes, in the 10 to 20 years since his introduction to the politics of gun control, this author spent little time considering the implications of these matters or the motives and strategies of those on either side of the debate. That is, of course, besides the obligatory eye-rolling and head-shaking that inevitably came with the latest onerous and ham-handed scheme cooked up by the gun control crowd and the accompanying “chicken little” histrionics about the “slippery slope” with which the pro-gun forces responded. These shrill and contentious squabbles over guns and gun control were interpreted as just another hackneyed scene in the theatre of American politics. In part, the gun debate was a specter that would be paraded out each year as elections neared to frighten and motivate the lunatic fringe (on both sides), but it also served as part of the larger effort to distract the average citizen from the fact that they (politicians) were basically incompetent jackasses who avoided any real work or responsibility beyond, of course, the business of lining their own pockets.

This attitude of vague concern yet generalized indifference began to change in the mid-to-late 1990s as more and more restrictive firearm legislation was proposed and passed at both the state and federal levels. With the intensifying gun control debate, new legislation, and the influx of lawsuits, the author began paying much closer attention to the rhetoric and actions of those on both sides of this debate as well as considering the issues of guns and gun control in their larger political context. Specifically, the author wondered why—on the national scene—the political left tended to be the strongest gun control advocates while those on the right were the most vocal proponents of the Second Amendment and the rights of gun owners? This was a particularly vexing question because in the part of the country in which this author was raised, guns and gun ownership were non-issues in the political realm. Begin discussing waiting periods, “assault weapon” bans, registration, buy limits, or any other “sensible” gun control policy and one would elicit the same response from the most liberal of Democrats to the most conservative of Republicans: “Well, that's stupid!”

Demographics, Fear, and Culture Conflict

On the surface, we would suggest that demographic factors appear to resolve this political conundrum. Research and national opinion polls suggest rural Americans generally look more favorably on gun owners' rights and the Second Amendment than their urban counterparts (e.g., Smith 1980; Ellison 1991; Price et al. 1991; Brennan et al. 1993; Kauder 1993; Wolpert and Gimpel 1998; Payne and Riedel Jr. 2002; CNN 2007). If this is indeed the case, the question remains: Why? One explanation is that rural Americans are more conservative than urban/suburban dwellers. For instance, some researchers contend that “closeness to the land,” long-term familial ties, commitment to tradition, or unique and strong interpersonal relationships and community bonds (among other reasons) account for the relatively conservative nature of rural people (see Marx and Engels 1847/1970; Tönnies 1887/2001; Durkheim 1893/1984; Nisbet 1966; Bonner 1998; Haidt and Graham 2009). A quick glance at most any of the recent county-level “red v. blue” electoral maps would seem to bolster this explanation: urban centers are solidly blue while rural America is sea of red.

A related, but perhaps more nuanced account is that rural dwellers are indeed more conservative than urbanites; however, their conservative politics are limited to social issues (e.g. abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, etc.) while their liberalism is expressed in the sphere of economics. Therefore, an observer may see these people always or nearly always vote with their wallets (Democratic), but feel more closely aligned with Republicans on social issues.

A second explanation for the rural-urban divide on the matters of guns and gun control is unrelated to essentialist notions about “the land,” forms of solidarity, and the like. This explanation is related to familiarity and fear. Firearms are not toys. They are potentially lethal instruments and most everyone over the age of 6 is aware of this fact. When approaching a potentially dangerous object or activity people often are apprehensive or fearful, especially when they have little or no personal experience with that object or activity. The reader can no doubt conjure up many of these “firsts” from his or her own past: the first time behind the wheel of a car, the first time using power tools, the first bungee jump, the first time investing in the stock market, the first leap off the high-dive at the local pool, and, for some, the first time smoking marijuana (see Becker 1963).

Typically, after the initial awkward and uneasy forays into the new activity or experiences with the new object, many people begin to feel more at ease as they gain mastery of the task, object, or activity. This pattern of initial fear to confident, comfortable mastery also occurs with firearms. It is important to note there are differences between rural and urban Americans in terms of the amount and kinds of exposure they have with firearms. Persons reared in urban environments are much less likely to have first-hand (legal and positive) experiences with firearms than people raised in rural areas (Canon 1998). This is partly on account of higher rates of ownership and the widespread use of guns for sporting purposes that occur in rural regions, as well as the lower rates of crime and violent crime in these same areas (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2008). As a result, a person growing up in a rural part of the country is more likely to be introduced to guns at a younger age. Additionally, this introduction is more likely to include information concerning safe handling procedures as well as instruction in the functioning, use, utility, and care of the weapon(s). In other words, people from rural areas usually have more of a day-to-day familiarity with guns and their safe and proper operation; this in turn reduces the fear one may have when encountering them and generally leads to more positive attitudes towards firearms (e.g., Tyler and Lavrakas 1983; Hill et al. 1985; Ellison 1991; Rosen 2000; Payne and Riedel Jr. 2002).

A third account for the rural-urban divide is in some ways a melding of the first two and is related to cultural differences between the two groups that affect their attitudes about guns and gun control (see Kennett and Anderson 1975; Lizotte and Bordua 1980; Lizotte et al. 1981; Tonso 1983; Dixon and Lizotte 1987; Ellison 1991; Brennan et al. 1993; Kleck 1996, 1997; Rosen 2000). There is good, strong evidence of a distinctive subculture prevalent among rural Americans, part of which includes a “sentimental attachment” to guns and the shooting sports “rooted in the connection between guns and the country's early struggle for survival and independence:” in other words, gun culture (Wolpert and Gimpel 1998:244; Spitzer 1995). Moreover, the belief in, and symbolic importance of gun culture are not limited to those who own guns; in parts of the country with a strong gun culture, the logic and primacy of that culture extends to non-owners of guns as well (Smith 1980; Kessler 1988).

In polar opposition to the rural and small-town folks are the urban sophisticates. These are people who “take bourgeois Europe as a model of a civilized society... (and for whom) hunting is atavistic, personal violence is shameful, and uncontrolled gun ownership is a blot upon civilization” (Bruce-Biggs 1976:61). The cosmopolitan crowd does not understand—nor do they wish to understand—the motives, beliefs, or values of those who are members of the gun culture and vice versa. Out-of-touch elites versus redneck yokels: another front on the culture war.

Crime, Race, and Fear

While differences between rural and urban dwellers can explain some of the observed political differences over the issues of guns and gun control, these explanations are lacking in other areas. Specifically, why do people with more conservative leanings often support the Second Amendment and oppose more gun control laws regardless of where they were born, raised, or live? We believe the essential element is fear.

Turn on the nightly news or pick most any daily newspaper, and it seems as though American streets are awash in blood: maniacs to the left of us, criminals to the right, and they are all packing some serious heat. The casual observer can hardly come to any other conclusion: “Be afraid, be very afraid!” The reality of the matter—crime and violent crime has been steadily declining since its peak in the 1970s—is largely irrelevant (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2008). What is important, as Barry Glassner (1999) notes, is that during the same time frame the average American believed that crime, and particularly violent crime, had increased. In addition to peoples' perceptions of crime rates, their fear of crime had risen as well (Glassner 1999). An obvious reason for the incongruity between crime rates and the public's perception becomes clear when we consider the “unofficial motto” of the news industry: “If it bleeds, it leads” (Heath and Gilbert 1996; Glassner 1999; Stabile 2006; Surette 2006).

It is difficult to blame television producers and newspaper editors for the tragedy we see each evening on the news or smeared on the front pages our nation's newspapers every morning; despite the rhetoric of the viewing public and media critics, we seem to collectively wallow and revel in the misery and misfortune of others. Carnage sells, whether this is in the form of slowing and craning our necks as we pass an auto accident, sitting transfixed as every grisly detail of the “maniac du jour's” rampage is splayed open for us to see, or gathering to watch the cruelty and public humiliation (i.e., tragedy lite) of the latest hit “reality” television series. What is more, the producers and editors are keenly aware of tragedy's marketability. Considering the underlying profit motive of the news media, and American's appetite for “bad” news, it should come as no surprise that while the murder rate in the U.S. fell by 20% from 1990–1998, the number of stories about murder (excluding O.J. Simpson) appearing on the network news increased by 600 percent (Glassner 1999:xxi). It should also come as no surprise that the public develops a “distorted” view of the world around them: “Be afraid, be very afraid!”

It is important to note that the fear of victimization and our distorted beliefs about the trends and patterns of crime are not colorblind. The “criminal” many people (especially white Americans) often envision when their imaginations stir is African American, specifically a young African American man (Stabile 2006; Welch 2007). Part of this can be explained by the fact that African Americans are over represented as perpetrators of serious and violent crime (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2008). However, it is well documented that crime is overwhelmingly intra-racial in nature (Becker 2007; Federal Bureau of Investigation 2008). The racially-based fears of the public—and profiling by those charged with protecting and serving the public—are unfortunate, immoral, yet predictable especially when placed in their historical contexts.

Charges of criminal wrongdoing or moral outrages have been levied against racial and ethnic minorities since Colonial times as instruments of terror and social control (Waldrep 1998; Waldrep and Nieman 2001; Stabile 2006). After the Civil War, for example, baseless accusations against African Americans were routinely used to maintain white superiority over the formerly enslaved population. In response to many fictitious threats and subsequent fears that were generated—and to maintain, legitimize, and strengthen established power relationships—state and local legislatures crafted countless laws and ordinances aimed at controlling black Americans and ensuring they remain “in their places.” In short, through both the projection of fears and unfortunate realities of actual criminal behavior, the racially based fear of crime observed today has been hundreds of years in the making.

A Brewing Crisis of Conscience

As the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) slowly gained momentum and national attention from 1950s into the early 1960s, the righteousness of the movement became readily apparent to millions of Americans of all races and ethnicities. Courage and force-of-will saw the U.S. though painful and long-overdue social reforms. However, as individual battles were won (and lost), historic milestones marked, and significant progress made in the struggle for social justice, there remained the legacy of fear. In the light of day, many liberal white Americans—who had been conditioned to reflexively fear the “criminal nature” of the African American population—would proudly join in the marches, voter registration drives, and rallies in support of those who had for far too long been denied the dignity and inalienable rights of a free people.

Nonetheless, once the sun went down and these same liberal white Americans were alone in their homes—startled while preparing for bed or maybe roused from a deep sleep by a “bump in the night”—we cannot help but wonder what images flashed through their minds as they began to picture the prospective prowler? Sadly, we do not have to wonder too hard about what “traits” the imagined prowler possessed: young, African American, and male.

As the 1960s progressed, the political and social turmoil of a nation struggling to redefine itself escalated. In a very real sense, the revolutions were televised—and we watched. As a nation, we watched the growing opposition to America's military involvement in Southeast Asia, we watched the renewed fight for gender equality, we watched body counts on the evening news, we watched the hippie “menace,” and we watched the continuing battle for Civil Rights. Liberal white Americans—who supported the CRM—watched as Black Nationalism emerged. Liberal white Americans were glued to their television sets as Detroit, Newark, Watts, and other cities burned. Liberal white Americans sat and watched, spellbound, as armed members of The Black Panther Party patrolled African American neighborhoods and marched on the California State Capital in Sacramento in protest of the proposed Mulford Act (which would have prohibited the open carrying of arms). For a population already conditioned to fear African Americans, what level of sheer panic did the images of angry, armed African Americans conjure in the collective minds of white liberals? Intellectually, rationally, and logically the liberal white population supported the CRM and the fight for equality; however, panic is not rational and fear follows no logic.

The long and carefully cultivated fear of African Americans and “appropriate” ways to respond to this fear had reached a crossroads. For those on the political right, the response was relatively simple: more strict and efficient social controls. The model for the political right's response was already in place and honed through hundreds of years of practice. This model merely needed a little “tweaking” or updating to be shoe-horned into a modern reality that included the recognition of Civil Rights for African Americans. On the campaign trail and after his election, when President Nixon emphasized a return to “law and order,” he in no small part was referring to the “lawlessness” and lack of “order” on the part of African Americans. According to former White House Chief of Staff and long-time Nixon aide, H. R. Haldeman, the President “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to” (Parenti 1999:3).

The political left's response to this age-old fear was much trickier, since they honestly supported the goals of the CRM. How does one reconcile the moral and intellectual high-ground of working to end the corrupt and indefensible system of racial apartheid with an irrational, yet methodically cultivated fear? Ironically, the answer to this ethical quandary was presented to the left by their political opponents: restrict access to weapons.

Gun Control as Social Control

A causal examination of the history of gun control laws in the U.S. would leave most readers with the inescapable conclusion that a sizable number of these laws at the federal, state, and local levels have been motivated by racism and xenophobia (see Sherrill 1973; Kennett and Anderson 1975; Bruce-Biggs 1976; Kates Jr. 1979, 1994; Kessler 1983; Tonso 1985; Cottrol and Diamond 1991, 1995; Tahmassebi 1991; Cramer 1995; Funk 1995; Blanchard 2000; Zelman and Stevens 2001; Rawls 2002). Some laws and local ordinances were specifically targeted toward racial and ethnic minorities, like the Black Codes, which were laws passed after the Civil War mainly in rural Southern states limiting the civil rights and civil liberties of African Americans. Others laws, while worded more generally, were enforced selectively, like New York's Sullivan Law (which required a police permit to legally possess a handgun). In essence, the selectively enforced laws and statutes were—to quote a Florida Supreme Court Justice—“...never intended to be applied to the white population...” (Cottrol and Diamond 1991:355).

The pattern is clear. If there is a “dangerous” population one wishes to control, demonize that population: they are agitators, malcontents, degenerates, criminals. That population's access to weapons must also be severed. This is done ostensibly to reduce the damage these “dangerous people” may inflict on society. Perhaps more importantly, however, so-called (labeled) dangerous populations are disarmed to mitigate agency efforts and prevent effective self defense; this not only increases their vulnerability, but increases their dependence on the state, its powers, and whims for protection (see Kessler 1983).

In an almost Kafkaesque manner, the (white) supporters of the CRM on the political left discovered a way out of their moral dilemma in some of the more repugnant and craven practices of their opponents. To be fair, we seriously doubt that most left-leaning people and politicians facing this dilemma consciously realized an ethical problem even existed; similarly, we also doubt they considered the sources or implications of their solution. A likely explanation for the resolution of the conflict felt by those on the political left, and thus the last piece of our puzzle, can be found in the psychological concept of projection.

The Conflict Resolved

Defensive projection is the process of perceiving undesirable characteristics or qualities in others that are threatening to acknowledge in one's self. Sigmund Freud (1915/1957:136) proposed projection as a defense mechanism used to keep anxiety under control whereby the ego “expels whatever within itself becomes a cause of displeasure.” Marie-Louise von Franz (1980:4) defined projection as the unconscious “transfer of subjective psychic elements onto an outer object.” Projection has usually been a phenomenon associated with psychoanalytic origins, however, defensive projection has recently been applied to social-cognitive processes such as thought suppression, accessibility, and biased person perception (Newman et al. 1997; Miceli and Castelfranchi 2003; Schimel et al. 2003; Newman et al. 2005; Govorun et al. 2006).

The fear of “the criminal” (i.e., young, African American male) a white person on the political left may feel is intolerable. It cannot fit within the core self-concept of “I am a good person; I am not a racist.” Rather than acknowledging and confronting this threat to the self directly, the fear may be rationalized by acknowledging that indeed proportionally more crimes are committed by African Americans. However, the fear of the “criminal” is projected onto the object he or she carries: the gun (see Kessler 1988). The gun is inanimate. The gun has no feelings. The gun does not care if you are afraid of it or not. Most importantly, no one will call you a racist if you are afraid of guns. Consequently, someone can argue for more stringent gun laws and remain a good person; the internal dilemma is resolved. Focusing on gun control allows one to feel safe: safe from “criminals” and safe from the unbearable threat of coming to grips with, and facing head-on, one's own prejudice and bigotry.


Return for a moment to the original question of this essay: How and why were the current political battle lines on the concerns of guns and gun control drawn? The simple answer is demographics, fear, culture, and racism. The more complex answer is—as a means of social control—racial and ethnic minorities in general and African Americans in particular were demonized as incorrigible criminals who posed a serious threat not only to average Americans, but to their very way of life. This characterization only accelerated with technological advances in the mass media (e.g., radio, television, the Internet) and the media's pandering to the public's morbid fascination with the misery and suffering of others. As the CRM progressed and gained momentum and support—especially from those on the political left—many of those same people (white liberals) were faced with an untenable situation: they supported the CRM, but were afraid of crime and lawlessness. Moreover, the “criminal” they feared had nearly become synonymous with the “young, African American male.” Since it would be unthinkable for the respectable white liberal to admit (even to him or herself) that they harbored any prejudice, the fear and antipathy was projected onto the object the criminal in their imagination wielded: the gun.

This process, however, did not play out the same way in all parts of the country. The summary described above best explains what occurred in urban and suburban America. The differing attitudes of rural and urban dwellers are a result of two interrelated phenomena. First, if one is unfamiliar with the workings of any potentially dangerous instrument, one typically approaches that instrument—whether it be an oxyacetylene torch, chainsaw, bulldozer, jackhammer, or firearm—with some amount of trepidation and fear. And second, even uninterested observers of American movies, television, and the nightly news receive a very powerful message: guns kill people. In urban areas people have fewer legal and positive contacts and personal experiences with firearms; therefore, urban dwellers would already be more likely to be wary of guns so heaping a bit more fear onto these objects is not a big stretch of the imagination.

Rural Americans, on the other hand, have had very different experiences and relationships with firearms. The first-hand firearm knowledge possessed by many rural Americans acts as a counter-balance or inoculate against the fear caused by the seemingly unending and ever escalating depictions in the popular culture and mass media of maiming, murder, and mayhem—all a result of guns and those people who are ignorant, callous, felonious, or foolish enough to own and use them (Lott Jr. 2000, 2003). Moreover, in rural America, firearms are not typically seen as some exotic or forbidden fruit by either young people or adults—though ownership and use do serve as a important rights-of-passage (Bruce-Biggs 1976; Kleck 1997)—nor are they automatically feared as the criminal's instrument of terror. They are part of the culture. They are instruments of recreation. They are tools. Yes, they are potentially lethal, and yes, they need to be approached and handled with caution and respect; but for much of rural America they are a part of everyday life (Goffman 1959).

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