Are Gun Owners a Bunch of Racists?

Are Gun Owners a Bunch of Racists?

I'm sure you've heard about the new study purporting to show that gun owners are more racist than non-gun owners, and that gun owners' attitudes "may adversely influence US gun control policy debates and decisions." But with this kind of research, the central methodological question is this: How can you measure racism in a way that's precise enough to rank individuals and groups?

You could just flat-out ask people if they hate other racial groups -- but some racists would lie. Or, you could do something like the Implicit Association Test to see whether people subconsciously link the concepts of "good" and "bad" with the racial concepts of "white" and "black"; this research helpfully reveals a lot of psychological bias, but there are too many problems with it for it to be useful for anything requiring precision.

Some social scientists have tried to avoid these problems by asking questions that measure "racial resentment" or "symbolic racism." I wrote a fair amount about this for National Review Online a few years back, but for our present purposes we can just read a question used in the new study:

It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.

It's pretty obvious what's going on here. This is a very basic conservative sentiment (people born into poverty can improve their lot in life by working hard) with a racial element added (black people born into poverty can improve their lot in life by working hard). Even if we assume that the addition of race turns this from a debatable idea into an expression of racist sentiment, it is laughably unsuited to the purpose of comparing the racial attitudes of conservatives and liberals (or correlated groups such as gun owners). Liberals don't agree with the underlying idea to begin with, and thus would be expected to answer no regardless of their racial attitudes.

I'm not sure there's a good way to compare the racial attitudes of gun owners and non-owners, but it's worth noting that there was no correlation between gun ownership and racism in the one question from the study that addressed overt racism. Also, just for kicks I pulled some numbers from the General Social Survey. In 2002 the survey featured a relatively straightforward question about racism, asking people to rate how "warm" or "cool" they felt toward blacks.

In the population as a whole, 13.9 percent of gun owners rated themselves as cool toward blacks to some degree, compared with 11.6 percent of non-owners; in a sample restricted to whites, the numbers are 14.9 and 12 percent. Unfortunately I don't have the chops to mimic the sophisticated demographic analysis used in the new study -- journalism major, sorry -- but it seems likely that even this gap would shrink if we were able to factor in things like age, state of residence, gender, and so on and so forth.

Here's the full chart for whites:

The fact that more than one in ten white Americans reported feeling "cool" toward blacks as recently as 2002 is certainly indicative of a problem. It's just not a problem that has very much to do with gun ownership.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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