Previous polls found that nearly two-thirds of Americans who own guns say they do so for protection purposes, a far more common response than for recreation or hunting.
But what do these gun owners imagine they need protection from?
A group of research psychologists from the Netherlands and the United States published a study on Thursday examining how fear of specific crimes and a broader sense of general danger contribute to American gun ownership.
The study, which was broken down into different surveys and was published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, hopes to mitigate some of these fears driving Americans to own guns.
In the first part of the study, which was conducted with more than 800 men, about half of whom were gun owners, the researchers found that gun owners generally perceive the world as a more dangerous place than non-gun owners. According to the study, these people perceive their risk of being the victim of a specific crime during their lifetime ― such as a mugging, a violent attack or a home invasion ― to be higher than than non-gun owners did.
Handgun owners more likely to say they’d shoot in self-defense
The researchers also found differences among men who owned only handguns and men who owned long guns, such as a shotgun or rifle, which are typically used for hunting and shooting sport. They found that handgun owners who perceived greater threats ― either specific or abstract ― are more likely to say they’d shoot in self-defense.
(It’s important to note, however, that most of the gun owners surveyed owned more than one weapon.)
“It suggests that a sense of threat can be multi-layered, which may give insight into the nature of fear and what people do to overcome it,” Wolfgang Stroebe, lead study author and visiting professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands told HuffPost.
“Though perhaps it also highlights the challenge of reducing fear in society,” he said.
There’s no connection between gun ownership and risk of attack either, the researchers added. “The people at most risk of homicide victimization are among the least likely to own guns, and guns rarely get used in the very assault scenarios for which they are intended,” the study authors write.
“If handgun ownership for self-protection is not purely about fear of crime but also about a more general sense of danger, it could mean that communications aimed purely at reducing fear of crime will not be enough to change people’s beliefs that they need a gun for self defense,” Stroebe said.
A real-world experiment after the Orlando mass shooting
The researchers happened to have surveyed gun owners about their reasons for ownership in the week leading up to the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which killed 49 people and is considered the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11 attacks.
In the days after the Orlando shooting, the researchers surveyed a different group of gun owners about their reasons for ownership and compared the responses.
Since there’s typically a spike in background checks for gun sales after a mass shooting, the researchers hypothesized that more gun owners would say protection was their reason for ownership directly after the Orlando attack.
“We expected that such a terrible mass shooting as the one in Orlando would – at least momentarily – increase people’s fear of crime, or their belief that the world is a dangerous place,” Stroebe said.
Instead, the attack hardly changed gun owners’ responses at all.
“Maybe this means that the spike in FBI background checks after a mass shooting is not motivated by increased concerns about protection and self-defense,” Stroebe said. “Or maybe most gun owners have already incorporated the threat of mass shootings into their belief system.”
And while the primary goal of the research is to serve as a building block for further study, Stroebe does think there’s some practical application.
“If we want to help people conquer their fears, we have to recognize that a sense of threat can have multiple layers and each layer may have to be addressed separately,” he said.
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