Why Some Americans Buy Guns

In 2020, with many communities under lockdown due to the novel coronavirus, demonstrators flooding the streets, and economic unrest and social isolation deepening, Americans went shopping spree. for firearms.

About 22 million guns were sold that year, 64% more than in 2019. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group for the firearms industry, more than eight million of those were in the hands of first-time gun owners.

Gun homicides increased to 19,350 this year, up from 14,392 in 2019. Gun deaths, including suicides, increased from 39,702 in 2019 to 45,222 in 2020. The number of lives lost to guns will rise again in 2021 to 48,830.

After suspending research on gun violence for 25 years, Congress will start pouring millions of dollars into federal agencies for data collection in 2021.

Here, social psychologists discover who buys firearms, their motivations, and how firearm ownership and even possession changes behavior.

Between January 2019 and April 2021, before the pandemic, millions of Americans who had never owned a gun bought a gun.

Of the 7.5 million people who purchased a gun for the first time during this period, Until then, 5.4 million people lived in their own homes Researchers at Harvard and Northeastern Universities presume there were no guns.

The new buyers differed from the white men who historically made up the majority of gun owners. Half were women and nearly half were people of color (20 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic).

“People who were always buying are still buying. They didn’t stop. But a whole different community of people came in,” said the New Jersey Center for Gun Violence Research, which was not involved in the investigation. executive director Michael Anestis said.

Self-defense is the number one reason Americans buy handguns. According to groups such as the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, owning a gun is not only a constitutional right, but a form of necessary protection.

A survey of individuals who said they were planning to purchase a first or second firearm early in the pandemic found: Prospective buyers were more likely to see the world as dangerous more threatening than individuals who do not plan to purchase firearms.

Those who plan to buy a firearm are more likely than those who do not plan to buy a firearm to respond to statements such as “people can’t be trusted,” “people aren’t what they look like,” and “you have to watch your back.” He said he would strongly agree. Study author Anestis, Ph.D.

Buyers have also become more fearful of uncertainty. They tended to strongly agree with statements such as “I am very upset by unexpected events” and “I hate not knowing what will happen next.”

According to a survey conducted in June and July 2020, they are particularly frightened by COVID-19 and are likely to be essential workers. Anestis, who studies suicide, said people who plan to buy a gun are also more likely to have suicidal thoughts.

More than half of gun deaths in the United States are suicides. For example, in 2021, he had 48,830 gun deaths. 26,328 were suicidal.

“Firearm owners are less likely to have suicidal thoughts than non-owners,” Dr. Anestis said. “But when you look at people who bought a firearm during the surge, if it was their first firearm, they had more suicidal thoughts in the past month, year, or entire lifetime than others. It was much more likely.”

The number of suicides did not increase during the pandemic, but as long as family members own guns, the presence of guns in the home increases the risk. Studies show that while some people buy a gun when they are planning to commit suicide, most people who used a gun to commit suicide already owned a gun for 10 years, on average. .

A family with a teenager who had one gun loaded and left unlocked were more likely to buy another gun than those who kept it During the pandemic, other researchers found Families kept their guns within easy reach out of concern for their own safety, and this concern may have motivated the purchase of additional firearms.

But Rebecca Sokol, a behavioral scientist at the University of Michigan and study co-author, said these households are particularly vulnerable to gun injuries. “Teenages are among the highest rates of fatal and non-fatal firearm injuries,” she added.

Experiments show that human touch is surprisingly calming. For example, in a 2006 study, neuroscientists gave a married woman a mild electric shock as part of an experiment. reaching out to take her husband’s hand It gave me an immediate sense of relief.

Psychologist Nick Buttrick of the University of Wisconsin-Madison wanted to know if firearms offer similar comfort to gun owners and act as a sort of psychological safety blanket.

“The real question I wanted to answer was, what can a person get out of owning a gun,” he said. “Why would anyone want to bring this really dangerous thing into their lives?”

He recruited college students, some from gun-owning families, to participate in a study in which they were given very mild electric shocks (a sensation he likened to static electricity).

While being shocked, participants were given a friend’s hand, a metal object that looked and felt like a pistol but had no firing mechanism, or a prop. Battrick said holding a gun-like prop was the greatest comfort for participants who grew up around guns.

“If you come from a gun-owning family, just having a gun makes you feel better,” says Dr. Buttrick, whose studies have yet to be published.

For participants unfamiliar with firearms, it was the opposite, and having a replica firearm increased their anxiety. “If you’re not from a gun-owning family, having a gun made it even more shocking,” he says. “You were more nervous.”

Advocacy groups like the NRA emphasize the need for safe handling and storage of firearms and offer training programs aimed at making firearm ownership safer. But critics say public health officials are bad at communicating risks to Americans.

Many studies have found that having easy access to firearms does not make your home safer. Rather, gun ownership increases the chances of both suicide and homicide, says Sarah Bird-Sharps, senior director of research at Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that fights gun violence. To tell.

one Early research to draw attention to danger A 1993 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that keeping a gun in the home increased the risk of homicide by 2.7 times, and that almost all shootings were committed by family members or close acquaintances. was found to have been stolen. This finding has since been replicated in many studies.

“You’re much more likely to be the victim of that gun than you are to successfully defend yourself,” Bird Sharpes said, adding that gun owners “tragically don’t understand the risks.” No,” he added.

More than 20 years ago, when Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times in his front yard in the Bronx, officers said they mistook his wallet for the weapon. In 2014 in Cleveland, police officers killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Because he thought the kid’s “airsoft” replica pistol was a real gun.

Researchers are increasingly focusing on the idea that armed people are more likely to perceive others as armed and react as if they were being threatened. This is a concept called gun incarnation.

“The idea behind embodiment is that your ability to act in an environment literally changes how you see the environment,” says Nathan, associate professor of psychology at the University of Alabama Huntsville and co-author of the recent study. Tenhandfeld says: “The gun embodiment is based on the idea of ​​an old colloquial phrase, ‘When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.'”

Stereotypes and emotions influence an observer’s ability to accurately identify a gun, or whether a particular individual is actually armed. According to one study, Participants were more likely to mistakenly think black people had guns Better than mistakenly thinking that white people are armed.

A study using computer simulations found that participants were more likely to shoot a target that appeared to be wearing a turban.

In a recent effort to replicate old research on the embodiment of guns, Dr. Tenhandfeld and his colleagues gave college students fake guns or a neutral object: a spatula. They held the objects in their hands while viewing images of guns and other mundane items displayed on a computer screen.

They were asked to make a quick decision whether to “fire” in response. Participants holding firearms delayed reaction times, made it more difficult to quickly distinguish between weapons and non-threat objects, and increased errors.

“They weren’t prejudiced, they just made more mistakes, and when the object they were looking at was a shoe, they were slower to aim the gun,” Dr Tenhundfeld said. .

This could be a form of gun embodiment, he said, noting that participants’ “ability to act in the environment influences how they see the environment. is distorted,” he added.

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