Gun owners are racist, according to bad science

White people own guns – and oppose gun control legislation – because they are racist and afraid of black people. Two new studies advance this dangerous narrative building among our academic elites. While such rhetoric is perhaps not surprising among political pundits or celebrities, otherwise serious academics are now attributing racist motives to gun ownership and opposition to gun control. These studies are not only based on a bunch of bigoted assumptions, but also bad science.

The University of Wisconsin recently promoted a new study that claims that in US counties where blacks were enslaved in 1860, gun ownership is higher today. In fact, gun ownership, they say, correlates with the number of former slaves in each county. To support this more-slaves-means-more-guns theory, the authors construct a historical narrative that whites feared newly freed slaves, bought guns for self-defense, and then that fear faded somewhat over 160 years.

But interestingly enough, just last month, National Public Radio ran a story about how blacks are the fastest growing group of gun owners. If gun ownership is a product of white people being racist, then that’s pretty curious.

The University of Wisconsin study suffers from a number of flaws, despite its poisonous premise that white people believe or feel certain things because they are white. You would never say the same about other races, and we should not give a pass to academics who traffic in the same kind of racism.

Alternative explanations

In any correlational study such as this, one must be concerned about the potential for alternative explanations. And a study with the point “because slavery” leaves plenty of room for alternatives. For example, the extent of slavery in the southern states of the US was much more severe in areas of the south that remain rural to this day. The so-called “Black Belt” of southern agriculture that stretched across Georgia to the Mississippi remains very agrarian, rural, and poor today compared to other parts of the region that have been absorbed into growing metropolises like Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville. In these regions, large-scale hunting of deer, quail and even wild boar remains more prominent and may explain higher levels of gun ownership, yet this fact remains unaccounted for in the study.

The authors then throw in some sort of “Facebook friend theory of racism,” which is, charitably, laughable. The authors propose that counties that are more socially connected to southern counties have higher rates of gun ownership. Apparently having a southern friend on Facebook makes you afraid of black people. Again, several alternative explanations come to mind. More importantly, non-slaveholding counties located near slaveholding counties would be expected to have similar social ties and a similar gun-owning culture. The newspaper did not count this. Moreover, with the increased mobility of Americans, it is unclear that ties to someone living in a once slaveholding area have anything to do with that area’s slave past. Why would he do that? An unnecessary study laden with such racial bias, coupled with shaky scientific foundations, furthers the notion that this academic research is less about finding the truth than bolstering a clever narrative.

Days after the publication of the slavery-predicts-gun-ownership study, the American Psychological Association (APA) published another study claiming that whites support gun rights because they are racist, and when whites oppose gun rights, that is also racist.

Misdefining racism

In establishing its key findings about “racist” white Americans, the APA study uses what is known as the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to identify whether study participants harbored racial resentment. IATs attempt to measure biases that exist beneath the surface through matching terms, phrases, or pictures. In this case, for example, the study had participants question gun rights terms (e.g., “hunting”) or gun control phrases (e.g., “gun-free zone”) with white faces and black faces. The study also asked participants to rate their agreement with certain statements such as “the Irish, Italians, Jews and many other minorities overcame prejudice and got ahead. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.” Apparently, how well a participant matched the faces, or agreed with a particular statement (on a scale of 1 to 5), allowed the study authors to determine whether a participant was racist.

While IATs once represented an intriguing method of detecting unspoken racism, the technique has come under increasing criticism in recent years. In particular, it is widely accepted that a single IAT is not sufficient to detect racial prejudice, even by those who created the test. Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has extensively cataloged serious academic criticisms of IATs.

There are many valid policy and legal arguments opposing all kinds of gun control proposals. But academics are trying to short-circuit the debate by simply labeling opponents as “racists” and gun owners as “white scaremongers.” Discrediting opponents with ad hominem attacks as “racist” is offensive and wrong in itself. But using “science” based on discredited theories or faulty assumptions is a sneaky attempt to foment racial division.

Dan Lennington is deputy advisor and Dr. Will Flanders is director of research at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

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