New study uncovers several troubling trends among pandemic gun buyers

Gun Rights
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A new study published in Political Research Quarterly sheds light on a notable trend: individuals who purchased firearms during the COVID-19 pandemic exhibit higher levels of distrust in government, are more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories, participate in protests, and support political violence compared to pre-existing gun owners and non-gun owners.

In recent years, the United States has experienced heightened political polarization, increasing distrust in government, and instances of political violence. These trends have raised concerns about the stability of American democracy. The researchers recognized that understanding the motivations and behaviors of pandemic gun buyers could provide insights into these broader issues.

“We came to this topic from three different angles. In 2020, Jamie Druckman, Jon Green, and I were part of a team of researchers leading the COVID States Project, a monthly 50-state survey examining the impact of Covid-19 on American society,” explained corresponding author Matthew Simonson, a senior lecturer at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and co-author of Black Networks Matter.

“After reading about an unprecedented spike in gun purchases, we added a question about gun buying to the survey, and we recruited Matt Lacombe who had just published a book on the role of gun ownership in American politics. This is now the second study we’ve published on pandemic gun buying together.

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Our first article showed that first-time gun-buyers were less trusting of the government and more likely to believe conspiracy theories than pre-existing gun owners. A natural follow-up, it seemed to us, was to examine whether many of these gun buyers were not merely more mistrusting of the government but also predisposed to act against it.”

The study employed a large-scale survey to gather data from over 32,000 respondents across the United States. This extensive sample size allowed the researchers to capture a diverse range of views and behaviors related to gun ownership and political attitudes. Data were collected over three survey waves: December 2020 – January 2021, April – May 2021, and June – July 2021. The survey was designed to be representative of the U.S. population, with weighting applied to reflect demographic benchmarks such as race, gender, age, education, geographic region, and urbanicity.

To measure the key variables, the survey included specific questions about gun purchases, trust in government institutions, belief in conspiracy theories, participation in protests, and support for political violence. For instance, respondents were asked if they or a household member had purchased a gun during the pandemic. Trust in government was gauged through questions about confidence in various governmental bodies’ handling of COVID-19.

Conspiracy beliefs were assessed with statements about COVID-19 cures, vaccine microchips, QAnon, and the fairness of the 2020 election. Protest participation was measured by asking about attendance at protests and the causes of those protests. Support for political violence was evaluated through questions about approval of violence in response to perceived unfair elections and feelings towards the January 6th Capitol attack.

The study found that individuals who purchased guns during the pandemic exhibited significantly lower trust in government institutions compared to non-gun owners and pre-existing gun owners who did not buy additional firearms during this period. This pattern held true across different levels of government, including the White House, Congress, state governments, and city governments.

Pandemic gun buyers were more likely to endorse conspiracy theories than both non-gun owners and pre-existing gun owners. For example, a substantial proportion of pandemic gun buyers believed in theories such as the existence of a withheld cure for COVID-19 and the presence of microchips in vaccines. They were also more likely to believe in QAnon and Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election being stolen.

Pandemic gun buyers were more likely to participate in protests, particularly those challenging the state. This included protests against COVID-19 restrictions and the legitimacy of the 2020 election. The data showed that 14.6% of pandemic gun buyers reported attending a protest during the pandemic, a significantly higher rate than among pre-existing gun owners and non-gun owners.

“We were surprised to find that gun buyers were not only more likely to attend protests, but that the most popular type of protest was one ‘against racism and police violence,’” Simonson told PsyPost. “Despite the stereotype of gun owners being conservative or opposed to Black Lives Matter, nearly 10% said they attended a protest against racism and police violence, twice the national average.”

“In contrast, 5% said they attended protests against Covid-19 restrictions and 5% protested the election (including those who attended more than one type of protest). All told, one in six pandemic gun-buyers attended a protest in 2020-2021. Thus, we can say that there are hundreds of thousands of recent gun buyers who were prepared to take their grievances with the government to the streets and not just the ballot box.”

Perhaps most concerningly, the researchers found that pandemic gun buyers were more likely to support political violence. This was measured through their approval of using violence if the 2020 election was perceived as unfair and their reactions to the January 6th Capitol attack. A notable proportion of pandemic gun buyers expressed positive feelings towards the storming of the Capitol.

“Of the millions of Americans who purchased guns during the pandemic, roughly half expressed low trust in Congress, the White House, or their state or city government,” Simonson explained. “Over four out of 10 believed the election was stolen, and a third supported the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.

“But what is perhaps more alarming is the smaller but still substantial fraction of gun-buyers (one in eight) who said they would approve of others using violence if the election were unfair. That’s a minority view for sure, but it still adds up to thousands of people who had bought guns in the past year. And these are not people who do not merely grumble about politics but fail to act; roughly one in six pandemic gun-buyers said they attended a protest in 2020.”

“Thus, while our work is far from suggesting any sort of organized armed movement, it does show that there is now a large reservoir of Americans who mistrust the state, have a record of turning out for demonstrations, approve of the use of others using violence, and who chose to buy a gun.”

Further analysis within the group of pandemic gun buyers showed that those who purchased firearms for political reasons—such as protection against the government, response to lockdowns, or concerns about the election—were even more likely to distrust the government, believe in conspiracy theories, participate in protests, and support political violence. This subgroup exhibited particularly pronounced anti-government sentiments and behaviors.

However, as with all research, there are some caveats to consider. The researchers did not directly ask respondents if they participated in the January 6th Capitol attack or planned to engage in political violence. Instead, they measured support for such actions, which does not necessarily translate to actual behavior. Additionally, the survey relies on self-reported data, which can introduce biases.

The research also highlights that gun owners are a significant group with considerable influence on American politics. While most do not support political violence, a minority who bought guns for political reasons during the pandemic pose a concern due to their anti-government sentiments and actions.

“One theme that pervades our work, Matt Lacombe’s in particular, is that gun-owners should be recognized as an important political group,” Simonson told PsyPost. “Gun owners’ political views are not just a byproduct of being conservative, Republican, or rural, though many gun owners do fall into those categories. And it’s not just about the so-called ‘gun lobby’ that includes organizations like the NRA. Gun-owners as a group constitute an important political constituency, and together, they have substantial influence on American politics.”

“On the other hand, when it comes to political violence, our objective is not to collectively demonize gun owners. The vast majority of gun owners did not endorse political violence, and only a third of those who bought guns reported an unambiguously political reason for doing so (lockdowns, protection against the government, or the election). Rather, we wish to call attention to the minority who did give a political reason for their purchase and also attended protests, believed the election was stolen, or were willing to countenance violence against the state.”

“Perhaps the best example of this juxtaposition is the fact that among respondents who attended an anti-government protest (i.e., protesting Covid restrictions or the election), 31% reported buying a gun, about half for political reasons,” Simonson said. “When you take into consideration how many Americans already owned guns, that’s only 4% of gun owners overall, but it’s still nearly a million people. And that non-so-tiny minority, ultimately, is what worries us.”

The study, “Guns and Democracy: Anti-System Attitudes, Protest, and Support for Violence Among Pandemic Gun-Buyers,” was authored by Matthew D. Simonson, Matthew J. Lacombe, Jon Green, and James N. Druckman.

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