Sometimes surprises come from the funniest places, like a study of the relationship between religious belief and gun ownership which turns out to yield possible answers to one of the major points of disagreement in the gun-violence debate. But before we get to the big surprise, let’s spend some time looking at the basic findings of the study itself. Published by David Yamane, a sociologist at Wake Forest who teaches an undergraduate course on the sociology of guns, this study attempts to create a ‘nuanced’ view of gun owners based on looking at gun ownership relative to religious belief and what Yamane refers to as various forms of religiosity, such as attendance at religious functions and strength of religious beliefs.
What Yamane claims to have discovered is that, contrary to what many people believe, evangelical Christians are no more likely to own guns than Catholics, Jews and people who profess no specific denominational orientation at all, although evangelicals are more oriented towards gun ownership than members of mainline Protestant denominations (Episcopalian, Methodist, et.al.) But when Yamane talks about gun ownership, it’s very important to understand that he defines a ‘gun’ only as a handgun, basing this choice on the fact that lately more and more Americans state that the primary reason they own a gun is for self-defense.
Yamane’s focus on handguns is an important nuance to inject into the gun debate because the motives that drive people to own handguns, by definition, will be different than the reasons why people own and use long guns whose design and function basically fit the requirements for hunting and sport. And I wish that more gun scholars would follow Yamane’s lead in this respect and nuance their own research to take into account the differences involved in the ownership of handguns as opposed to the general ownership of guns.
On the other hand, Yamane has to be careful not to push his nuanced methodology too far. Because as he admits, most gun owners own multiple guns, and the fact that they consider their primary reason for currently owning guns to be self-defense doesn’t mean that they aren’t also buying and using long guns for hunting and sport. So the fact that someone decides to own a self-defense gun because he doesn’t trust the government to keep him safe, still leaves open the question as to why that same person owns other types of guns. Which makes correlating the reasons for gun ownership with other social or cultural factors a bit more difficult to do.
But let’s leave those issues aside and get to the big surprise which awaits the reader if he/she can wade through the sociological jargon which permeates sections of the text. Yamane states at the outset that gun owners tend to live in rural areas, the South and the Great Plains/Mountain West. But he notes that when these folks move out of those places, the only population which retains the same or higher rate of gun ownership are former residents of rural zones. But what he doesn’t tell us (perhaps the data simply doesn’t exist,) is where these ‘out-migrants’ go to live, because with the exception of former rural dwellers, folks who leave the South or the Midwest and Great Plains show a significant decline in their ownership of guns.
This is a very important finding and may represent a great gift to the gun violence prevention (GVP) community because a major proposition of the gun-control crowd, fiercely contested by the other side, is that more laws help curb gun violence. So if the ‘out-migrants’ caught in Yamane’s data become less involved with guns after they leave the places where they were born and grew up, does this perhaps mean that they are moving into areas which have greater regulation of guns?
The fact is that most states with strong gun regulations also tend to be states with lower per-capita ownership of guns. But which came first – the lack of guns or the tough gun laws? Too bad the answer to that question still isn’t known.