The Surprising Link Between Guns and Racism in America


In the land of stars and stripes, nearly one in three Americans owns a gun. And guess what? Around two-thirds of these folks believe they’re safer with firearms.

But here’s the kicker: studies have shown that having guns at home actually increases the risk of violent deaths.

So, why do Americans hold onto their guns so tightly? A recent study has a chilling explanation: racism.

A New Study Sheds Light

Published in the journal PNAS Nexus, the study reveals a striking correlation between the number of slaves in a county back in 1860 and the number of guns there today.

Professor Nick Buttrick from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who led the study, says this connection holds even when accounting for personal politics, crime rates, education, and income.

The South’s Unique Story

Interestingly, the feeling of being unsafe only predicts gun ownership in Southern counties. In places without a history of slavery, this fear doesn’t lead to more guns. So, what makes the South different? The answer lies in the Civil War and its aftermath.

Before the Civil War, guns in the South were mainly tools for hunting or sports. But post-war, the white South faced an economic collapse and a massive social upheaval.

Formerly enslaved Black people were now citizens with rights, and the region was flooded with firearms from returning soldiers.

This led to a volatile mix: newly armed, economically struggling white people now considered equal to those they once enslaved.

The Rise of Gun Culture

Amidst this chaos, violent crime spiked, driven by white-on-white and white-on-Black violence.

Southern leaders seized this moment to promote armed vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan, arguing that guns were necessary to protect the Southern way of life from an “illegitimate” government.

Simultaneously, Black activists like Ida B. Wells advocated for armed self-defense against lynchings and violence.

She famously wrote in her 1892 pamphlet that “a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every Black home.”

Spreading the Gun Gospel

As Southerners moved to other parts of the country, they brought their gun culture with them.

Social media patterns today still reflect these historical movements and connections.

This deep-rooted association between guns and safety, once a Southern phenomenon, spread nationwide.

The American Gun Puzzle

Today, the U.S. holds nearly half of the world’s civilian-owned guns despite making up just 5% of the global population.

This phenomenon is a stark example of American exceptionalism. Unlike Canada or Australia, countries with similar cultural roots but far fewer guns, the U.S. stands out.

With mass shootings becoming tragically common, understanding this unique gun culture is crucial.

This study helps unravel why guns and race are so intertwined in America and why the idea of guns for protection is so popular here but not elsewhere.

Professor Buttrick sums it up: “Gun culture is one case where American Exceptionalism really is true. We are radically different even from countries like Canada or Australia.”