Why Are Conservatives So Obsessed With Gun Rights Anyway?

Belief in gun rights hasn’t always been a conservative ideology. Psychology helps explain how it took off.

The GOP elephant holds a gun in its trunk.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Why has support for gun rights become a hallmark of the Republican Party? There is nothing inevitable about the combination of economic and foreign policy conservatism with social conservatism. As late as the mid-1980s, conservative icons including Ronald Reagan supported gun control measures such as the Brady bill and a ban on assault weapons. Support for gun control legislation actually increased among Republicans in the 1980s. Unambiguous support for gun “rights” didn’t appear in the Republican Party platform until 1988. Even the National Rifle Association did not become fanatically opposed to any and all gun regulations until the late 1970s.

During his 2008 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama famously proposed a crude psychological explanation for why traditionally Democratic-leaning groups of voters were being drawn to Republican positions on social issues. Industrial jobs had disappeared from the small towns of Pennsylvania and the Midwest, he noted, and Republicans and Democrats alike had failed to address the distress of these communities. So, he said, it’s not surprising that “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion.”

Obama’s explanation was superficially plausible (and has been widely adapted to explain the appeal of Donald Trump), but the facts provide little support for it. For one thing, the increase in attachment to guns that Obama lamented never actually happened. The percentage of American households owning a gun has declined steadily since the mid-1970s. For another, support for gun “rights” is actually stronger among more affluent Americans than among poorer Americans, the very ones who are supposed to be “bitter.”

In any case, events do not precede their causes. It is hard to find much evidence of the “Great Bitterness” before the past two decades, long after the decline in manufacturing and agricultural employment was already underway and long after the Republican Party’s shift to strong opposition to gun control.

A more workable psychological explanation begins by noting that psychologists have found consistent differences between conservatives and liberals in personality traits, attitudes, and moral stances. To summarize some of the research findings, conservatives tend to be more likely than liberals to accept or even embrace authority that is perceived to be legitimate. Conservatives tend to be more moralistic and more conventional than liberals. They tend to have a stronger need for order and control and stability and a greater dislike of change.

Conservatives also tend to value equality less than liberals. They have less empathy and are more likely to see human nature as bad. Compared with liberals, their moral sense is less centered on fairness and kindness and more on loyalty, deference to authority, and moral and sexual purity. Conservatives also show a greater tendency than liberals toward dichotomous thinking and have a stronger need for certainty and cognitive consistency. (“I don’t do nuance,” George W. Bush famously told Joe Biden. )

The differences are not universal, of course, and there is nothing intrinsically bad or intrinsically good in the characteristics typical of either camp. But conservatives tend to lean one way, liberals the other.

And some of these differences appear to be directly expressed in divergent beliefs relevant to the gun control debate. For example, conservatives’ greater need for social order and greater acceptance of aggression as intrinsic to human nature may lead to their taking a more punitive stance with respect to crime, including support for longer prison sentences and for capital punishment. Similarly, the lower value placed by conservatives on empathy and on equality, combined with their greater resistance to change, may lead to their having less sympathy toward the argument that inequality and poverty are breeding grounds for crime and gun violence.

But the connection between personality and political beliefs and beliefs about gun control is not entirely straightforward. If conservatives respect authority and rules more than liberals and have a greater need for order, why wouldn’t they demand gun control rather than gun rights?

A more complex exploration of the relationship between personality characteristics and political beliefs begins with the observation that all human beings, conservative and liberal alike, feel anxiety. And both conservatives and liberals have plenty of things to be anxious about, including financial worries, conflicts in interpersonal relationships, and concerns about physical health or mortality.

Concern about violent crime, terrorism, and school shootings is legitimate, of course. Crime and terrorism are real sources of potential danger, and individual cases of “illegal immigrants” committing crimes are not fiction. But people tend to wildly exaggerate the frequency of crime and of terrorism, and the costs and dangers posed by immigrants. The exaggeration stems from several factors. First, we all overattend to especially salient events (and what could be more salient that school children getting mowed down?). We also all tend to overexaggerate the frequency of dangerous events. Second, the media have a profit-based incentive to sensationalize, and social media tends to amplify the panic.

We all exaggerate risk, but conservatives are especially prone to exaggerate risks. For one thing, conservatives generally tend to see the world as a more dangerous place than liberals do, so they are especially vulnerable to these distortions. They also tend to repress their own aggressive and sexual impulses more and to identify with aggressors. These forbidden impulses may be projected onto others, justifying the decision to see others as a source of danger and legitimizing aggressive responses.

Anxiety about personal danger may resonate with other sources of anxiety. Conservatives are disproportionately concentrated in rural areas and small towns. These are the places that have been most hit by the decline in industrial and agricultural employment of recent decades, with concomitant economic insecurity and community disruption and breakdown. A brooding sense of grievance over no longer being central to American society and culture and a pervasive sense of disempowerment add to the feelings of anxiety.

Regardless of whether or not the sense of threat is realistic, intense feelings of anxiety are intolerable, so people use various overlapping and intersecting strategies to assuage these feelings, to soothe themselves. The healthiest response to realistically based anxieties and other negative feelings would be to address the external sources of the uneasy feelings. As the Injury Control Research Center’s director David Hemenway wrote in his book Private Guns, Public Health, “Within the United States, a wide array of empirical evidence indicates that more guns in a community leads to more homicide.” Contrary to widespread public belief, the high rate of gun violence in the U.S. has little to do with mental illness. Conversely, an enormous body of evidence shows that gun control—serious, sustained gun control, not merely banning bump stocks or closing the “gun show loophole”—effectively and quickly reduces the rate of gun violence of all kinds.

But it is hard for conservatives to accept these arguments. The interaction between characteristic conservative personality patterns and universally shared patterns of cognition leads to conservatives being disproportionately skeptical of evidence provided by “experts” and scholarly studies. So conservatives turn to other means to soothe their anxiety. Some project their own anger onto others, fantasizing that people of color, immigrants, and feminists are the cause of their own inner torments. Anger, if nothing else, makes them feel bigger and more powerful.

Others, as NYU social psychologist John Jost and his co-authors have pointed out, adopt beliefs that soothe. The beliefs any particular individual adopts must meet several criteria: First and foremost, they must be consistent with the individual’s own particular personality structure, which, in turn, has been shaped by genetics and by the individual’s upbringing and experiences of the world.

But as I have already observed, personality patterns are not randomly distributed among the population. The patterns typical of conservatives and liberals tend to diverge. And so the beliefs that can soothe anxiety systematically differ between the two groups.

Second, the beliefs an individual uses to deal with negative self-feelings must be consistent with already-held beliefs and values and with the need to sustain a positive self-image and a stable sense of identity. That is, we seek to avoid what psychologist Leon Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” And an individual’s beliefs are ideally also consistent with preserving their relationships with peers, family, and community. As Yale psychologist Dan Kahan puts it, “Forming beliefs contrary to the ones that prevail in one’s group risks estrangement from others on whom one depends for support, material and emotional.”

Finally, another particular source of people’s beliefs may be identification with a charismatic political figure, such as a Ronald Reagan or a Donald Trump, who proclaims himself to be fighting the dragons on their behalf. Or they may reflect the shared beliefs of a specific organization or movement, in this case perhaps the Moral Majority and the Tea Party. These provide both a language and a narrative for beliefs.

Sharing in expressions of anger reduces anxiety and shame, validates one’s own otherwise possibly unacceptable urges and feelings, and provides social validation for one’s beliefs. But then the need for cognitive consistency takes over: Once you identify with figures or movements, their issues become your issues, regardless of their independent appeal. In any case, a strongly held belief about a specific issue such as “gun rights” can help assuage the anxiety that arises directly or indirectly from a felt sense of danger.

There’s another element of the conservative movement that has primed this shift toward gun rights. Historically, the first line of defense against danger is the state. But the rise in individualism of recent decades, the growing paralysis of our national government over recent decades, and intense conservative campaigns to sow mistrust of government as too big, too bureaucratic, and too incompetent combine to make the government an uncertain ally. A superficially realistic and healthy response is for individuals to take matters into their own hands and arm themselves to protect themselves and their families.

And then, when that same government that can’t be relied on for protection seems about to remove our right to protect ourselves, it becomes yet another source of pseudorealistic anxiety. Anger and commitment to “gun rights” are a sure way to soothe oneself, and it becomes quickly fused with the rest of the conservative agenda.