Golfers, Gun Owners, and Social Identity

Whenever someone asks me, “Are you a golfer?” I offer a canned response: “No, but I play golf.” I resist the label golfer. To embrace it seems to heighten expectations in an uncomfortable way.

The same can be said of the label gun owner. Do I own guns? Yes. Is being a gun owner central to my identity? Not really.

In fact, the Pew Research Center’s 2017 report on “America’s Complex Relationship with Guns” highlights differences in the centrality of owning guns to people’s identities. About half of gun owners say being a gun owner is very (25%) or somewhat (25%) important to their overall identity, and half say it is not too important (30%) or not at all important (20%).

Source: Pew Research Center, “America’s Complex Relationship with Guns” (2017).

What makes embracing “gun owner” as an identity difficult for me? For one, in certain quarters — notably on university campuses and among sociologists in particular — gun owner is a stigmatized identity.

In addition, certain strains of the gun control movement have also sought to do to gun owners what was done to smokers or drunk drivers previously: make them public health pariahs.

At the same time, some of the people who most embrace the gun owner identity are not people with whom I want to identify. Examples abound from the recent “re-open” rallies in various states.

Last, some “gun owners” are simply assholes and some are idiots. This explains the existence, for example, of a 30,000 person Facebook group called “Gun People Who Hate Gun People.”

So, there are an abundance of push factors driving me away from the gun owner identity. This highlights an interesting parallel to work in my original field of study, the sociology of religion. The percentage of Americans who opted not to state a religious preference in response to surveys doubled in the 1990s and has continued to increase since then. Many of these people maintain religious beliefs and practices even as they are classified as religious “nones.”

Although explanations for this are complex, among them is Michael Hout and Claude Fischer’s thesis that political moderates and liberals did not want to identify themselves as belonging to a religion because of negative associations of religion with the Christian Right.

Given these complexities, we need to approach the issue of gun ownership in more sophisticated ways, both methodologically and conceptually. Matthew Lacombe’s work on the construction of gun owner as a social identity is exemplary in both regards. I discuss his article, “The Political Weaponization of Gun Owners: The National Rifle Association’s Cultivation, Dissemination, and Use of a Group Social Identity” in my next post.

11 thoughts on “Golfers, Gun Owners, and Social Identity

  1. “…Last, some “gun owners” are simply assholes…” Jeeze, David. You say that as though it is a bad thing!

    Now seriously, I tend to think of myself as more than a bicyclist, a motorcyclist, a gun owner,a vegetarian, or a scientist at a national lab. Or more than a recovered Catholic who is simply unsure of the role of religion in my life, since my wife is a stated Hindu. When I think about religion or someone asks, I refer them to The Blind Men and the Elephant.

    As far as identifying as a gun owner? Well, when someone gives me shit about guns, I’m happy to identify as a gun owner. Same with anti-bicyclists. Otherwise, I just don’t like labels. The whole is more than the sum of the parts.

    But nice blog post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. By the way, in that rarefied atmosphere of liberal identity politics, calling someone a “bicyclist” or “cyclist” has become synonymous with being an elitist or even a lycra-wearing asshole. Or, just someone who spends a lot of time in lycra riding expensive machinery. Take your pick.

    Seems to me a lot of this is the enhanced tribalism we see today. Are you a member of my tribe or that other tribe over there?


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  4. Having fled academia myself, this sentence really resonated with me.

    “For one, in certain quarters — notably on university campuses and among sociologists in particular — gun owner is a stigmatized identity.”

    I would say those who engage in such stigmatization are themselves huge assholes, too.

    I will check out Lacombe’s article, but having been involved with guns much longer than you have, I would say the liberal Democrats did a whole lot to politicize guns with their ill-considered, so-called “Assault Weapons Ban” of 1994.


    • Thanks for reading and commenting. No doubt there are plenty of assholes to go around, on all sides.

      I am not a historian of gun politics or the NRA, but I agree with what you are saying that gun owners were politically weaponized in response to gun control efforts, very much including the 1994 AWB but well before that also. I am reading a book called The NRA by Frank Smyth that was just published and he says the early history of the NRA (19th century) was focused on marksmanship not gun rights politics. Of course, there were no major national efforts to control guns then either. (Note: the regulation of concealed carry was happening on the state level in the late 19th century, and I think the effort to liberalize concealed carry in the later 20th century was definitely a new direction for the NRA.)


      • I’ve been aware of your blog before, and a link on a gun forum brought me here today.

        I intend to read it more often, and am glad you’re still writing it.

        The main official mission of the NRA is still marksmanship and training. It’s the biggest single firearms training organization in the world.

        The NRA did not go political until the 1970s, about 100 years after its founding.

        The main impetus was the passage of the “Gun Control Act of 1968” and the clearly-stated intentions from various politicians and groups to ban guns from the general public.

        For example, Washington D.C banned handgun possession in 1975, with the ban lasting until struck down by the Supreme Court in the Heller Decision in 2008. Chicago passed a similar ban on handgun possession in 1982 , in effect until struck down by the Supreme Court in the McDonald Decision in 2010.

        If you want to see a little more on how the NRA went political, search for the NRA Cincinnati Revolt of 1977, when the organization shifted its stance to become what many people see as a largely-political action group it is today.

        My own journey has parallels. I did not link guns and politics early in my life.

        I, myself, actually voted for Bill Clinton for President in 1992.

        But the passage of the 1994 “Assault Weapons Ban” and the corresponding demonization and stigmitization of people who think like I do about guns by the mainstream press (both print and broadcast) and the villification of people who think like I do about guns by mostly-lefty politicians and academics successfully radicalized me to the point where I vote gun rights first, every single time.


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