The Standard Model of Explaining the Irrationality of Defensive Gun Ownership

Last year I was invited to contribute to a special issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science by the editors Cassandra Crifasi, Jennifer Dineen, and Kerri Raissian. The theme of this issue is “Gun Violence in America: What Works and What is Possible.”

Specifically, the editors invited me “to write a paper overviewing the evolution of American gun culture – from hunting to gun culture 2.0. Your scholarship in this area will help readers of the special issue understand the role guns play in American culture and how that role has evolved (or not) over time.”

I am always flattered but such invitations, though perhaps I should not be. Maybe the first dozen people they asked said “No”? More likely is the reality that not many scholars have focused their work on gun culture per se, as opposed to adverse outcomes with guns, which is the primary focus of this special issue.

As usual, my participation in these sorts of enterprises reminds me of the Sesame Street song I remember so well from my childhood.

My contribution will focus on the rise of Gun Culture 2.0, the self-defense core of American gun culture today. But I also want to engage what I call “The Standard Model of Explaining the Irrationality of Defensive Gun Ownership” – the primary way gun studies scholars approach Gun Culture 2.0.

The Standard Model of Explaining the Irrationality of Defensive Gun Ownership

An excellent example of The Standard Model can be found in “Protective Gun Ownership as a Coping Mechanism” by Nick Buttrick, a postdoc at Princeton University.

The Standard Model has the following structure:

(1) It recognizes Gun Culture 2.0: “the culture of protective gun ownership has become the dominant mode in American life” (Buttrick 835). No argument there!

(2) It discounts the need for and utility of guns for defense: “And yet gun owners rarely use their guns to prevent victimization” (Buttrick 835).

Here it is mandatory to reference David Hemenway’s and Sara Solnick’s 2015 article, “The epidemiology of self-defense gun use: Evidence from the National Crime Victimization Surveys 2007–2011.”

In this article, Hemenway and Solnick argue against both the need for guns and their utility for defense: (1) “Self-defense gun use (SDGU) occurs in fewer than 1% of contact crimes,” and (2) “SDGU is not associated with a reduced risk of victim injury.”

(3) It holds that the opposite is true of owning guns: “In contrast, bringing a gun into one’s home clearly makes it more dangerous: A gun in the home substantially increases the likelihood that a household member will die by a gun, whether by homicide, suicide, or accidental shootings” (Buttrick 835).

Public health research on guns focuses on this point in particular, so the citations are numerous, but The Standard Model looks to founding architect Arthur Kellerman’s twin towers published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1992 (“Suicide in the home in relation to gun ownership”) and 1993 (“Gun ownership as a risk factor for homicide in the home”).

(4) Therefore, defensive gun ownership is not rational but irrational. It is irrational both in a psychological sense that motivations for gun ownership are driven by fear instead of the reality of need and utility (Point 2) and in a utility maximization sense that the risks are greater than the rewards (Point 3).

Therefore, claiming self-defense as a reason for gun ownership is actually a rationalization. In reality, something else is motivating defensive gun ownership.

(5) Scholars from sociology and political science define the something else as:

(A) Downward economic mobility. Key works include: Prominent in Jennifer Carlson’s Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline and Carson Mencken’s and Paul Froese’s “Gun Culture in Action.”

(B) Stereotypical/Toxic masculinity. Key works include Angela Stoud’s Good Guys with Guns: The Appeal and Consequences of Concealed Carry and Scott Melzer’s Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War.

(C) Racism/Racial resentment. Key works include Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland and Alexandra Filindra’s series of articles on the topic.

Of course, many scholars adopt an intersectional approach wherein two or more parts of social science’s Holy Quadrinity of race-class-gender-sexuality come together in a single analysis of the drivers of defensive gun ownership. Carlson and Stroud both focus on race, class, and gender. In Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense, Caroline Light criticizes “white hetero/cis-masculinity” as driving defensive gun culture.

(6) Psychologists define the something else as a coping mechanism. As Buttrick argues, “guns act as a maladaptive coping mechanism that allows their owners to manage the psychological threats that they face in their everyday lives, but at a serious cost” (p. 836). In addition to Buttrick, Wolfgang Strobe and colleagues use this framing in “Is It a Dangerous World Out There? The Motivational Bases of American Gun Ownership.”

(Psychology is not my forte so I welcome suggestions for other work that falls under Point 6.)

Conclusion

One of the benefits of elaborating the terms of The Standard Model is that it facilitates a sort of plug-and-play approach to new studies I come across.

For example, a recent episode of the “Red, Blue and Brady” podcast caught my eye. It was on “The Social Lives of Firearms: How Guns are Made – And What They Mean.” The special guest was Brandon Hunter-Pazzara, a doctoral student in anthropology at Princeton, discussing his article, “The possessive investment in guns: towards a material, social, and racial analysis of guns”

Hunter-Pazzara’s argument: “This new era of guns in American life builds from a longer history in which the gun remains central to the maintenance of the American racial order.” In my framework, 5C.

Two other recent articles (one published in the special issue of Sociological Perspectives I edited) fall under my framework’s 5B: Tara Warner and colleagues’ “To Provide or Protect? Masculinity, Economic Precarity, and Protective Gun Ownership in the United States” and Dan Cassino and Yasemin Besen-Cassino’s “Sometimes (but Not This Time), a Gun Is Just a Gun: Masculinity Threat and Guns in the United States, 1999–2018.”

And so on.

I will be breaking down each of the parts of The Standard Model into separate posts in the future so I can keep a running bibliography of the major works in each. Stay tuned for that!

16 thoughts on “The Standard Model of Explaining the Irrationality of Defensive Gun Ownership

  1. Have you already given the talk? Is it recorded? Or the paper?

    Some of those rationalizations sound like circular reasoning, i.e., question begging. If I want reassurance, I’ll hug my dog. If I want to go out tin can shooting, I’ll hug my gun.Meanwhile, as you have pointed out on your own GC 2.0 web site, Kellerman’s work has been badly mangled by others. We own our home, don’t have domestic violence or drug problems, and don’t hang out with nefarious people. Bada bing, bada boom.

    Plus, when you know someone who was murdered because they didn’t have the means of self-defense, its a different story than some of these erudite people talkin’ down to this no-account in Flyover Country. Susie Schwartz was a fellow bio major, class of 1976. Shared classes with her until I switched majors to geoscience. She was stabbed to death not far from my own off campus home.

    https://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/local/2013/09/30/promise-turns-to-grieving/2894149/

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  2. I find many of the points of The Standard Model to be specious and almost certainly the result of the limitations of applying certain data-sets – as well as obvious forms of scholarship second, bias first. Reasonable people of all types engage in concealed carry and training. Humans have been engaging in the preparation for eventualities during the entire time we have been a species. I think we would be likely to find that these scholars also engage in behaviors related to preparing for low-probability outcomes in other areas of life – areas that just happen to be acceptable to their personal worldviews. Part of the limit with this approach to data has to do with how important our cognitive reality is. These data-sets are dealing with events that manifest in reality. But how much of essential human activity never leaves the brain? A lot. Quite a lot.

    Dealing with *lethal* eventualities is an ongoing human reality. Cultural phenomena can intensify this, or water it down, or almost eliminate it. But it never goes away. We have a great opportunity to sublimate this phenomenon – armed self-defense. Another attempt by academics and scholars and professionals to paint a phenomenon using the same limited brushes doesn’t help.

    “The Standard Model” is the perfect example of why operating within proximate reasoning is often an inferior application of intellect. It’s also the reason why people involved in the humanities are often not taken seriously: bias driven scholarship and the shadow of proximate reasoning.

    Guns are normal. Preparing for eventualities is hyper-normal. Preparing for self-defense is normal. preparing for armed-self defense is normal.

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  3. I agree with LiberalGunOwner, in that most of the standard model seems to be a pre-determined outline which someone could just fill in the blanks and ensure that they fit in nicely with “liberal” notions about gun owners. There has been a decent amount of scholarship, though in law journals and a few other areas that refute assumptions, 2, 3, 4 and probably 5. I find points 5, and 6 to be easy (for the authors) categories to lump people that they do not understand. To me it comes across as: These actions are strange to me so they must be some coping mechanism that helps them (gun owners) cover for some inadequacy. I do want to be upfront about my own belief systems in that I am a mostly conservative firearms owner, (for decades), with multiple degrees including a Masters in Applied Psychology and a PhD in Information (computers) Systems, living in a Blue State.

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      • here is what I have found so far. I know I have seen more but I need to find them
        The Right to Carry Has Not Increased Crimehttps://ssrn.com/abstract=3887151

        The Right to Armed Self-Defense in Light of Law Enforcement Abdication https://ssrn.com/abstract=3703927

        ​The Worldwide Popular Revolt Against Proportionality in Self Defense Law​
        Renee Lettow Lerner, The Worldwide Popular Revolt Against Proportionality in Self-Defense Law, 2 J.L. Econ. & Pol’y 331 (2006).

        If you visit the website of Glenn Reynolds (instapundit.com) who is a law professor, often you will see to articles that he and others post on the subject

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      • additional articles:
        THE SECOND AMENDMENT AS A GUARD AGAINST GOVERNMENT-SANCTIONED TYRANNOUS FACTIONS ssrn.com/abstract=3712308

        The State’s Monopoly of Force and the Right to Bear Arms ssrn.com/abstract=3711661

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  4. Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the “something else” that drives defensive gun ownership of the Standard Model is true. Then my question is why are none of these scholars recommending that we tackle the specific issues driving defensive gun ownership? By their own reasoning, if we address the reasons for defensive gun ownership, then such ownership should decline. But that gets to an even bigger revelation: their whole purpose is really to just reduce the number of guns out there in legal gun owners hands and not to solve the underlying issues that they claim are driving such gun ownership. This tells me that they are coming up with these reasons to drive a predetermined outcome that they really want: reduce the number of guns in civilian hands period.

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    • One of the things that seems to be assumed is that sef defense may drive the act of obtaining a firearm but it is not uncommon for that initial act to lead the person to discover that shooting can be lots of fun. especially when they discover that there is an entire community built around the recreational use of firearms and that there is a community that is very open and welcoming involved with that use.
      A couple of years ago I was interested in learning about bulls-eye shooting. I found a place that had a league and went down to see what it was all about. They could not have been more welcoming to the point of offering to loan me a pistol to try it out.

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