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How Come (Some) Americans Like Guns?

I have never understood how my friends in public health do research on gun violence when they don’t know anything about guns. None of them are gun owners, none of them hang out with gun nuts, none of them are members of the gun industry’s trade group, NASGW, none of them go to the big gun shows, or the little shows, for that matter.

Meanwhile, every time that a public health researcher publishes some research on gun violence, there is also a footnote about how the work is being done to help develop more effective approaches to dealing with guns.

Would the SEC publish a new regulation covering the stock market without first passing it by Merrill-Lynch? They wouldn’t dare. Would the FDIC send out a new notice about banking rules without first consulting Bank of America or Chase? Ditto.

The most incisive analysis that public health and other gun-control researchers give us to explain how and why 300 million or 400 million guns are floating around America in private hands is the answer to the question asked in every, single survey conducted by Pew, RAND, Harvard, Hopkins, and everyone else: Why do you own a gun?

The survey respondents, if they are gun owners, are asked to choose between the following answers: (1). self-defense, (2). hunting (3). sport shooting.

And the headline for these surveys is that Americans are increasingly buying and owning guns to protect themselves from whatever they believe might be a threat to them.

Whereupon the researchers always note that violent crime has declined by half over the last twenty or so years, which only goes to prove that when gun owners tell you why they buy guns, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

So, if you are trying to figure out how to talk to gun owners about the risks represented by their guns, how do you come up with an effective message when the population you are trying to reach doesn’t even know the real reasons why they like guns?

You don’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t apply to the CDC or the Joyce Foundation for another research grant that will enable you to conduct the same survey in another couple of years.

That all being said, and I have chastised my public health friends many times for their lack of knowledge about the industry which they want to regulate in more effective ways, I have just finished reading a remarkable study which sheds what I consider to be the most penetrating and profound insights into the contemporary gun-owning mentality, and you can download a copy of this research right here.

The article is the handiwork of three faculty members at Oregon State’s College of Business, who conduct research into a mental and marketing mode known as ‘consumer responsibilization,’ which their discipline defines as “a moralizing, neoliberal governance process that leverages market logic—free choice, rationality, and individual responsibility—to shift responsibility for addressing social problems from the state to the individual, and, in so doing, create a responsible consumer.”

Now if that hasn’t been the basic marketing strategy adopted and promoted by the gun industry for the past forty or so years, I don’t know a better way to describe why and how this industry has managed to compensate for the decline in hunting over the same period of time. In 1975, Americans bought 14 million hunting licenses. In 2015, Americans again bought 14 million licenses which allow them to go out in a field and take a whack at Bambi’s rear end.

The population of the United States in 1975 was 214 million. In 2015, the number was 325 million. The same number of hunting licenses were sold to a national population which has grown by 50 percent(!) over those forty years.

Meanwhile, anyone who wants to see how the gun industry has reacted to the shift in gun owning culture and consumer preference doesn’t need to conduct an expensive, national survey on the internet or by phone. All you have to do is take a look at the annual report covering gun manufacturing published by the ATF and you’ll see the shift from hunting to armed, self-defense right there.

I’m not going to analyze this repot from Oregon State University in detail, except to say that what it captures in brilliant clarity is the degree to which the decision by a consumer to purchase a consumer product known as a ‘gun,’ has many nuanced, variables attached to that decision which go far beyond whether the gun is being purchased for self-defense or sport.

Someone who walks into a gun shop to buy a gun is no different than someone who walks into a boutique to buy some jewelry or an extra pair of shoes. Our economy is the world’s largest because so much of what represents economic activity results from the purchase of goods and services that we really don’t need.

You don’t need to carry a gun in order to get to work. You need a car. You don’t need a gun in order to make the little brat a lunch for school. You need bread, some peanut butter, and some jam.

If Gun-control Nation is ever going to convince the other side that guns first and foremost represent a risk rather than a benefit, they need to understand why gun owners buy guns and that understanding can be gained in this masterly piece of research.

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