Tag Archives: physical safety

Fear Itself

Scientific American recently published a fascinating article, titled “Why Are White Men Stockpiling Guns?” It began by reciting statistics most of us now know:

Since the 2008 election of President Obama, the number of firearms manufactured in the U.S. has tripled, while imports have doubled. This doesn’t mean more households have guns than ever before—that percentage has stayed fairly steady for decades. Rather, more guns are being stockpiled by a small number of individuals. Three percent of the population now owns half of the country’s firearms, says a recent, definitive studyfrom the Injury Control Research Center at Harvard University.

So, who is buying all these guns—and why?

The conventional wisdom was that gun sales to white guys spiked when a black man was elected President. The article provided a more finely-grained description of the specific “white guys” who went on that buying spree, citing several scientific studies that have concluded that “the kind of man who stockpiles weapons or applies for a concealed-carry license meets a very specific profile.”

These are men who are anxious about their ability to protect their families, insecure about their place in the job market, and beset by racial fears. They tend to be less educated. For the most part, they don’t appear to be religious—and, suggests one study, faith seems to reduce their attachment to guns. In fact, stockpiling guns seems to be a symptom of a much deeper crisisin meaning and purpose in their lives. Taken together, these studies describe a population that is struggling to find a new story—one in which they are once again the heroes.

Researchers also found pervasive anti-government sentiments among these men.

“This is interesting because these men tend to see themselves as devoted patriots, but make a distinction between the federal government and the ‘nation,’ says Froese. “On that point, I expect that many in this group see the ‘nation’ as being white.”

The entire article is fascinating. It also dovetails with the results of research into political attitudes conducted at Yale.That research built on a decade of political psychology studies that found people who feel physically threatened or fearful are more likely to be conservatives.

Conservatives, it turns out, react more strongly to physical threat than liberals do. In fact, their greater concern with physical safety seems to be determined early in life: In one University of California study, the more fear a 4-year-old showed in a laboratory situation, the more conservative his or her political attitudes were found to be 20 years later. Brain imaging studies have even shown that the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, is actually larger in conservatives than in liberals. And many other laboratory studies have found that when adult liberals experienced physical threat, their political and social attitudes became more conservative (temporarily, of course).

In the research experiment, when subjects were told to Imagine being completely safe from physical harm, their attitudes changed, and their policy preferences became indistinguishable  from those of the liberals in the experiment.

This result may seem far-fetched, but it correlates with social science research that shows lower incidence of social dysfunction and crime in countries with more robust social safety nets.

FDR was onto something when he said we should fear “fear itself.”