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Understanding America: Is there a connection between faith and firearms?

New research sheds some light on where religion figures into the 2020 surge in gun sales

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A display case at Impact Guns in Salt Lake City features empty spaces where guns that have been sold were once displayed on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Many are buying guns and stocking up on ammunition during the coronavirus pandemic.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Gloria is 40 years old, a mother of five and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She is also a gun owner. 

Gloria was one of the dozens of gun owners interviewed by two University of Kansas researchers, Abbie Vegter and Margaret Kelley, for a groundbreaking new study exploring the religious connection to gun ownership. 

“When asked about why she owned a gun,” the researchers write in “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Gun Ownership,” published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, “Gloria expressed a desire ‘to protect innocence.’ She related this back to the idea of the supernatural, sharing ‘I guess it goes back to good and evil. I would hope that I would always choose the good side, and sometimes that means that you’ve got to get rid of the bad guy.’” 

On the surface, the link between God and guns might seem paradoxical — after all, Christianity, in its essence, promotes peace like all the Abrahamic faiths. Yet, researchers have found connections between faith and firearms. Not only is America the “most devout of all the rich Western democracies,” according to Pew Research Center, but it is also the most armed.

And gun sales in 2020 have surged. November was another record-breaking month of gun sales in the United States. At 3.6 million, not only was it the highest November on record, it was the fourth highest month since the FBI began tracking firearm background checks in 1998 — behind March, June and July of 2020.

Experts don’t have a complete understanding of the connection between faith and gun sales. Not only is the intersection between faith and firearms underresearched, experts say, it’s something of a taboo. “Guns are the one controversy that we’ve ignored,” says Benjamin Dowd-Arrow, a visiting professor of sociology at Florida State University. “A lot of people don’t want to believe that Christianity can be connected to violence.” 

Another reason the connection between faith and firearms is poorly understood is because most of the research revolves around numbers, or quantitative data. But Vegter and Kelley’s study is based primarily on interviews — known in the academic parlance as “qualitative data” — that get at the thoughts, feelings and attitudes behind the numbers.

The dearth of qualitative research might explain why Americans are “talking past each other” in the divisive debate over gun ownership and safety, says Andrew Whitehead, a sociology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the author of “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States.” And understanding these attitudes could hold the key to creating policy that balances the constitutional right to gun ownership with the need to protect citizens from gun violence. 

For example, Whitehead’s research shows that the higher one ranks on measures of Christian nationalism, the more likely they are to oppose governmental restrictions on firearms.

“Christian nationalism doesn’t cause a love of guns but these two things are intertwined,” Whitehead says. Both Christianity and guns, he explains, are part of “assumptions about what it means to be an American.”

“Government is not a savior”

Vegter and Kelley’s research, published this summer, was based on interviews with 62 gun owners in Kansas. Most were from different Protestant traditions, including nondenominational Christians, Baptists and evangelicals — at 41%, white evangelicals own guns at a higher rate that any other religion in America, according to Pew Research Center. A couple of the interviewees were Catholic and there was a Buddhist and self-declared Wiccan included in the sample, as well.

Among other questions, Vegter and Kelley asked interviewees: “Do you consider yourself a religious person? Do you feel that your religion or spirituality influences your gun ownership? Do you believe in evil? Satan? Hell? What can we do about the gun violence in this country?”

They found that gun ownership is part of a larger “ethic” or worldview that frames gun ownership as a battle between “good and evil,” and “belief in supernatural evil is bound up in policy attitudes that protect or expand gun rights.” 

Based on her interviews, Vegter found that acquiring a gun stems from a “posture of fear.” she told the Deseret News, and a sense of a “duty to defend — a willingness to kill when necessary.” 

This is where the interviewees’ faith factored in. “The mentality is: ‘I’m answering (not to the law but) to a power that has given me that right,’” Vegter says.

To that point, Regan, a 39-year-old white nondenominational Christian, told Kelley and Vegter, “I believe in a higher authority than government.” She added that “government is not a savior for anybody; they’re human beings.”

Vegter remarks, “Gun owners tend to be very individualistic. They are less trusting of the government and of other people.” 

Asked if a general lack of confidence in the government might be behind this year’s surge in gun sales, David Yamane,  a sociologist at Wake Forest University who studies gun culture, replies, “For sure ... (that’s) a big part of defensive gun culture. It’s common to hear today, ‘No one’s coming to save you.’” 

The unrest that occurred during some Black Lives Matter protests also created images that, for some, perpetuated the “idea that you are basically on your own,” says Yamane. “The less trust one has in the government, the more likely they are to take to protecting themselves.” 

Yamane says that social uncertainty and self-defense “applies across the ideological spectrum.”

“Not everyone responds with firearms, but firearms are a response to a feeling of insecurity and a need for protection — whether you’re a liberal Jew or Muslim immigrant or older conservative white male.” 

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A selection of handguns on display at “Get Some” Guns and Ammo on Wednesday, October 16, 2013.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

Influence of Christian nationalism

The lack of trust in government is key to understanding why some Christians within the gun rights movement oppose legislative attempts to regulate firearm ownership.

One week after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Wayne LaPierre — executive vice president of the National Rifle Association — took to the stage of theConservative Political Action Conference. The right to bear arms, LaPierre told the audience, “is not bestowed by man, but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright.” 

This quote encapsulates the Christian nationalist view of firearms,according to Whitehead and other researchers. 

The more that one embraces Christian nationalism — the belief that the U.S. is divinely ordained and that there should be no separation between the Christian church and the public institutions of the state — “the more likely they are to oppose gun control restrictions,” says Whitehead, a leading authority on Christian nationalism.

In his analysis of data collected for the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey, Whiteheadshows a high correlation between being a Christian nationalist and opposing gun control. The only better predictor of opposition to gun control is adherence to a conservative ideology. 

He says that connection has implications for gun policy.

“We find with Christian (nationalists) when they look at certain collective action problems — like gun violence, for example — they don’t see how to fix this issue through federal government change. They see that the moral fabric of the U.S. is unraveling,” Whitehead says, adding that the thinking goes: “Only by turning the U.S. into a Christian nation will we see gun violence decrease.” 

New American gun owners

A more diverse crowd could be hitting gun shops now, Yamane speculates, adding that it would fit the larger demographic trends around firearms.

“Every year, (approximately) a million new gun owners enter the market ... as older ones die,” he says. “New gun owners look different than (the ones they’re replacing). They’re slightly more female. Slightly more urban. Slightly more racial minority. Which isn’t to say that a majority of the new gun owners hit those characteristics but they skew slightly more in those diverse directions.”  

A third-generation Japanese American on his father’s side, Yamane reflects this trend, however small. Not only does he study gun culture, he partakes in it, documenting his journey on hisGun Culture 2.0 blog with posts like “How a Card Carrying Liberal Professor Became a Card Carrying Liberal Armed American.” 

“Some of the previous patterns connecting to Christianity may be breaking down,” Yamane observes, pointing to “underreporting in certain communities” — namely minority neighborhoods. “You can imagine if you’re a racial minority in a violent inner city neighborhood you also feel that the police aren’t coming to help you. Those people also own firearms but they don’t show up in registers.” 

Nonetheless, the link between guns and faith is inescapable. “People want a feeling of existential security and religions have historically provided that in very powerful ways,” he says. For many Americans, firearms do the same.