Matt Stiles

Reporter and data journalist @gridnews

May 26, 2022
Published on: Grid News
2 min read
Americans rush to buy guns after a mass shooting. Here’s why.

For advocates of stricter gun laws, mass shootings are a moment they believe should inspire converts to their cause. But data shows that in the wake of these events, more Americans purchase guns rather than give them up.

FBI background checks for firearms — one measure for estimating fluctuations in gun sales across the country — indeed increased after major mass shooting events and other unsettling news events, according to a Grid analysis of data released by the bureau.

About 1 million background checks for purchases of handguns, rifles or both have occurred on average each month since 2009, the data shows. But those figures spiked after major news events. The three highest months were March 2020, when the covid pandemic was declared; December 2012, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting; and in December 2015, following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

They also increased to more than 2 million in June 2020, as the Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer.

High-profile shootings (or really any major events where there is a perceived threat to safety), according to experts, feed into the top reason gun owners say they purchase firearms: worry over personal safety.

“Mass shootings are likely to boost sales if they heighten concerns over personal security, because self-protection is the most commonly cited reason for owning a firearm,” David Studdert, professor of law and health policy at Stanford University, wrote in his 2017 study on gun purchase rates following mass shootings.

Democrats in Congress are calling for new gun control measures after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. But the aftermath of previous mass shootings suggests instead of convincing gun owners that this is the time to enact more restrictions, the idea of new legislation makes them dig their heels in even more. And it’s not just politics. It’s about how gun owners think of guns as “symbols of safety” that someone is trying to take away.

“Gun control proposals designed to decrease fear have the opposite of their intended effect on those who view guns as symbols of personal safety, increasing rather than decreasing their fears independently of any actual effects on gun violence,” Studdert wrote. “Such policies are therefore non-starters, and will remain non-starters, for the sizeable proportion of Americans who regard guns as essential for self-preservation.”

Good guys and bad guys

For many gun rights supporters, the debate over gun laws should be about who can have a gun. The idea that if you take guns away from people who have no plans to cause harm with them, then only the bad guys will have guns.

The National Rifle Association and other gun rights supporters say measures limiting gun purchases don’t make sense because there’s a strong illegal gun market — and “criminals don’t obey gun control laws,” the NRA writes on its website. By making it harder for law-abiding people to buy a gun, the group argues, the government is leaving everyday people vulnerable to unlawful people with weapons.

“For [those who value guns for self-protection], removing guns from law-abiding ‘good guys’ while doing nothing to deter access to the ‘bad guys’ who commit crimes is illogical anathema,” wrote Joseph Pierre, a psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a paper published in the journal Palgrave Communications.

But that doesn’t mean that all restrictions are off the table. Polling shows that, across the political spectrum, an overwhelming majority of Americans oppose people with mental illness buying guns and a large, though smaller, majority supports background checks.

Perception of safety

Gun rights organizations also argue that when more people own guns, general crime goes down. At the time of publication, the NRA had not responded to requests for an interview. But the group does have a page on its site laying out its argument and citing some studies.

But the argument doesn’t address safety in the homes of individual gun owners. Most of the research shows that gun ownership puts families at greater risk of harm from guns.

Studdert said that in a separate study he recently published on private arm ownership and mortality risk in California, having a gun in the house actually puts everyone in the home at risk of accidental or intentional homicide, as well as increases suicide rates. “A gun turns out to be not a protector, but an instrument of death,” he told Grid.

Pierre said he believes gun owners are aware of the larger trend; it isn’t that gun owners haven’t seen or don’t know the statistics. He wrote that information on the risks of gun ownership has become more available over the years, yet the same number of people — or even more — own guns.

Pierre said it comes down to what’s called motivated reasoning — explained in Psychology Today as “when biased reasoning leads to a particular conclusion or decision, a process that often occurs outside of conscious awareness.” In layperson’s terms, no matter how rational we think we are, we are all (yes, all of us) “subject to influence, or bias, by emotions and instincts.”

So while the data might say each of us is at greater risk of a gun death in our home, we have trouble applying that statistic to ourselves.

“We use motivated reasoning all the time, Pierre told Grid, “especially when we appraise the risks of our own dangerous behavior. For example, when we do things like smoke, or have unprotected sex, or text while we drive, we often convince ourselves that it’s not as dangerous as the evidence tells us ... That’s motivated reasoning in action.

Both sides of the gun debate do it, said Pierre — emphasizing that those who can’t fathom a gun in their home should not fall into the “easy trap of pathologizing gun owners and dismissing their fears as irrational.”

“There’s certainly plenty of that going on among ‘pro-gun advocates who discount the actuarial data on the risks of firearm ownership,” Pierre told Grid. But motivated reasoning exists on the other side of the debate as well, whether in overestimating the risks of being victimized by gun violence or interpreting the data on the effectiveness of various forms of ‘gun control’ such as bans on so-called ‘assault rifles,’ where the evidence isn’t as clear as “gun control” advocates would like to believe. Many such advocates ... get hung up on media portrayals of weapons as “military grade” weaponry worthy of fear rather than looking at the facts about what might make certain types of firearms more deadly.”

For gun owners, that motivated reasoning includes fear of victimization, even though the majority of gun owners in the U.S. are white men from rural communities who tend to be in higher income brackets, wrote Pierre. “These findings suggest a mismatch between subjective fear and objective reality.”

Studdert, who is from Melbourne, Australia, said that the tie many Americans have to their guns goes beyond just the belief that they keep you safe. The gun, he said, is an inherent part of American culture.

“There’s a religious, political, social attachment to the firearm as a cultural symbol and as a consumer product in America that we just don’t have in Australia,” he said. “You do have people that are strong believers in gun rights, but it’s just not part of [Australia’s] constitution.”

Pierre agreed: “As I like to say, gun culture is American culture. We’re a country born out of violent revolt against an oppressor. In more recent generations, the idea of ‘good guys with guns’ — played out in childhood games ... has remained part of the archetypal American hero. It’s something that’s routinely reinforced in Hollywood cinema that glorifies gun violence when it’s used to fight bad guys.”

“The problem we’re facing right now is that we don’t agree as much about who the bad guys are,” he added.

Pierre told Grid that the idea that there can be no compromise on either side of the gun debate is a myth — and maybe even an intentional one.

“The reality is that polls have shown that there is considerable public support for ‘common sense’ gun laws like universal background checks; laws mandating safe gun storage in households with children; and ‘red flag’ laws restricting access to firearms under certain conditions like when someone has been placed under a temporary domestic violence restraining order or someone who has been hospitalized for mental illness who is judged to be in danger of harming themselves or others.”

In the abstract of his paper, he calls for “more research to resolve ambiguities about how best to minimize fear while maximizing personal and public safety” to help both sides find some middle ground.

Thank you to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article. This article has been updated.