Before I began studying American gun culture, I spent 20+ years studying American religion. So it is perfectly natural that I would try to bridge the two interests.
It is also the case that people often connect religion and guns in America. This, too, makes sense because the United States today is one of the most religious countries in the world and we have the most guns. President Obama’s infamous comment connecting guns and religion (“clinging”) could also be phrased more neutrally based on the existing research on the topic. Through the years scholars have repeatedly found that Protestants are more likely to own guns than other Americans.
But Protestants themselves are a diverse group – white and Black, liberal and conservative – and religious tradition is also just one way to understand a person’s religiosity. Therefore, I undertook to examine the relationship between religion and gun ownership using a more complex understanding of religion.
That research was published recently in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. You can download a copy of the article here: yamane-2017-journal_for_the_scientific_study_of_religion.
Unlike previous studies, I look not only at the belonging dimension of religious tradition (different Protestant traditions, Catholics, Jews, Nones), but also the believing and behaving dimensions of religiosity. For reasons I explain in the paper, I also focus on PERSONAL (rather than household) ownership of HANDGUNS (rather than long guns or all guns).
Using data from the General Social Survey (recognizing its limitations), I find that Evangelical Protestants are more likely to personally own handguns than Mainline Protestants, but are no different than Black Protestants, Catholics, Jews, or religious nones, once other differences are held constant. This is a significant departure from previous studies.
In terms of the BELIEVING dimension of religiosity, I find theological conservatives are MORE likely to personally own handguns than others. And in terms of the BEHAVING dimension, with those who are more involved in the life of their congregations are LESS likely.
There is much more to the story than just this, though, and I was fortunate to spend a good bit of time talking to Paul Lathrop and John Richardson of the Polite Society Podcast explaining these findings.
So look for my segments on Episode 401 when it is posted.
(UPDATE: The audio of my time on the Polite Society Podcast is now live. I don’t have the nerve to listen to it myself, so if you do, let me know what you think!)
The bottom line is that the relationship between religion and gun ownership is as complex as religion itself is in the United States. And this complexity is not simply an academic matter. Although it is tempting for groups on both sides of the great gun debates to co-opt “religion” for their side (pro-gun and anti-gun groups alike), neither has a monopoly on people of faith in America.