The most obvious answer when attempting to find the root cause for certain Americans being so obsessed with guns is fear. These people are scared of something—irrelevance, anarchy, immigrants, black people, aliens, Black Panther Build-a-Bears—and this fear drives them to amass arsenals and fight against even the idea of any sort of restriction. They attempt to spin this fear-based reluctance as a fight for their freedoms, but we don’t believe them. They need more people.
I addressed this dynamic two weeks ago when trying to make some sense out of Parkland, Fla.—and Sandy Hook, and Columbine, and Las Vegas, and Orlando, Fla., and wherever the next mass shooting will happen:
We are surrounded, outnumbered, out-resourced and outgunned. Our entire existence here is a continual assault on our bodies.
But we are the ones perceived to be the threats. We are the ones they’re scared of. We are the ones who tell our children how to dress and how to wear their hair so they’re not thought of as threats to them. We are the ones who consciously and subconsciously modify our voices and our behavior when forced to interact with them. We’re the ones whom trained officers with weapons and badges and handcuffs and legal justifications are so damn scared of that we’ve created entire curricula based on that fear, teaching ourselves what to do to seem less frightening to them.
This fear is why they’re so obsessed with arming themselves with multiple human killing machines. It’s why they fight against even the notion of incremental disarmament so vehemently. They are scared shitless of us. Of anyone who is not them. And this fear is why our shitty gun laws exist, and it’s why they will continue to.
Naturally, there was some pushback from people who don’t believe that fear—specifically, fear possessed by white conservatives—is what’s driving our gun control problem. And some of their points and arguments were so compelling that I considered reconsidering.
Keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe from harm is perhaps our strongest human motivation, deeply embedded in our very DNA. It is so deep and important that it influences much of what we think and do, maybe more than we might expect. For example, over a decade now of research in political psychology consistently shows that how physically threatened or fearful a person feels is a key factor — although clearly not the only one — in whether he or she holds conservative or liberal attitudes.
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.
With this in mind, John Bargh (the author of this piece) and three of his colleagues (Jaime Napier, Julie Huang and Andy Vonasch) conducted an experiment in which they turned conservatives into liberals by simply asking the conservatives to pretend that they weren’t controlled by fear.
But before they answered the survey questions, we had them engage in an intense imagination exercise. They were asked to close their eyes and richly imagine being visited by a genie who granted them a superpower. For half of our participants, this superpower was to be able to fly, under one’s own power. For the other half, it was to be completely physically safe, invulnerable to any harm.
If they had just imagined being able to fly, their responses to the social attitude survey showed the usual clear difference between Republicans and Democrats — the former endorsed more conservative positions on social issues and were also more resistant to social change in general.
But if they had instead just imagined being completely physically safe, the Republicans became significantly more liberal — their positions on social attitudes were much more like the Democratic respondents. And on the issue of social change in general, the Republicans’ attitudes were now indistinguishable from the Democrats.
Basically, if we could somehow find a way to convince conservatives not to be so fucking scared of every damn thing, they’d be better people.
This seems like a daunting task. Perhaps even impossible. But if they were able to convince themselves that we’re subhuman superpredators, it shouldn’t be too hard to convince them that they’re Black Panther.