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KU study shows religion shapes gun ownership views

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Published: Aug. 6, 2020 at 4:51 PM CDT
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LAWRENCE, Kan. (WIBW) - A University of Kansas study is showing how religion shapes Americans’ views on gun ownership.

The University of Kansas says it recently published a study showing how religion shapes gun ownership views. It says whether it is fear of violence or steadfast belief in constitutional rights, Americans have strong opinions on why they need guns, including concerns of Satan and Armageddon.

“People have these stereotypes of religious individuals and think their connections to guns are simple, when in fact they’re fairly complex,” said Margaret Kelley, associate professor of American studies at the University of Kansas. “One of our main findings is religion actually drives responsible gun ownership. Because of their duty, they needed to be diligent about training and practicing and making sure they are careful with their firearm.”

Kelley says her new article, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Gun Ownership,” looks at how religious beliefs shape national attitudes about weapons. She says it appears in the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion.

Kelley says the article is co-written with Abigail Vegter, a KU doctoral student in political science, the article incorporates interviews with dozens of Christian gun owners in the Midwest. She says the study suggests religious ethic “guides individual gun owners to stress the need to protect, be diligent and defend.”

According to Kelley, one subject named Greg, a 63-year-old white man discusses watching the film “American Sniper.” She says in this biopic of Chris Kyle, the Nave SEAL sniper is asked why he chose that job.

“He goes, ‘Because there’s evil in the world,’” Greg says in the article. Kelley says Greg confirms that supernatural evil was his biggest reason for keeping firearms, whether for protection from Satan or from the apocalypse.

Kelley says that white evangelical Protestants are not only more likely to possess guns but are also less likely to support gun control. She says they are also more inclined to address gun violence with policy interventions that do not reduce the amount or types of firearms like expanded concealed carry laws, better mental health screenings and a greater emphasis on God in public schools and society.

According to Kelley, despite the close connection to weapons themselves, she found that actually firing them presented entirely different responses.

“Almost none of these people want to go out and use lethal force. In fact, that’s the last thing they want to do,” she said. “You have to really wrestle with big moral issues to carry a gun and to be willing to use it. That requires, at least in part, in their religious duty to not create more of a problem. There are certainly gun-toting folks out there who are not practicing and training, but many, including the individuals in my study, are very diligent.”

Kelley says there are differences in theological foundations for various religions, yet the Protestant relationship with firearms is particularly intense, whether due to the influence of the evangelical wing or other attitudes about behavior unique to the faith.

On the other hand, Kelley says some religions draw the line in places Protestants do not.

“Catholics, for example, tend toward the other end of the spectrum,” she said. “That in the end, you simply can’t take a life. You might be wrong. Although there are exceptions for defense of self in many religious traditions, this is more common in some forms of Protestantism. But it’s not just Protestantism that leads to a religious or spiritual ethic of gun ownership.”

Kelley says currently, most people associate gun ownership more in terms of political and social movements instead of religion. She says even this shows signs of change.

“There are things like the National African American Gun Association and a group called Pink Pistols that is organized around supporting sexual minorities and women in their pursuit to arm themselves. We’re seeing a growing diversity among gun owners. I don’t know how that’s connected to religion necessarily, but there is in terms of social upheaval right now an interest in what it means to be armed,” she said.

Kelley says she even bought a pistol when researching for the project.

“I was a very adamant anti-gun person in my former research life,” she said. “Because I’m a sociologist by training – and this is an observation project – I needed to participate in order to recruit. And it got very expensive. Going to the range, I would rent a firearm and buy ammunition. I didn’t have funding at that point, so I finally just decided, ‘I can’t continue if I don’t own a gun.’”

KU says Kelley is now in her fifth year at the university, is a Kansas native, and originally focused on drug and alcohol studies while earning her doctorate at New York University.

“I actually didn’t study guns until I moved back to Kansas and got into this very unique gun culture here,” said Kelley, who is also the director of graduate studies in her department.

Kelley says her research is part of a larger book project about “normal people using normal guns,” specifically focusing on the average woman gun owner in middle America.

Kelley says while “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Gun Ownership” relies on only interviews with Kansans, she believes it is quite representative of a significant chunk of the American population.

“You will find these kinds of gun owners in all parts of the country,” she said. “Some people everywhere think this way about religion and guns.”

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