Gun sales: More diverse buyers shift firearm culture

Keith Srakocic/AP/File
Customer Andrea Schry (right) and Dukes Sport Shop employee Missy Morosky fill out the legal forms required for Ms. Schry to buy a handgun, March 25, 2020, in New Castle, Pennsylvania. “Gun ownership isn’t a foreign planet to women any longer,” says Carrie Lightfoot, founder of The Well Armed Woman, which sells merchandise tailored to female gun owners.

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American gun sales regularly follow a boom and bust cycle, and a pandemic boom was predictable. The people buying were not. A December 2021 study found about half of the new gun owners were women and half were a racial minority. 

Second Amendment activists have welcomed the added diversity as an expansion of their cause. But guns mean different things to different people, says Jennifer Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Arizona. People associate “gun culture” with small-government politics and individualism, she says, but some of these new owners are approaching firearms in an attempt to find, rather than reject, a sense of community. 

Why We Wrote This

The predominant view of gun owners as older, conservative, white, and male isn’t wrong, but it’s shifting. First-time gun buyers are much more diverse, and they’re changing gun culture.

Jackie Garcia, an electrician in San Antonio, Texas, started researching gun ownership around the 2020 election, when she was living in a small, heavily conservative and white town north of Dallas and saw racism toward Latino people like herself. 

Eventually, Ms. Garcia bought a handgun and got a concealed carry permit. She felt safer, but also conflicted. She couldn’t reconcile owning something she associated so much with older, white, conservative men.

Finding the Latino Rifle Association helped. 

“It’s refreshing to see younger people, people from all types of backgrounds,” she says. “It’s not just a certain demographic that fits the gun culture.”

Janay Harris, who works at a credit card company in Dover, Delaware, enjoys the nightlife in nearby cities like Washington and Philadelphia. But starting two years ago, nights in those cities stopped feeling safe. 

Her local news kept reporting violent crimes – a carjacking here, an armed robbery there. Ms. Harris saw pictures of the victims and thought they looked like ordinary people. They looked, she thought, kind of like her. 

Ms. Harris decided that wouldn’t be her, but not because she’d stop going out. “I don’t want to have to be stuck in my house after a certain hour or avoid certain places because I’m fearful,” she says.

Why We Wrote This

The predominant view of gun owners as older, conservative, white, and male isn’t wrong, but it’s shifting. First-time gun buyers are much more diverse, and they’re changing gun culture.

So a year and a half ago, Ms. Harris bought a gun and started visiting the shooting range. For now, it almost never leaves the house, she says, but since purchasing it she’s felt more confident and secure – even when it isn’t with her. 

Ms. Harris is one of millions of Americans who have settled on firearms for their own security in the last two years. Given the pandemic, rising homicide rates, social unrest, and political violence, they increasingly feel that risks are everywhere, and declining trust in institutions means people are less likely to rely on the government for protection. Many now view self-defense as their own responsibility.

That shift in thought has fueled an increase in first-time gun buyers and a more diverse group of firearm owners. That, in turn, has led to new expectations of gun culture, including a desire for community.

“You definitely see in the context of gun ownership among people of color that there’s much more of a community dynamic,” says Jennifer Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Arizona and expert on gun politics.

Seeking self-defense: A shift in gun culture

American gun sales regularly follow a boom and bust cycle, and a pandemic boom was predictable. The people buying were not. A December 2021 study found about half of the new gun owners were women and half were a racial minority. That’s a huge departure from predominant firearm owner demographics, which are still overwhelmingly older, white, conservative, and male. 

Jeff Roberson/AP/File
Kevin Dixie stands at a shooting range in Ballwin, Missouri, Feb. 9, 2020. Philip Smith, who founded the National African American Gun Association, says he's glad "Black people are now taking self-ownership of their own destiny, their own life."

As support for stricter gun laws hits its lowest point in five years, Second Amendment activists have welcomed the added diversity as an expansion of their cause. But guns mean different things to different people, says Dr. Carlson. People associate “gun culture” with small-government politics and individualism, she says, but some of these new owners are approaching firearms in an attempt to find, rather than reject, a sense of community. 

According to 2017 data from Pew Research Center, 36% of white Americans own a firearm, but only 24% and 15% of Black and Hispanic Americans do. The gap is even larger between men and women, at 39% to 22%. Among all Americans, those who lean Republican are twice as likely to have a gun as those who lean Democratic. 

The past several years have altered those numbers somewhat, but the average gun owner is still like “the characters from ‘Duck Dynasty’ – older, white, male, politically conservative, Southern, rural,” says David Yamane, a professor at Wake Forest University and founder of the blog “Gun Culture 2.0.”

SOURCE: “Firearm Purchasing During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Results From the 2021 National Firearms Survey”; Annals of Internal Medicine; Matthew Miller, Wilson Zhang, Deborah Azrael; 2022
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

There has been a decadeslong shift, however, in the reason people give for buying guns. No longer hunting, it’s now self-defense

“What’s interesting about self-defense, though, is that it can hold a lot of very different social anxieties – different experiences of precarity, of danger, of threat,” says Dr. Carlson. 

Women, for example, might buy a gun because they don’t feel like the police can show up in time to protect them, she says. Black Americans, on the other hand, might buy a gun because they don’t feel like the police will protect them. 

“When you have that sort of sentiment that you’re on your own, … well, then you go buy a gun,” says Dr. Carlson. 

Wanting to take control of her own safety led Carrie Lightfoot to buy a firearm for the first time more than 10 years ago. She came from a non-gun-owning family in New York, and never considered owning one herself. Then she exited an abusive relationship, and her former partner began stalking her and her four kids. She was scared.

But as she shopped around, Ms. Lightfoot noticed a problem: Everything was made for men. Accessories and holsters didn’t fit women’s bodies. The advertising was machismo. She couldn’t find female shooting groups.

So she started one. 

The Well Armed Woman, her group for female gun owners, has since grown to 300 chapters and around 20,000 members. They sell merchandise on their website from compression shorts with a built-in holster to bullet-themed jewelry. Ms. Lightfoot, a former National Rifle Association board member, has seen the group’s influence.

“Gun ownership isn’t a foreign planet to women any longer,” she says. 

Just ask Ms. Harris, of Dover, who likely wouldn’t have considered buying one if her best friend, a gun owner, hadn’t taken her to the shooting range two years ago and gone with her when she bought her first gun. 

“It was something for [us] to bond over,” says Ms. Harris. 

Carlos Osorio/AP/File
Firearms instructor Wayne Thomas shows Valerie Rupert the proper hand position on a firearm at the Recoil Firearms store in Taylor, Michigan, Aug. 21, 2021. A December 2021 study found about half of the new gun owners were women and half were a racial minority.

Finding community through gun ownership

An emphasis on community is typical of a group Ms. Harris plans to join this month: the National African American Gun Association (NAAGA). Its founder, Philip Smith, started the organization in 2015 to counter the stigma many Black Americans feel around firearms. 

“If you have a gun then you must be a bad guy,” he says of common stereotypes. “You must be a gangbanger. You must be a hood, must be a thug. You can’t be a good guy with a gun.”

Since the pandemic NAAGA’s membership has boomed, says Mr. Smith. In one four-day stretch, the group added almost 3,000 new members, and the total member body is now about 45,000. About two-thirds are men and one-third are women. Each new member learns about the history of African Americans and firearms – dating back to Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Then they learn about gun safety. 

“I think it’s one of the best things that has come out of all this – that Black people are now taking self-ownership of their own destiny, their own life, and saying, you know what, the Second Amendment is mine too,” says Mr. Smith. 

Taking ownership of the Second Amendment has its risks. Matthew Miller, professor of health sciences at Northeastern University and lead author of the 2021 study documenting more diverse gun owners, notes that a firearm in the house increases each inhabitant’s risk of injury or self-harm. Millions of new gun owners expose millions of adults and children to that danger. 

Many new gun owners are aware of those risks; some don’t even like guns. P.B. Gomez, a student at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, started the Latino Rifle Association two years ago in response to the mass shooting that targeted Hispanic Americans in El Paso, Texas. Guns have their limits, though. They won’t fix racism, he says, and in a confrontation firing a weapon is almost always a bad option.

“A lot of our members prior to the anxieties and realizations about American society wouldn’t have considered guns,” says Mr. Gomez. “They’ve come to it almost as ‘this is a necessity.’”

Still, he and other members of the group felt like Latinos needed a space to discuss self-defense, one that didn’t support Confederate flags in gun stores or AR-15’s styled with “Build the wall” messages – both things Mr. Gomez has seen. Their group, he says, mostly attracts people who lean left and preach social responsibility – people like Jackie Garcia. 

Ms. Garcia, an electrician in San Antonio, Texas, started researching gun ownership around the 2020 election. At that time, she lived in a small, heavily conservative and white town north of Dallas and saw racism toward Latino people like herself. At a gas station one day, she says a man leaned over to her and motioned to a Latino man paying for his drink. “This is why I voted for Trump, and that’s why he’s going to win in 2020,” he told her. “He’s going to get rid of all these people.”

The hate toward a total stranger didn’t make sense to her. But it was scary. “Who’s to say that that hate wouldn’t be turned on me?” she thought. If it ever was, she wanted to be prepared. 

So Ms. Garcia started taking classes at the gun range and signed up for a pilot course on handguns. Eventually, she bought a Smith & Wesson Shield 9 and got a concealed carry permit months later. Almost every time she leaves the home, her gun goes with her.

She felt safer, but also conflicted. She couldn’t reconcile owning something she associated so much with older, white, conservative men. Finding the Latino Rifle Association and becoming a moderator on its online discussion board helped. There, Ms. Garcia felt like she fit in. 

“It’s refreshing to see younger people, people from all types of backgrounds,” she says. “It’s not just a certain demographic that fits the gun culture.”

That doesn’t mean everyone needs to hear she’s a part of it. Only her wife and her parents know she’s a gun owner. It’s something she does, says Ms. Garcia, not as a part of her identity. She hopes to keep it that way.

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