More Substance than Stereotype

There’s this belief that all Southerners love guns. Guns are an ubiquitous part of the mythology of the South, offering as prevalent a set of images as our food, churches, front porches, and small towns. Yet, that narrative of an all-encompassing gun culture isn’t completely accurate.

Really, it’s only about half of us (or a bit more) who have guns. A recent CBS News story ranking states by the percentage of adults that own a gun had mostly Western states populating the top spots, but the South was hanging in there. Arkansas was the highest-ranking Southern state at number six, followed closely by Mississippi in seventh place and Alabama in eighth. Those three Southern states had 55–57% of adults saying they have at least one gun in their homes. A little further down the list, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee were ranked twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth, which put three Southern states in the top ten and six in the top fifteen. 

Looking at another recent source, a 2013 Gallup study tells us that about two-thirds of married Southern men own guns. The study used data about gun ownership from the five-year period between 2007 and 2012. Though only about 30% of Americans own a gun,  Gallup found that the groups that are more likely to own guns are: men, married people, conservatives, older people, and Southerners. So, basically, if you come across an older, conservative, married man in the South, 2-to-1 odds say that he’s got a gun, either with him or at home. There are equally solid chances that he owns more than one gun and that his prime motive for having it is protection.

And though the narrative isn’t all-encompassing, some prominent public figures do fuel to a certain conception of conservative, white men from the South being very pro-gun. For example, Lindsey Graham, US senator from South Carolina, is wide open about the fact that he owns an AR-15 and is willing to use it. In 2013, Graham raised eyebrows when he expressed his preference for the gun in a Senate Judiciary Hearing, then reiterated that belief on Fox News in 2021. His reason for bringing it up was to say that he would use his AR-15 if “gangs” ever tried to loot his house after a natural disaster. His would be the last house they’d want to enter, he warned. 

Augmenting his foreboding comments is this plain fact: statistically speaking, Southerners do kill people with guns more often than people in the other parts of the country.  A 2019 study by the Center of American Progress had Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi ranked second, third, and fourth in gun deaths per capita. Alaska was ranked first for gun deaths, though when the focus shifts we see something different. Those three Deep Southern states move up to numbers one, two, and three when deaths are re-categorized as gun homicides. While in the gun suicide rankings, Southern states disappear from those top spots.

These numbers and rankings become even more interesting when compared to each other. That CBS news story had the highest gun ownership rates in Western states like Wyoming and Montana. But, in the American Progress study, those two states were way down the list, at thirty-seventh and thirty-eighth, in gun homicides. Generally, the Southern states were the opposite: not quite as many guns as the West, but more homicides and fewer suicides. Combine those figures with the fact that Southerners who have guns claim to have them mainly for “protection,” and what it says is: a Southerner with a gun is more likely to shoot somebody.

Does that mean that Southerners are dangerous? Not necessarily. The South has high gun homicide rates and is typically a bulwark against gun control legislation, but looking at a March 2021 New York Times article titled “A List of Recent Mass Shootings in the United States,” we see relatively few Deep Southern locales. Texas figures in heavily, though most of the events happened in the central and western parts of the state. Florida appears several times, and Virginia once. (The list does not include the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech.) But what about Arkansas, Louisiana Mississippi, and Alabama? None of the four states appear there at all. In fact, the only Deep Southern state that’s in the Times‘ list is Georgia, after the “spa shootings” two weeks ago.

Looking further back, at the late twentieth century, and not at the issues of gun deaths or mass shootings, but of gun control, a 1993 article in The Journal of Quantitative Criminology shared this conclusion about Southerners and guns, which the three authors arrived at using data from the mid-1970s:

. . . a cultural component, related to Southernness, affects attitudes toward gun control. Southerners, in general, were the most opposed to permits and handgun bans. Southern shotgun owners, in particular, were found to be the most opposed to gun registration.

That distinctly Southern opposition to gun laws and restrictions hasn’t changed in the fifty years since that data was collected. As evidence of pro-gun public opinion, Southern politicians and candidates, usually white Republicans, regularly brandish guns and tout their support for the Second Amendment in campaign ads and on social media. This narrative and its effectiveness in Southern states are interesting to me, since the last efforts in Congress to repeal the Second Amendment occurred in 1992 and ’93. Of course, there have been other gun control proposals since then, but most haven’t gone far.

As the editor of an anthology focused on Southern beliefs, myths, and narratives, here’s what I’m curious to know more about: what beliefs or narratives tell us that we need these guns? Now, I’m no dummy. I understand that some people own guns for hunting. I also understand completely why someone who has been a victim of violent crime gets a gun— to keep it from happening again. My questions aren’t about those obvious things, but about the less obvious, those aspects of “gun culture” that are more substance than stereotype.

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