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  • Writer's pictureDr. Lloyd

Who Buys Guns and Why? Part 2

By Dr. Lloyd Sederer, with great thanks to Dr. Mark Leeds

Illustration of a gun, the US constitution, and the US flag

Source: Shutterstock

Part 1 of Who Buys Guns and Why did not take us far enough in trying to understand “who” and their “whys” for owning guns. There is a 3rd and growing wave of gun owners whose numbers are beginning to surpass those that buy firearms for recreation and match those who buy for protection.

The 3rd group has been described as a “subculture” by researchers and public health experts at The Center for Injury Science and Protection at the Columbia/Mailman School of Public Health.*

Paradoxically, those in this 3rd group are clustered more in “blue” than in “red” states like New York and Massachusetts, where the prevalence of a culture supporting recreational and self-defense gun ownership was low, but a 2nd Amendment activist culture was high. While the state of South Dakota has a culture of high support of recreational and self-defense gun ownership, it was low in activism for 2nd Amendment rights. In other words, efforts to reach, even influence, a growing number of Second Amendment gun activists (about the loss of lives to gun accidents and fatalities) are not going to be one size fits all.

Subculture and beliefs

The use of the term “subculture” is fitting because it refers to a group of people who hold to an ideology, a set of opinions or beliefs, that explains their behaviors, in this case a right to own a gun. These US citizens, many in our families, communities, and workplaces hold the belief that no one should infringe upon their rights, in this instance the right they consider afforded them by the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution. This right does not rely on assertions regarding the need to have a firearm for recreation or protection from harm.

A belief is the certainty that something (or someone) truly exists, and that it needs no proof.

As a psychiatrist and public health doctor, I consider today’s interpretation of a “right” to bear arms as a belief that personal liberty is inviolate. Which is to say that the liberty to own a gun(s) is a powerful expression of a coiled, ready to spring sentiment, “don’t tell me what to do”: as in, I have a right to not wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle; I will not yield to mandatory inoculations for measles, polio, and the coronavirus; and I have the right to refuse a variety of treatments, including for deadly, contagious infectious diseases (that put others at risk); and acute life-threatening mental health crises.

Regarding gun-ownership, we have a variant of not telling me what to do, expressed as ‘don’t tell me what I can’t have,’ like a firearm.

There is a wonderfully illuminating book (now also a 4-part streaming series), How to Change Yor Mind, by the investigative reporter, Michael Pollan. Pollan tells both a scientific and personal story about using psychedelics drugs to open our eyes to what, in the course of everyday life, eludes our perceptions – and thus our understandings of our world. Pollan is writing about gaining access to another reality, one that can “change {y}our mind.” A reality in which we experience ourselves as connected to one another, and the cosmos as well. A reality that urges us to share in a common good.

I am not suggesting you take psilocybin or LSD, only illustrating how changing a person’s belief, their mind, is hard, like trying to grip water in your hands. Good luck!

Don’t tell me what to do: I have the liberty to do as I wish, independent of my safety and that of others. Our “common good” seems eclipsed by a belief in the right, the liberty, to do what we each want.

Bearing arms

The US Constitution 2nd Amendment, ratified in 1791, is the anchor used for believing that citizens of this country have a right to own a gun. The 2nd Amendment pronounces, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." (italics mine).

78% of the US population, age 18 and over, over 259s million individuals (2021 data), thus, may exercise their right “ keep and bear Arms.” We need not look further to understand the annual increases in gun homicides and suicides.

In that same year (2021), there were 482,416 active members in the US Army. In that same year, there were 81 million gun owners in the US, possessing 466 million firearms (2023 data). That’s a lot of minds to change about guns.

Incidentally, according to The Small Arms Survey (2020), 46% of the world's civilian-owned guns are in the US. Ironically, and here’s the tragedy: the US has the highest homicide-by-firearm rate of the world's most developed nations.

The dark side of enduring beliefs

It is, of course, a matter of legal debate as to whether (or how) the 1791 US Constitutional statement about militia rights to bear a gun pertains to the “right” to civilian gun ownership today.

While I am not a lawyer, I can say as a physician and a public health doctor that guns have not brought health or safety to we Americans.

Such is the nature of beliefs: they can and do disregard facts, even when the facts reveal a danger to the person holding them, and their families. The dark side of an enduring belief in the “right” to be a gun-owner is that if you exercise that right, you will increase your risk of that gun killing yourself, someone in your family, or among your friends.

My takeaway: If trying to reduce gun injuries and deaths in the US is your goal, then don’t assert the right of our citizens to have unbridled access to firearms.


*Disclosure: Dr. Sederer is an Adjunct Professor at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, for which he receives no pay or other compensation.


Caught in the Crosshairs of American Healthcare book cover

“Dr. Sederer models a rare combination of clinical expertise, executive savvy, eloquence, and old-fashioned compassion as he recounts a dramatic story of leading clinically necessary change in a revered but fraying hospital. This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand transformational leadership.”

Donald M. Berwick MD, MPP

President Emeritus and Senior Fellow, Institute for Healthcare Improvement

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