Not much scientific research is done on weapon possession. Many researcher shun the subject because it is politically sensitive, although they would easily be able to get financing for it. ‘Our research was shared on several pro-gun websites. They were critical of this research being Dutch and we were accused of being against guns’, says researcher Pontus Leander.
Together with Wolfgang Stroebe (who is connected to the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, just like Leander) and Arie Kruglanski (from the University of Maryland), he researched the reasons for weapon possession among American men. Leander grew up in the southern American state of Tennessee, where owning a weapon is completely normal. ‘However, our research is not remotely politically motivated; we just wanted to study, from a psychological viewpoint, what drives people to buy a gun.’
The question is not that strange. Approximately one third of Americans own at least one gun. Upon being asked why, sixty percent will name protection as the most important reason. But the researchers wondered what they were protecting themselves from. After all, it has been proved several times over that people with a gun in their home are more likely to die from gun violence.
Previously, the fear of concrete crime, such as a robbery or terrorism, was considered the reason for people to purchase a gun. And although this certainly plays a role, Leander, Stroebe, and Kruglanski feel this explanation is too limited.
They concluded that it was not so much a concrete threat as a person’s world view that was important in whether or not people decided to buy a gun. People who feel that the world is dangerous and unpredictable are more likely to buy a gun, even if they do not feel actually threatened.
This conclusion will have far-reaching consequences for how we approach weapon possession, Leander explains. People often feel particularly threatened because of a situation in which they or someone they know became the victim of a crime. ’But a lot of people are actually influence in their decision to buy a gun by the way they view the world: a belief system that coincides with a political preference. You could show them statistics about how crime is actually going down, but it won’t change their mind.’
Apart from gun legislation, which is much stricter in the Netherlands and the surrounding countries, culture also plays a role. Leander thinks that even if gun were available at the local Albert Heijn, it ‘would still take a few generations before weapons possession becomes normalised’.
But the research’s conclusion has far-reaching implications for more than just weapon possession, he says. ‘It shows that when people feel unsafe, even without a tangible reason, they will try to remedy that. They may not use weapons in the Netherlands, but it must be something else. It’s important to find out how fear influences a society.’
Leander hopes the results will pave the way for further research. ‘We know so little about what actually drives people. Not just to buy guns, but to actually use them. People are trying to get a grip on events and makes connections based on how they see the world, when in actuality, they can’t know anything for sure.’