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Historical Rates of Enslavement Predicts Modern Rates of Gun Ownership in the U.S.


William Henry Shelton


A new study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has identified a “strong correlation” between the number of slaves in a county in 1860 (five years before the legal end of slavery in the U.S.) and the number of guns there now.


Study highlights:


The researchers compared county-level population data from the 1860 census with patterns of gun ownership today, finding the higher the percentage of enslaved people a county had in 1860, the more guns its residents have today.

  • The researchers found the correlation persisted even after controlling for variables like race, personal politics, crime rates, education, and income.


The study explores why Americans’ feelings about guns are so out of step with the rest of the world.

  • “Gun culture is one case where American Exceptionalism really is true,” said study author Nick Buttrick. “We are really radically different even from countries like Canada or Australia, places that have similar cultural roots.”

  • For context, 45% of the world’s civilian-owned firearms are in the U.S., where only around 5% of the world’s population lives.


What’s behind it:


The researchers say the correlation between slavery and guns was driven by a shift in attitude about gun ownership over time, moving away from the pre-Civil War sentiment of guns as a tool for hunting and sport toward the post-Civil War belief that guns were necessary to protect family and property.

  • The belief that guns were necessary for protection was particularly prominent in the post-Civil War South, growing out of a surplus of military weapons, the rise of armed white supremacist groups, and rhetoric from politicians that newly freed Black people would encroach on the rights of white southerners.

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