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How Intersectional Threat Shapes Views of Gun Policy: The John Wayne Solution

Guns are highly visible in the news, in politics, and in American culture more broadly. While most Americans support some gun control, a significant and vocal minority of Americans are firmly opposed. Drawing on work from the recently developing sociology of modern gun ...

Published onMar 18, 2022
How Intersectional Threat Shapes Views of Gun Policy: The John Wayne Solution


Guns are highly visible in the news, in politics, and in American culture more broadly. While most Americans support some gun control, a significant and vocal minority of Americans are firmly opposed. Drawing on work from the recently developing sociology of modern gun culture, we propose an intersectional threat model—wherein perceived threats to multiple privileged identities provoke a distinct response—for understanding the positions Americans take on gun policies. Using data from a 2018 national survey conducted by the American National Election Survey, we find a robust role for perceived threats along gender, race, and citizenship lines in opposition to background checks for private sales and an assault weapons ban as well as support for arming teachers. Interactions reveal multiplicative effects: that gender threats matter more when racial and immigrant threats are also felt. Implications for the prospect of policy and for understanding the pro-gun alt-right movement are discussed, as are other potential applications of intersectional threat.

Keywords: Intersectional threat, gun control, public opinion, intersectionality, racial threat, gendered threat, immigrant threat, doing gender, doing difference

Acknowledgements/note: We are thankful to the editors and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback and suggestions. Please direct correspondence to the Kevin Drakulich at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 360 Huntington Ave, Northeastern University, Boston, MA 02115; email [email protected]


Guns have a strikingly visible presence in modern American life. America has a staggeringly large number of guns, shootings, and gun deaths relative to other countries (Grinshteyn and Hemenway 2019; Karp 2018). Mass shootings dominate national news coverage for weeks after each occurrence; other shootings—far greater in number and consequences—are frequent fodder for local news. Firearms are used in roughly half of all suicides, affecting tens of thousands of families a year. In light of this, it may not be surprising that many Americans support gun control—a majority do so for many specific gun control policies including universal background checks and bans on semi-automatic assault rifles (e.g. Spitzer 2018).

But guns are also visible in other places in America. Open-carrying protesters have been visible at alt-right rallies, campaign rallies for Donald Trump, protests over pandemic restrictions, the 2020 election vote count, and the January 2021 insurrection (e.g. Frum 2017; Spitzer 2020). And a substantial and vocal minority of Americans oppose any kind of gun control. Many guns rights supporters even advocate ‘pro-gun’ solutions to gun violence, including allowing teachers to be armed to stop school shooters (e.g. Polikoff et al. 2019).

We are interested in two emergent social phenomena. The first is a modern gun culture that sociologists have been describing as distinct from older gun cultures (e.g. Mencken and Froese 2019; Yamane 2017).[1] We see this culture reflected in open-carrying at protests, engagement in gun shows and virtual pro-gun communities, but also in the expression of relatively unpopular pro-gun positions. The second emergent social phenomenon is the rise of a sense of aggrievement and resentment among a particular segment of Americans, who are disproportionately—but not exclusively—native-born white men (e.g. Hochschild 2016).[2]

We connect these two emergent phenomena with two concepts. The first is intersectional threat: a situation in which perceived threats to multiple dimensions of identities provoke a distinct response—something more than the sum of the constituent dimensions of threat. We believe this concept has general value, but we focus here on a particular intersection and a particular kind of response to the threat posed by it. We focus on a combination of perceived gendered threats to men’s privileged status and perceived threats posed by ‘othered’ groups: Black Americans and immigrants. And we focus on one specific dimension of the response to this threat: an embrace of unpopular positions on gun policy that we see as one important dimension of modern gun culture. We see this as a way of doing difference and reinforcing the symbolic boundaries that justify inequalities, and we describe it, playfully, as the John Wayne solution to the identity problems posed by these intersectional threats.

We see this example as a demonstration of the potential utility of intersectional threat for understanding a wide variety of other phenomena, but our specific results also have several important implications. First, and most directly, they speak to the possibilities for and barriers facing gun control efforts. Despite the general popularity of gun control, the last federal gun control measure was the 1994 assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. Second, and more generally, we argue that it adds to our understanding of both emergent social phenomena described above: the rise of a sense of aggrievement among some Americans and the development of a particular modern gun culture.


Society is structured in ways that provide disproportionate privilege and power across salient social boundaries, for instance sex, race and ethnicity, immigrant status, sexual orientation, and gender identity (e.g. Lamont and Molnár 2002). These boundaries matter: they steer disproportionate resources towards advantaged groups, often gained through the exploitation of those in other groups. When those on the advantaged side of a boundary perceive threats to those advantages, they react with a prejudice that serves to justify the stratification and reinforce the boundary (e.g. Bobo and Hutchings 1996).

This concept of threat is key, sitting at a complicated intersection of individual and collective processes. Individuals develop a sense of group position—not always “what is” but “what ought to be”—in part from powerful social norms (Blumer 1958:5). The threats to group position may be real—posed by civil rights movements or changes in the local population or economy—but are also the target of collective action framing processes (Benford and Snow 2000; Drakulich 2015b; King and Wheelock 2007). Not all dominant group members will be equally likely to react with concern to perceived threats to group positions—identification and a shared sense of fate with the group are important and also subject to influence by collective processes. The reaction to this perceived threat to a sense of group position is a set of feelings that serve simultaneously as a justification for that stratification and a defense against the perceived threat (Blumer 1958; Bobo 1999). The exact form and content of this set of feelings shifts in reaction to broader social conditions. When systems of stratification are firmly entrenched, these feelings can be rooted in biological stereotypes about groups—that the threatening groups are alien and fundamentally inferior (Blumer 1958; Bobo and Smith 1998). As these systems are challenged and norms change, justifications appear to shift to subtler and more nuanced logics that serve the same purpose while allowing a kind of plausible deniability (Jackman and Muha 1984). For instance, a variety of scholars have described in different terms a form of modern racism that emphasizes individualism as an explanation for group outcomes while simultaneously minimizing or denying the role of historical or contemporary racism as barriers faced by Black Americans (Bobo, Kluegel, and Smith 1997; Bonilla-Silva 2018; Henry and Sears 2002). What remains consistent is that this set of feelings serve as a defense against threats to the status quo and are rooted in perceived threats to privileges or positions. This concept of threat appears relevant across multiple dimensions of identity, including race, gender, class, immigrant status, among others (e.g. Carian and Sobotka 2018; Harrison and Michelson 2019; Meuleman 2011).

Prior work has frequently focused on the relevance of single specific boundaries or identities, such as race or gender. Intersectionality encourages us to consider the ways that multiple identities interconnect (Crenshaw 1989; Potter 2015). This work has frequently focused on the intersections of multiple marginalized identities. Seminal work, for instance, focused on Black women, whose experiences are often omitted from considerations of race and gender, respectively (Davis 1983; Hill Collins 1990; hooks 1981; Moraga and Anzaldúa 1981). More recently, work has considered additional intersections with class, disability, gender identity, and sexual orientation (e.g. Bailey and Mobley 2019; Griffin 2016; Panfil 2017; Whitesel 2017). A key contribution of the literature is the deceptively simple insight that the social import of multiple dimensions of identity can only be fully understood by their simultaneous rather than separate consideration—that the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts. As one example, the experience of intimate partner violence—and of seeking legal recourses to such violence—appear qualitatively different for Black women (e.g. Crenshaw 1991; Potter 2008).

Of course, those with privileged identities may also experience these identities in intersectional rather than purely cumulative ways. We combine this basic insight from work on intersectionality with the focus on threat as a primary feature of privileged identities to propose the concept of intersectional threat. Intersectional threat is provoked when individuals with multiple privileged dimensions of identity simultaneously perceive threats along those multiple dimensions. Our expectation is that the consequences of intersectional threats may be qualitatively different from the simple sum of the separate threat to each identity. Any threat to a dimension of stratification that people do or believe they should benefit from will provoke concern. However, multiple simultaneous threats may invite concerns about broader systemic changes to what are often mutually reinforcing systems of stratification. Thus, we expect a more robust threat response when multiple dimensions of privileged identities are perceived to be threatened—when the changes may feel systemic rather than limited or contained. We believe this may shed light on a variety of social phenomena from voting choices to sports fandom. It may also be helpful in understanding the development of specific subcultures such as the alt-right, the tea party, or modern gun culture. As an example, Hochschild’s (2016) examination of the rise of the Tea Party movement seems to hinge on just such an intersectional threat, in which many seemed to hold a ‘deep story’ in which non-white, non-Christian, immigrant, LGBTQ, and other Americans were ‘cutting the line’ for the American dream. The perception that any one of these groups was ‘cutting the line’ would be concerning enough, but the combined threat posed by so many groups evoked a more existential and systemic threat.

A wide variety of work has identified a range of reactions to perceived threats to identities, most of which serve to reinforce the boundaries separating the groups and to justify the stratification across that boundary. In other words, the reactions may help reinforce either the structural or symbolic dimensions of boundaries—which are mutually dependent (Lamont and Molnár 2002). On the structural side, laws or policies may be enacted to protect privileges or resources, even if they are framed in ostensibly group-neutral ways (e.g. Chambliss 1975). The symbolic dimensions of boundaries—the “conceptual distinctions made by social actors to categorize objects, people, practices, and even time and space” (Lamont and Molnár 2002)—are an important site at which actors actively construct and contest definitions of reality, and the meaning of the distinctions between and content of different groups.

There are a variety of ways of doing this symbolic work, but one of them is reflected in the notion of doing gender (West and Zimmerman 1987) and—in its intersectional form—doing difference (West and Fenstermaker 1995). Relatedly, hegemonic masculinity, building on Gramsci’s (1971) notion of cultural hegemony, reflects the social and cultural mechanisms through which men preserve their privileged position (Connell 1987). Structured action theory identifies some of the ways that people build and reinforce boundaries in everyday interactions, including through extreme behavior such as crime or violence (Messerschmidt 2014).

There are many different dimensions of privileged identities that may interact to produce intersectional threat, and a wide diversity of possible responses to this threat. We choose one specific intersection and one particular response to illustrate the concept. The intersection we focus on is that of perceived socio-economic threat posed by ‘othered’ social groups such as Black Americans or immigrants and a gendered threat to the dominant status of men. Although prior work has frequently considered these separately, our interest is in the unique effects of the simultaneous experience of both threats. To explore this, we focus on a specific symbolic response. Our hypothesis is that people who experience both perceived threats simultaneous may feel an acute need to perform their dominant social identities. We believe we have identified an obvious way to do so, something we are describing—with intentional playfulness—as the John Wayne solution to simultaneous threats posed along gendered, racial, and nativist lines.

We use John Wayne’s name as a well-known—though hardly unique—exemplar of a longstanding cultural trope in which white male heroes with guns perform a particular kind of masculinity by protecting women from threats posed by members of othered groups. The ur-text for this trope may be the infamous 1915 film Birth of a Nation in which white citizens and Klansmen with guns defend the honor of white women from stereotypes of Black Americans (portrayed by white actors in blackface). The often faceless and dehumanized ‘Indians’ or ‘Mexicans’ in some John Wayne films provided an update to the trope, in which John Wayne represents a “distinctive blend of manhood and manifest destiny” (Campbell 2000:467), a racial logic used historically to justify settler colonialism (e.g. Kendi 2017). Reflecting changes in racial attitudes and updates to the nature of othered threats, contemporary appropriations of symbols from the comic book character The Punisher—a white man with guns avenging his wife and children killed by criminals—by military members, law enforcement officers, and far-right militias demonstrates a continuing interest in this particular kind of performance of white male nativism (Rosenberg and Tiefenthäler 2021; Schladebeck 2017).

These images are often tied to larger social shifts that may be perceived as threatening to white native male hegemony. Birth of a Nation, released in the Jim Crow era and reflecting on Reconstruction, includes scenes depicting Black threats to white political power. The emphasis on masculinity in post-war westerns appears rooted in perceived threats to men’s gendered ‘provider’ role posed by more women in workplaces (Durham 2005). Similarly, reminiscent of Kendi’s (2017) distinction of segregationist and assimilationist racism, indigenous people are often portrayed in the Jim Crow Era as inhuman monsters and later during the civil rights era as ‘noble savages’ who would benefit from a civilizing influence (Aleiss 1987). In both cases the films tend to highlight the importance and virtues of the white nuclear family and men’s role protecting it (Kvet 2016). In the modern context, it is no coincidence that images of the Punisher and Rambo appeared alongside Nazi and Confederate imagery displayed by alt-right militia members participating in the January 6th insurrection (Rosenberg and Tiefenthäler 2021). Thus, the John Wayne solution is our way of describing a particular performative response—one centrally involving guns—to perceived threats to white nativist masculinity. The idea is not that individuals will always consciously imitate these specific cultural examples, but that this general form of gendered, racialized, nativist performance will be familiar and accessible.


Support for Gun Control Policies

We are interested in public opinion on three different dimensions of gun policy that have recently received public attention. The first is public support for closing the private sale exemption for background checks for the purchase of firearms. Estimates suggest roughly a quarter of those who have recently purchased a gun did so through a gun show or private sale that did not require a background check (Miller, Hepburn, and Azrael 2017). Private sales, in particular, represent a large portion of total gun purchases (Wintemute, Braga, and Kennedy 2010). Universal background checks were endorsed by Barack Obama and George W. Bush (Wintemute et al. 2010), and the idea is relatively popular with voters (Spitzer 2018).

The second is public support for an assault weapons ban focused on the kind of semi-automatic weapons frequently used in mass shootings (Cummings and Jansen 2018). A limited assault weapons ban was signed into law by Bill Clinton but expired in 2004 (Spitzer 2018). Most polls find a majority of Americans support the ban (Spitzer 2018), and some polls show that even a majority of Republicans support the ban (Shepard 2019), although the margin of support appears slimmer than for background checks (Wozniak 2017).

The third dimension focuses on a different approach to the problem of school shootings specifically, which is to allow more teachers to carry guns in schools. This is a version of a broader argument posed by some gun rights advocates: that gun problems are best solved not with gun control, but by ensuring that there are sufficient ‘good guys’ with guns to stop the bad ones. Despite the lack of research suggesting this would be effective, and real concerns about the safety of the students as well as teachers under such a policy, many states have adopted or are considering the adoption of policies that allow teachers and others to be armed in schools (Rajan and Branas 2018). Researchers have only recently begun to explore public opinion on this issue, but the few studies that exist suggest that most people oppose the idea (e.g. Baranauskas 2020; Jonson et al. 2021; Polikoff et al. 2019). This approach serves as a contrast to the gun control approaches described in the first two dimensions, allowing us to consider public opinion of an issue more popular with gun rights supporters versus gun control advocates.

Gun control is generally popular, suggesting the barriers to passing gun control may exist at the elite rather than the popular-level (Miller 2019). Despite the relative unpopularity of these positions, guns appear to have become an important symbolic component of a particular social and political identity (e.g. Lacombe, Howat, and Rothschild 2019; Mencken and Froese 2019). Fear of the consequences of violating this identity may help explain why Republican and conservative political actors act to block relatively popular gun control measures (Bacon Jr 2019; Lacombe 2019).[3] But understanding the sources of these unpopular positions is more important than just their instrumental role in blocking gun control. Guns have social symbolic meaning (e.g. Kahan 1999). As Joslyn et al. (2017) note, the gun debate “is about what guns mean as opposed to what guns do” (p. 383). Thus, we are interested in understanding these positions as representations of a broader modern gun culture. Although we begin by considering the positions separately, in practice there is substantial overlap in public opinion on gun policies, and it may be appropriate to think of people as falling on some latent scale of views on gun control.

Explanations for Gun Control Policy Views

In attempting to understand support or opposition to each of these dimensions of gun control policy, we focus on three different perceived threats to white nativist male hegemony. The first race—specifically, a concern that the position of white Americans has fallen relative to that of Black Americans. These racial status concerns are at the heart of theories of modern racism, including colorblind, laissez-faire, and symbolic racism. There is a long history in the U.S. of concerns about the relative standing of Black versus white Americans, often heightening after perceived advancements for Black Americans, such as the end of chattel slavery and Reconstruction, the dismantling of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Era, as well as the election of Barack Obama. A large and interdisciplinary body of research has connected a measure of these racial concerns—often described as a racial resentment—to a range of different kinds of public opinion. Several studies have found that those who are racially resentful of Black Americans are less likely to support a variety of gun control proposals (Filindra and Kaplan 2016, 2017; Jonson et al. 2021; O’Brien et al. 2013). Notably, Black Americans tend to be more supportive of gun control than white Americans on average (e.g. Filindra and Kaplan 2017; Oraka et al. 2019).

The second threat is immigration. There is a long history of concern among some U.S. citizens that immigrants threaten the well-being of non-immigrant citizens, often during periods of economic uncertainty or when politicians focus blame for social problems on immigrants (e.g. Meuleman 2011). There is a correspondingly long history of punitive policies on immigration as well as governing immigrants (e.g. Provine and Doty 2011). Policies and discourse on immigrant threat frequently conflate legal and ‘illegal’ immigration, especially when the immigrants are Black, Latinx, Asian, or Arab (Ramakrishnan, Esterling, and Neblo 2014). Few studies have focused exclusively on the link between anti-immigrant attitudes and views of gun control—although anti-immigrant attitudes have been described as a component of gun cultures that also espouse sexist and racist views. Lio, Melzer, and Reese (2008) note similar framings employed by gun rights and English-only movements, in particular a focus on idealizing English-speaking citizens while mobilizing fear of others including immigrants.

The third threat is gender. There is also a long history in the United States of legal and social subjugation of women by men, including prohibitions on voting, restrictions on women’s participation in economic activities, and legal and extra-legal systems that protect men—particularly but not exclusively upper-class white men—from being accused of victimizing women. Recently, the #MeToo movement has brought significant attention to sexual harassment and sexual assault in workplaces, which are generally understood as expressions and demonstrations of gendered power (e.g. McLaughlin, Uggen, and Blackstone 2012), with that same power frequently protecting accused men from serious consequences. Thus, the #MeToo movement presents a potential threat to the formal and informal systems that protect men’s ability to exert this power. Several qualitative studies provide rich descriptions of the links between hegemonic masculinity and either gun ownership or symbolic support for guns and opposition to gun control. A content analysis of NRA narratives emphasizes a performance of masculinity through the protection of women, children, and others with a gun (O’Neill 2016). Melzer (2012) describes the role of a frontier masculinity among NRA members. Gahman (2015) describes gun rights supporters in Kansas as living in a “masculinist space.” Quantitative work that examines the impact of gender threats on public opinion about gun control is more limited.[4] Most notably, Cassino and Besen-Cassino (2020) recently linked a measure of hostile sexism to opposition to gun regulation generally. Additionally, macro-level work suggests a connection between men’s relative economic standing and gun sales (Cassino and Besen‐Cassino 2020). More broadly, guns appear to have significant symbolic meaning to white men in economic distress (Mencken and Froese 2019). Notably, a variety of work reports that women are more likely than men to support gun control policies (e.g. Celinska 2007; Filindra and Kaplan 2016).

Several key qualitative studies of gun cultures note overlaps between sexist, homophobic, white supremacist, nativist, and ableist discourses in ways that are consistent with our broader model of intersectional threat and the performance of white male nativism through gun positions. Gahman (2015) notes that “gendered discourses regarding gun use are reinforced by settler colonialism, whiteness, heteronormativity, enabledness, and nationalism” (p. 1203). Melzer (2012) describes a feeling of intersectional threat among (largely white male) NRA members: that the privileging women, non-whites, and non-citizens. Stroud’s (2012) interviews reveal both themes of guns as performing masculinity (the “family defender”) and as a response to the threat posed by othered groups (“dangerous neighborhoods”). O’Neill’s (2016) analysis of NRA messaging finds similar stories promoting the use of guns to protect family and vulnerable persons against the threat posed by ‘others.’ Interviews with Michigan gun owners revealed concerns about economic threats to masculine family roles combined with threats posed by hypermasculine and often racialized criminal others (Carlson 2015). Collectively, these help illuminate what Yamane (2017) calls Gun Culture 2.0, a “culture of armed citizenship” that is connected to the image of the frontier past but distinct in its focus on self-protection and its emphasis on masculinity in a world in which white men feel like they are losing their status.

Although we begin by examining the three sources of threat separately, in practice the perceived threats posed by Black Americans and immigrants are likely to overlap—immigrant threat, for instance, is often racialized (e.g. Kendi 2019)—and act in similar ways (e.g. Quillian 1995). Thus, our real interest is in the intersection of two ‘types’ of threats, those posed by externalized and othered social groups such as Black Americans or immigrants and a gendered threat to the dominant status of men.

Finally, all of these forces play out within a political context. Positions on gun policies are highly politically stratified (e.g. McLean and Sorens 2019), making it important to control for political identification when exploring the role of threat. However, the role of politics is complicated and intertwined with rather than completely independent from the role of threat. The histories of racial, immigrant and gender threat described above are political histories. Political identification is in part endogenous to perceptions of racial, immigrant, and gendered threats. An explicit component of the Republican “southern strategy” was the recruitment of voters who were uncomfortable with the threats to the racial status quo posed by the Civil Rights Movement (e.g. Beckett and Sasson 2004; Tonry 2011). Immigrant threat also has a long history in American politics, particularly in periods of economic uncertainty (e.g. Calavita 1996), but broader structural economic changes in recent decades have simultaneously heightened the perceived threat of immigration and blunted pro-immigration pressure from business groups (e.g. Peters 2017), resulting in a more open embrace of anti-immigrant rhetoric among some conservative and Republican politicians. Threats to men’s privileged positions have also long been politicized (Savigny 2020), and public opinion on these issues remain highly politically stratified (e.g. Menasce Horowitz and Igielnik 2020). In 2016, Donald Trump made direct appeals to voters who felt left behind by structural economic changes and believed that Black Americans, immigrants, women, and others were ‘cutting the line’ with the assistance of the federal government to gain the benefits of the American Dream (Drakulich et al. 2017, 2020; Hochschild 2016; Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck 2018). Politicians opportunistically utilize but also help stoke and reify public perceptions of racial, immigrant and gender threats. Thus, while we control for political identities to focus in on our main questions about threat, the two are fundamentally intertwined.


To explore public opinion about gun control, we use data from the 2018 American National Election Studies (ANES) Pilot Study survey. The ANES collected surveys from 2500 respondents in December of 2018 and included weights designed to make the sample representative of the larger population of U.S. voting-age citizens on the basis of age, gender, race-ethnicity, education, region, and party identification (all results include these weights). The survey was conducted over the internet drawing on respondents from an existing panel.[5]


Support for Gun Control Policies. Respondents were asked how strongly they favored or opposed on 7-point scales three gun policies : “requiring background checks for gun purchases at gun shows or other private sales,” “banning the sale of semi-automatic ‘assault-style’ rifles,” and “allowing school teachers to carry guns at school.” The average respondent favored assault rifles bans and universal background checks, and opposed arming teachers (Table 1). The three measures are highly related, so we also create a single scale capturing “anti-gun control views” indicated by the average of the respondent’s opposition to background checks and assault rifle bans and favorability towards arming teachers (alpha=.74).

Racial Resentment. To capture a sense of racial threat, we include a measure of racial resentment (e.g. Henry and Sears 2002), measured as the average of non-missing responses to four questions (alpha reliability is .89): whether Black people should overcome prejudice and work their way up without “special favors,” whether slavery and discrimination created conditions that remained significant barriers for lower-class Black people, whether Black people had gotten less than they deserved, and whether inequalities would be solved if Black people tried harder. The second and third questions are reverse-coded such that high values of the measure reflect greater racial resentment: the rejection of structural explanations for racial inequalities, the embrace of individualistic explanations, and a resentment of perceived line-cutting (e.g. Bobo et al. 1997; Bonilla-Silva 2018; Hochschild 2016).

Although there are important theoretical differences between the major conceptions of modern racism, symbolic, colorblind, and laissez-faire racism all share foundational logics reflected in this measure, including a preference for understandings of racial inequalities as rooted in Black deficiencies and a minimization of historical and contemporary discrimination (e.g. Bonilla-Silva 2018:7). Consistent with our interpretation, a variety of scholarly work suggests the racial resentment measure reflects symbolic support for group inequalities and concerns about threats to group position (see discussion in Simmons and Bobo 2018). The measure focuses on affective or socio-emotional reactions to threats to group position, consistent with Blumer’s conception (Bobo 1999).

By design, the measure captures a modern racism in which an ideology justifying racial inequality is cloaked in the language of non-racial political ideology.[6] As Bonilla Silva (2018:7) notes, a commonality for all the major modern racism theories is the idea that this new racism “rearticulated elements of traditional liberalism … for racially illiberal goals.” The connections between racial and political ideologies is direct and intentional—modern partisan polarization can be traced to the Civil Rights Movement and the racist and segregationist counter-movements of the 1960s and 1970s (McAdam and Kloos 2014; McVeigh, Cunningham, and Farrell 2014). More recently, party polarization has increased in part as a result of different reactions to racial civil rights advocacy (Abramowitz and McCoy 2019; Drakulich et al. 2021; Owens, McVeigh, and Cunningham 2019). Although racially resentful views are not exclusive to Republicans or conservatives, the connection between the racial and political ideologies is neither accidental nor incidental.

Immigrant Threat. Three questions capture a sense of the threat posed by immigration. Two focused on the perceived economic and social harms of undocumented immigration. Respondents were asked on a 7-point scale “Is illegal immigration good, bad, or neither good nor bad for the national economy?” and the same “for the quality of local public education?” A third indicator captures a general assessment of immigration, asking respondents on a 7-point scale “Do you think the number of immigrants from foreign countries who are permitted to come to the United States to live should be increased, decreased, or kept the same as it is now?” Consistent with broader theoretical work on perceptions of group threat, this measure captures the views that there are too many immigrants overall as well as concerns about the socioeconomic impact of ‘illegal immigration.’ Given the different scales of the items, we capture this item using factors scores from an exploratory factor analysis. An index of standardized variables (alpha reliability coefficient of .84) produced substantively identical results.

Othered group threat. However, correlations and exploratory factor analyses suggested that the indicators of racial and immigration threat were highly interrelated and loaded on the same latent factor. This has a substantive logic, as each captures perceptions of the threat posed by an “othered” group. Thus, we also create a combined measure of group threat via a confirmatory factor analysis using all of the indicators of racial resentment or immigrant threat.[7]

Gender Threat. To capture concerns about the relative status of men, we focus on opinion about an issue that has received widespread attention in recent years: sexual harassment. Respondents were prompted to think about “the increasing attention to sexual harassment in the workplace” and then asked which of two statements best describes the way they think: “it has gone too far and is calling into question all interactions between men and women in the workplace, which will hurt people's ability to do their jobs” or “it is an appropriate response to a problem that has been ignored for too long and addressing it will help women in the workplace.” Respondents are then asked how strongly they feel about this. The resulting measure is a ten-point scale ranging from extremely strong feelings that all the attention to harassment is appropriate to extremely strong feelings that it has gone too far. This measure is different from that used by Cassino and Besen-Cassino (2020), though taps into similar themes (their measure captures, for instance, whether women are easily offended and interpret innocent comments as sexist). The average respondent was just about exactly in the middle—not feeling strongly that there was either too much or too little attention being paid to sexual harassment (Table 1).

Politics. As political conservatives and Republicans are more likely to oppose gun control measures (e.g. Celinska 2007; Filindra and Kaplan 2016; Wozniak 2017), we employ two relatively standard measures: identification as more liberal or conservative and identification as more Democrat or Republican, each on seven-point scales. The average respondent was in the middle on both scales, though slightly more conservative than Republican (Table 1).

Demographic and Biographical Controls. We also include controls for alternative explanations that may be associated with sex, age (in tens of years), race and ethnicity, immigrant status, marital status (with single people as the reference category), years of education, and family income (in $1Ks coded from category midpoints). Based on prior research, we also include controls for whether respondents self-identify as a born-again Protestant (the reference category), another kind of Protestant, Roman Catholic, another religion, or none (Merino 2018; Whitehead, Schnabel, and Perry 2018; Wolpert and Gimpel 1998; Yamane 2016), and whether they live in the south (Brennan, Lizotte, and McDowall 1993).

Methodology and Limitations

As each of the outcomes measure support for the policies on a 7-point scale, we employ cumulative link models for ordinal data using the ordinal package in R (Christensen 2019; R Core Team 2019) for the first models. Noting substantial overlap between the outcomes and the models predicting them, we then use linear models predicting a combined scale to explore interactions by identity and then to directly explore intersectional threat.

Most measures have little or no missing data—only two have greater than seven missing cases of the 2500. Party identification is missing for 98 cases (3.9 percent). Family income is missing for 314 cases (12.6 percent). To address this missing data, we employed a multiple imputation strategy (Allison 2002), which does not depend on the assumption that data are missing completely at random, rather that the data are missing at random after controlling for other variables in the analysis. Twenty data sets were imputed in a process that used all the variables from the analyses as well as auxiliary variables to add information and increase efficiency—including information on employment and whether worries about the family financial situation—using the mice package (van Buuren and Groothuis-Oudshoorn 2011).

Web surveys can elicit more honest and less socially desirable responses, but also often suffer from lower engagement and ‘satisficing’ (e.g. Kreuter, Presser, and Tourangeau 2008; Liu and Wang 2015). Recognizing that ‘attention check’ questions and warning messages may harm the quality of responses (e.g. Clifford and Jerit 2015), the ANES instead employs questions at the end of their survey asking respondents how seriously they took the survey and how honest their responses were. 83 percent of respondents reported both taking the survey seriously and answering honestly most or all of the time. Dropping the 448 less serious respondents represents a trade-off between internal and external validity (Berinsky, Margolis, and Sances 2014). We found higher correlations among items in our scales when restricting the sample just to ‘serious and honest’ respondents, but we also found that dropping these respondents tends to skew the sample demographically, particularly with respect to age (see Anduiza and Galais 2016). Thus, we use multiple quality questions and balance internal and external validity by running all analyses using both the full and restricted samples (e.g. Berinsky et al. 2014). We present the results just for the restricted sample but note differences between this and the full sample—which were minimal—where relevant.

The survey was conducted in a single wave and the analyses are cross-sectional. We have reasons to believe our assumptions about causal ordering are reasonable: in general abstract political and racial beliefs may be formed earlier and may inform later more specific attitudes (e.g. Peffley and Hurwitz 1985). However, we do recommend future confirmatory work.


Table 2 presents coefficients from models predicting each of the positions on gun solutions with the three measures of threat as well as a variety of controls.[8] Reflecting the political stratification on the topic of guns, those identifying as more conservative and Republican were less likely to support gun control and more likely to support arming teachers.

Even after all the controls are included, each of the three dimensions of threat were related to each of the gun positions. Those who were racially resentful of Black Americans, those who expressed concern about the threat of immigration, and those who thought the focus on sexual harassment had gone too far were less likely to support either gun control policy and more likely to support arming teachers.[9] That each effect is significant for each gun policy view suggests the effects are at least partially independent and additive.

The three models are notable for their similarities, and in particular the consistent effects of each measure of threat on each of the three outcomes. As described above, we also created a single scale combining the three measures. In this measure of anti-gun control views a respondent who strongly opposed background checks and assault rifle bans and strongly supported arming teachers—all unpopular positions overall—would have a higher score on the scale from 1-7. The first three columns from table 3 replicate the models of Table 2 on this combined scale, telling a substantively identical story about the independent and additive effects of the three measures of threat.[10] Exploratory analyses suggested concerns about a gendered threat were most common among men, racial resentment was highest among white respondents, and concerns about immigrant threat were most common among those born in the United States. The final two columns of Table 3 ask, in addition to the stratification of these views, whether these views have qualitatively different effects across groups. Notably, there do appear to be differences in the effect of gendered threat by sex. Overall, men are more favorable towards guns, and concerns about the gendered threat posed by attention to sexual harassment are associated with more anti-gun control views. This effect, however, is larger among men. The effect of racial resentment does not appear to differ by race or ethnicity, and the effect of immigrant attitudes does not appear to differ by native-born status (Table 3). In other words, this is not exclusively a story about nativism, racism, and sexism among native-born white men.

Finally, in addition to the additive effect of intersectional threats implied by the models in Tables 2 and 3, we also consider the possibility of multiplicative effects through interactions. Our key interest is whether the role of concerns about the status of men—represented in the feeling that attention to sexual harassment has gone too far—differ based on whether the person is also concerned about the threat posed by an ‘othered’ group: here, Black Americans or immigrants. Concerns about the threat posed by immigrants and Black Americans are highly related so we combine them here to capture a latent sense of ‘othered’ group threat.

The first two columns of table 4 presents the results of models exploring these interactions.[11] The interaction of group and gendered threat is significant and sizeable. To illustrate the results, the left panel of figure 1 presents predicted values (and 95% confidence intervals) from these interactions for key values of gendered and group threat, holding all other values at their means.[12] Moving from left to right on the x axis shows the effect of gender threat on anti-gun control views—opposing background checks and assault rifle bans but favoring arming teachers—separately for respondents who were lower versus higher than average in their perception of immigrant and Black threat. Among those who were less concerned about the threat posed by othered groups, perceptions of gendered threats appear largely unrelated to views of guns: respondents favored gun control consistently regardless of their views of the attention paid to sexual harassment. However, among those who were more concerned about the threat posed by Black Americans and immigrants, concerns about gendered threats—the feeling that too much attention is paid to sexual harassment—increased opposition to-gun control by roughly a full answer category. In short, there is something qualitatively different about simultaneous concerns about threats to the privileges held by men and by white native-born citizens.


Most Americans support expanded background checks for gun sales, support restricting the sale of assault-rifle style weapons, and oppose ‘pro-gun’ solutions to gun problems like arming teachers. Yet a vocal and influential minority of Americans differs. We seek to understand those who oppose these gun control views. To do this we examine perceived threat along three dimensions. Two reflect social and economic threats posed by ‘othered’ and marginalized groups: immigrants and Black Americans. The third reflects the threat posed by increasing attention to sexual harassment to hegemonic masculinity. Each dimension of threat is independently associated with increased anti-gun control views about each of the three policies.

Men tend to be more concerned with gendered threats, white Americans more concerned with the threat posed by Black Americans, and native-born Americans more concerned with immigrant threat. Additionally, the effect of threats to men’s privileged status is greater among men. Thus, intersectional threat appears important to understanding anti-gun control views among native-born white men, but notably their effects are not limited to this group.

Most importantly, our conception of intersectional threat suggested that a combination of gendered threats and threats to privileged racial or native-born statuses would provoke a particularly strong response. Significant and sizeable interactions between gendered threat and ‘othered’ group threat suggest this is the case. Specifically, threats to the privileged status of men only appear relevant to views of gun policy among those who also are concerned about socio-economic threats posed by Black Americans or immigrants.

We interpret this as evidence of a ‘John Wayne solution’ to the identity problems caused by intersectional threat. Guns hold special symbolic value along these specific dimensions and expressing relatively unpopular gun views may be a way of simultaneously performing multiple privileged identities: masculinity, whiteness, and nativism. Just as white native-born men in our western and frontier folklore used guns to protect white women from the threats posed by othered groups, a particular form of modern gun culture seems to weave strains of sexism, racism, and nativism in its gun policy expressions (Carlson 2015; Gahman 2015; Melzer 2012).

Implications and Conclusion

The simplest implication of our findings is that it helps us better understand the sources of opposition to gun control among the minority of voters who hold disproportionate influence over the prospect of change. The role of threats and politics are intimately intertwined, and it is striking that, despite this overlap, political identities and perceptions of threat both have large and significant effects on views of gun policy when considered together. We begin with a discussion of the political implications before turning to broader sociological implications.

This work has several implications for the politics of gun control. The relationship between public opinion and policy-making is complicated (Blumer 1948; Bourdieu 1979; Drakulich and Kirk 2016), and some voters wield disproportionate power influencing legislators (Mayhew 1978). Our model and findings have several political implications. One is our idea that intersectional threat may provoke a performative response—a particularly vocal and visible support for guns. Although the NRA has historically wielded significant political influence (Cagle and Martinez 2004), that influence may be waning at the same time that gun control movements are rising (Phillips 2018). However, the influence of the NRA may be less important than the presence of particularly passionate voters (e.g. Richards 2017). In short, it may be that intersectional threat processes produce particularly passionate and vocal voters.

Prior work suggests perceived racial threats may make people less likely to vote overall, though only modestly so (Drakulich et al. 2020; Pasek et al. 2009). However, social movements and counter-movements are likely to increase partisan polarization when the movements align with existing parties—as has recently been the case around movements focusing on immigration, Black Lives, and sexual harassment. This suggests the effects will be party-dependent. In 2016, for instance, racial resentment and opposition to Black Lives Matter increased turnout among Republicans while the opposite views increased turnout among Democrats (Drakulich et al. 2020). Similarly, modern sexism appears to have motivated Republican turnout in 2018 while the opposite inspired Democratic turnout (Kam and Archer 2021). One consequence of this is increased polarization: as parties clash on key civil rights issues, other issues that divide the parties may also have more pronounced partisan divides, including guns (e.g. McLean and Sorens 2019). This also has implications for political strategy: even if most Americans support gun control, large partisan splits in that support suggest the political value of gun positions will be party-dependent. A hyper-partisan environment also means that candidates may be less concerned about losing some voters—Republicans in favor of gun control or Democrats opposed to it—freeing them to appease particularly vocal or passionate voters or lobbying efforts.

A larger implication is that these findings help draw a connection between two emergent socio-cultural phenomena: gun culture 2.0 and the rise of a sense of aggrievement and resentment among a particular segment of disproportionately white, male, native-born Americans. We specifically examine gun policy positions, but imagine our concept of intersectional threat and the ‘John Wayne solution’ to the problems it causes may be relevant to a variety of dimensions of modern gun culture, including gun-purchasing, open-carrying, participation in pro-gun social groups or internet communities, participation in pro-gun rallies and protests, and performatively open-carrying or conveying pro-gun positions at alt-right or other political rallies associated with sexist, racist, and nativist causes. The alt-right is fundamentally motivated by perceived threats to the rightful status of white American men, and open-carrying has been particularly visible at alt-right rallies (e.g. Frum 2017).

A smaller implication arises from our finding that while intersectional threat appears particularly relevant for native-born white men, it is not exclusively relevant there. Although Black Americans are less racially resentful of other Black Americans overall, the effect of racial resentment on gun policy attitudes appears similar to that among white Americans. The same is true for anti-immigrant attitudes among foreign-born persons. Gendered threats play a bigger role among men, but still seem to increase opposition to gun control among women. This is consistent with the broader literature on sexism, racism, and boundaries, in which members of marginalized or disempowered groups may hold negative in-group attitudes either as a result of absorbing highly visible stigmatized attitudes or as a strategy to subvert boundaries by rejecting stigmatized identities (e.g. Bonilla-Silva 2018; Lamont and Molnár 2002).

Our concept of intersectional threat has the potential for much broader application than we demonstrate here. We focus on two boundaries: othered group threat (itself a combination of racial and immigrant threats) and gendered threat, and apply it to one possible consequence of this threat: a performance of privileged identities through extreme gun positions, something we describe as the ‘John Wayne solution.’ However, threat may matter across many other boundaries in multiplicative ways. Native-born white men who are also poor may be particularly sensitive to threats to what they believe are their rightfully privileged status along gender, race, and citizenship lines (e.g. Hochschild 2016). Anti-immigrant attitudes in America are closely intertwined with anti-Latinx and anti-Arab attitudes (Verea 2018). Concerns about threats to manhood may in some cases reflect threats to straight cisgender manhood. In fact, prior work has identified homophobia as one dimension of a new gun culture (Gahman 2015; Melzer 2012).

Finally, the concept of intersectional threat has potential relevance well beyond understanding gun control attitudes or gun culture more broadly. Threats to multiple privileged identities may provoke a wide range of responses, both symbolic and structural. Lynchings during Reconstruction, often in response to the alleged rape of white women, demonstrated white men’s power (Messerschmidt 2014). In the latter half of the 20th century amidst a rise in women in the workplace and the economic transformation of deindustrialization, economic and criminal justice policies were created that disproportionately imprisoned Black men, restricted assistance to Black women and families, while both facilitating and ignoring violence against Black women (e.g. Davis 2017; Kendi 2017; Richie 2012). More recently, intersectional threat may be involved in the rise of the Tea Party and election of Donald Trump, punitive restrictions on immigration, the increased popularity of extremely polarized media, and the seeming acceptance of overt threats to democratic institutions and civil rights protections.


[1] We are interested in a particular (and popular) form of modern gun culture, in which white men are disproportionately represented (Mencken and Froese 2019), though not all gun owners or gun rights advocates fit these demographics or would identify with this culture (Yamane 2017).

[2] We capitalize Black but not white to reflect the logic that Black captures a “racialized social group that shares a specific set of histories, cultural processes, and imagined and performed kinships” which has struggled for political recognition while white “does not describe a group with a sense of common experiences or kinship outside of acts of colonization and terror” (Dumas 2016:12–13).

[3] Gun control opponents are also more likely to be single-issue voters and appear to be better organized than gun control advocates (Lacombe 2019; Melzer 2012).

[4] Work on altruistic fear has suggested that gun ownership is linked to concerns about partner victimization—with both more common among men (Drakulich 2015a; Warr and Ellison 2000). Warner (2020) links masculine role attitudes to in particular to the feeling that gun ownership would be empowering.

[5] The sample was selected from the YouGov panel by sample matching, using prior estimates of the U.S. population along the lines of gender, age, race, education, voter registration and turnout status, as well as politics and party identification. Additional information about the study can be found at

[6] Prior work suggests these views are primarily driven by social concerns about relative racial group positions (Simmons and Bobo 2018), are connected to both explicit and implicit indicators of racial animus (Drakulich 2015b; Sears et al. 1997), and are independent from a more general political conservatism or non-racial individualism (e.g. Enders 2019; Tarman and Sears 2005)—though we also include a separate measure of conservative ideology to distinguish these views. Kam and Burge (2018) show that the scale usefully distinguishes preferences for structural versus individual attributions among both white and Black Americans.

[7] All seven items had standardized loadings between .67 and .85. Error covariances were freed between questions with similar answer structures: the first/fourth and second/third resentment questions, and the school and economy immigration questions. The model fits reasonably well (RMSEA = .07, SRMR = .02).

[8] There appears to be a suppressor effect in the effect of age on gun control views. Older Americans are significantly more likely to identify as conservative, but after controlling for conservative identification, older Americans are generally more supportive of gun control.

[9] We explored a variety of measures of group threat to examine the sensitivity of our models to the specific measures we chose. The findings held with alternatives to resentment that dropped the “special favors” question and one that also dropped the “deserve” question, using questions about white jobs or the value of diversity as alternatives to group threat, dropping the measures that refer to illegal immigration, and using a measure of perceived personal sex discrimination just among men.

[10] The column labeled ‘Z’ presents standardized coefficients suggesting a combined influence of threat rivaled only by political ideology

[11] We also explored whether threats depended on political identities and found they did not.

[12] Notably, by holding the measures of political ideology at their means, we are suppressing the range of predicted values based just on threat scores. In practice, perceived threats and political ideology overlapped significantly, and political ideology may be in part endogenous to racial views. As such, we consider these ‘conservative’ estimates of the influence of threat.


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