Gun-buying surged during the pandemic to unprecedented levels across the U.S. but especially in New Jersey. The Garden State recorded 177,000 firearm background checks in 2020, nearly doubling the previous year’s tally, according to FBI data, and New Jerseyans have already surpassed this mark in 2021. Other research teams have also identified New Jersey as a region of the country facing more gun violence now than it experienced pre-pandemic.
When Michael Anestis, an expert in suicide and gun violence at the Rutgers University School of Public Health, heard about this pattern, he was inspired to go beyond studying the traditional demographics of race and gender to assess what he felt was a new shift in gun ownership.
In a study published last month in the journal Social Sciences & Medicine, Anestis along with three other researchers examined the differences in personality traits and motivations between people who bought firearms in 2020 and those that didn’t. Among the findings, pandemic purchasers stood out as more sensitive to fear and more reactive when they encountered distressing situations.
These personality characteristics are the clues to what motivates pandemic gun buyers, Anestis said. While demographics are still important, they give only a general sense of how guns are distributed across gender, race and socioeconomic classes, but not the why.
“We know a lot about demographically who own firearms, but very little about just who somebody is sort of at their core and their personality, how they react with and view the world,” said Anestis. “When you look at personality, you get a better understanding of why someone is motivated to behave or think or feel in a certain way, and that creates an opportunity to come up with plans for how we might change the course of what someone might do.”
Under the guise of a safety survey, 3,500 U.S. residents were given an online questionnaire, a standard personality test with a twist. Researchers asked participants about how they protect their homes and personal safety measures, but they also inquired if they owned a gun, had recently purchased one and were thinking about buying a firearm in the next 12 months.
Among the personality questions, the study’s authors looked at two traits in particular. The first was threat sensitivity, which measures how reactive a person is to fear. The study showed that participants who bought a gun recently or are considering it in the next year found the world to be more dangerous than people who didn’t purchase a firearm or had no plan to do so.
Those who bought a firearm or planned to soon were more heavily impacted by fear, anger or frustration.
“When you think about how the tumultuous events in the last 18 months might impact how somebody views the world, you could see how that might motivate somebody to purchase a firearm when they otherwise might not have been motivated to do so," said Anestis.
While this aligns with the most commonly cited reason for owning a firearm, personal protection at home, the study found that the decision to purchase a gun in 2020 was more likely a reaction to fear of civil unrest and the pandemic and an attempt to feel safer. Those who did not have plans to own a firearm were less likely to react when they felt fear. The Brookings Institution released a July 2020 report, soon after this trend began, that also cited racial tension as a possible factor.
This pattern could be linked to another personality trait that researchers assessed– disinhibition, or the propensity for risk-taking behaviors. The team looked at how participants approached and evaluated risk at times of distress, even if it came with increased danger. Those who bought a firearm or planned to soon were more heavily impacted by fear, anger or frustration. As a result, they were also more likely to take risks when they were under duress.
These survey takers were driven by a general sense of anxiety about the world and a perceived sense of threat fueling a compelling need to do something tangible to make themselves feel safer. Participants who didn’t buy a gun or didn’t even plan to were more apt to have the same risk-taking tendencies regardless of their emotional states.
Especially with new gun buyers, the risks for harm are high, according to Charles Branas, an epidemiology professor at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. In a 2009 study, he found that those who recently purchased a firearm tended to act differently – taking risks such as going to places that they normally wouldn’t go. He cited the recent case of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 18-year-old who shot and killed two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin during the civil unrest last year.
“You had an individual [Rittenhouse] that acted differently because they were in possession of a firearm in the first place,” said Branas. “I’m not even passing judgment about why they even entered into that situation in the first place, but I think an argument can be made that his possession of a firearm was part of the reason he was there in the first place.”
In getting to know these firearm owners better, Anestis hopes that the research can be used to tailor policy, safety and public outreach that targets this group with a credible message that resonates strongly enough to promote safer practices, such as secure storage.
“It’s very difficult if not impossible to get policy for the point of sale, it’s like auditing someone for their boldness and disinhibition,” said Branas. “You can’t even hold on to their names. Getting a car and being able to operate that car is more challenging than being able to operate a deadly weapon for the first time.”
These decisions come with real-world consequences. In a previous study, Anestis found that first-time purchasers during the pandemic have a very high rate of suicidal thoughts that far exceeds other firearm owners and those who didn’t own a gun. Suicide by a firearm is the most common and most lethal form of suicide with a survival rate of less than 20%. New Jersey has also been identified as a region of the country facing more gun violence now than it experienced pre-pandemic.
“We need to learn pretty quickly about this group of folks who have led this unprecedented surge in firearm sales, so we can learn how to reach them,” said Anestis. “All of my energy is focused on prevention, reducing risk, helping folks who’ve made a decision to purchase a firearm to make sure that the decision doesn’t end up hurting or killing themselves or someone else.”