Fear of the government makes Americans more likely to reach for a gun

Our responses to fear aren’t always logical.
Our responses to fear aren’t always logical.
Image: Giada Fiorindi for Quartz
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Americans are scared of the government. Political corruption is at the top of US citizens’ most common fears, according to a recent survey conducted by researchers at California’s Chapman University. They’re also worried about cyberterrorism and very concerned about their privacy being invaded by corporations or the government.

Perhaps less reasonable than these objects of fear are their responses to it. Chapman researchers asked 1,541 adult respondents about how fear affected their behavior. Frankly, the results are a little frightening.

For one thing, it turns out that fear-mongering can be a smart political tactic. Just under a quarter of respondents, or 22.6%, said they had voted for a particular candidate out of fear. (Presidential candidates, please don’t interpret this as carte blanche for stoking voters’ terror: the study did not assess what percentage of Americans are so turned off by scare tactics that they vote for the opposing candidate.)

The survey, administered in May by consumer research company GFK, also found that 10.5% of respondents had purchased a gun because of their fears.

“Fear of the government had the strongest relationship with buying a gun because of fear,” said Chapman survey researcher L. Edward Day. “People who have purchased a gun because of fear also have high levels of fear of technology and crime.”

But the data show that in cases like these, the consequences of owning a gun can be a lot scarier than the fear that motivates the purchase.

According to the most recent data available, in 2012 the US had 20,666 firearm suicide deaths, 8,342 criminal gun homicides and 548 fatal unintentional shootings. There were just 259 “justifiable homicides” in which a private citizen used a gun in self-defense, according to data from the FBI and the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited in a Violence Policy Center report released in June.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to prepare for self-defense by buying a tool that’s 79 times more likely to be used for suicide, and 32 times more likely to be used in criminal homicide, than it is to be used against a criminal attacker.

If Americans are too quick to act in this instance of fear-driven behavior, they under-prepare in response to other dangers. More than half the respondents in the survey say they fear a natural or manmade disaster, and 86% believe an emergency kit would improve their chances of survival. But the vast majority—72%—have made no effort to put together such a kit.

“We found a major disconnect between people’s expectations of what would happen in a disaster and the reality of a disaster’s aftermath,” said Ann Gordon, another Chapman survey researcher. “The number one excuse given by Americans for not having an emergency kit is that they expect first responders to come to their aid immediately—this is an unrealistic belief in the wake of a natural disaster.”

Respondents also said that they weren’t prepared for disasters because they didn’t have the time to put together a kit. Others said they didn’t want to think about it or don’t know what to do about it. (For the record: the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends storing enough water, food and basics like medicine and diapers for three days.)

The upshot of these results is that fear isn’t always a helpful response. While it can make us act in ways that minimize risk, fear can also make us do things that don’t ultimately benefit us.

This point was even conceded by Antonio Damasio, the neuroscientist who wrote the groundbreaking 1994 book Descartes’ Error on the relationship between emotion and the human brain. Emotions like fear can be counterproductive, Damasio writes in his 2005 preface to a later edition.

“The emotional action program we call fear can get most human beings out of danger, in short order, with little or no help from reason,” writes Damasio. But, he adds, “Reasoning gives us the option of thinking smartly before we act smart, and a good thing too.”