By Nick Houtman
In 2016, on a muggy August evening in a suburban home just outside Austin, Texas, Michelle Barnhart and Aimee Huff sat around a dining room table eating Blue Bell ice cream while conducting an interview. They were talking with a married couple, a man and woman who had recently moved from California. The family dog circled, hoping to clean up any delicacies that might land on the floor.
Such a relaxing scene was probably repeated that summer night in countless households from Oregon to Florida. But, at times, the conversation in Austin grew contentious. The two Oregon State University researchers were traveling across the state to interview members of the public about one of the most polarizing issues in American culture: handgun ownership. To research the topic, Barnhart and Huff visited people in their homes and talked with others at shops, gun shows, meetings and shooting ranges.
The researchers wanted to know what led handgun owners to purchase these weapons, how the owners perceived the risk of carrying a gun and what steps they took to minimize the possibility of something going wrong. It was an unusual focus for the College of Business faculty members who study consumer products and how they are marketed.
“We want to unpack the truth [about how people experience gun ownership]. We aren’t motivated by a political agenda,” says Huff. “We like to assume that consumers are rational people, but it’s an emotional issue. It’s intertwined with other issues such as domestic violence, racism, income inequality, mental health and suicide.
“Because it’s a contentious topic, a lot of marketing researchers tend not to go there. We study people and marketing and products,” she adds. “As a field, we tend to not theorize about those sorts of things in really contentious areas.”
For Barnhart, the trip to Texas was a homecoming. She grew up on a farm near Pearsall, just south of San Antonio. The gun rack in her childhood home was part of the furniture. Although they did not own handguns, she and her family hunted with rifles and shotguns, as did many of their neighbors. A sense of trust and familiarity permeated the community of about 6,000 people.
“Even though I was comfortable with guns, the idea of a handgun and this new emphasis on self-defense were very unfamiliar to me,” she adds. “We didn’t even lock our doors.”
Huff, on the other hand, had never owned or fired a gun. She was raised in London, Ontario, a city of more than 380,000 just north of Lake Erie. “I had never seen a gun that wasn’t on a police officer,” she says. “Guns were just not part of my world.”
Neither researcher is a stranger to issues known in their circles as “wicked” problems — those that are extraordinarily complex and difficult to solve. Huff focuses on marketing and consumer experiences in contested areas such as marijuana, the sex trade and guns. Barnhart studies consumer behaviors that reflect a buyer’s ethics, identity and sense of community.
Among consumer goods, the researchers note, guns are unique because they are designed to kill. Death resulting from the use of most products would probably result in lawsuits. Moreover, guns are the only products for which ownership comes with a right guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.
“Keep and bear. That’s almost the whole definition of consumption,” says Barnhart. “We think of consumption in our world as purchase, possess, use and dispose.”
They collaborated with Jim McAlexander, OSU business professor, and with Brandon McAlexander, Jim’s son and a
Ph.D. business student at the University of Arkansas. In addition to learning about the culture of gun owners, this group also studied the marketing strategies of gun violence prevention groups, such as Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action. The College of Business supported the team’s work.
Over more than three decades, the gun debate has roiled American politics. In 1981, an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan left press secretary James Brady badly injured. It took 12 years for Congress to pass the Brady Bill, which imposed federal background checks and a five-day waiting period on purchases. In 1994, Congress passed a ban on “assault weapons,” which were defined as semi-automatic rifles, and versions of shotguns and pistols. The ban expired in 2004, and such weapons have since led rifle sales in the U.S.
In 1999, two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, shocked the nation by killing 12 of their classmates and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves. Since then, heartbreaking massacres have occurred in schools, churches, nightclubs, theaters and other venues, bringing forth new calls for universal background checks, stricter limits on publicly available weaponry and other forms of regulation.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of reported gun-related deaths has increased by 35% since 2000. Suicides, which account for about two-thirds of such deaths, rose 38% in the same period. (see infographic, “Firearms in the United States”).
Over that time, gun sales have soared. Polls have shown overwhelming public approval of having access to handguns for self-defense. Gun-rights groups such as the National Rifle Association have succeeded in expanding rights to own and carry such weapons. Their views were upheld in a landmark 2008 Supreme Court decision.
In District of Columbia v. Heller, the court explicitly included the possession and use of a handgun for personal defense under rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment.
Gun Violence Prevention
In recent years, gun violence prevention groups have begun to gain traction in state legislatures and Congress. In
Oregon, as this article went to press, the legislature was debating multiple gun-regulation proposals. One aimed to define and restrict the sale of “assault rifles,” while others limited ammunition purchases, mandated gun locks and allowed schools to offer firearm safety training. A proposal to expand gun rights — directing the state to recognize conceal and-carry permits from other states — was given little chance of passage.
In Washington state last fall, more than 60% of voters passed Initiative 1639, which includes a sweeping set of new policies. The measure bans the sale of semi-automatic weapons to people under 21, requires enhanced background checks and makes gun owners liable if their guns come into the possession of minors who publicly display, discharge or use these weapons in a crime. Gun-rights groups are challenging the initiative in court.
In February, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a proposal to expand universal background checks. The measure was expected to be taken up by the Senate but given little chance of passage.
That August night in Texas, the conversation mirrored some of the tensions that color the broader gun debate. The husband had grown up in Houston and regarded a gun as “a tool to make sure this society stays civil.” He values having a weapon as a way for him to protect his wife and their young son. Toward that end, he had spent thousands of dollars on guns, accessories and armed self-defense training. Laws restricting access to firearms, he told Barnhart and Huff, are unnecessary and ineffective in reducing gun-related crime, including mass shootings.
The wife was an advocate for regulations to address gun violence. She reluctantly allowed guns in her house for personal protection but told Huff and Barnhart that doing so was a bit “paranoid.”
While the couple disagreed on fundamental aspects of gun regulation, they both saw the need to safely store firearms and make them inaccessible to children. Moreover, the husband complied with his wife’s demand that, when they were out in the community as a family, the guns would remain at home in a safe.
Preparation for Defenders
For the OSU researchers, such issues came up again and again in their work. They conducted 18 interviews with individuals in Texas and Oregon: gun and non-gun owners; Democrats, Republicans and independents; men and women. In addition, they talked with gun owners at shooting ranges, with vendors at regional and statewide gun shows and with NRA members at the organization’s annual meeting. They participated in target shooting and observed safety practices. They compiled notes about how and when gun owners chose to store, carry and use their weapons. They viewed online discussions dedicated to defensive handgun use. Barnhart completed the training for a concealed handgun license.
They reported some of their findings in a 2017 article in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research: “Preparing for the Attack: Mitigating Risk through Routines in Armed Self-Defense.” The authors paint a picture of people who, like the husband in Austin, are motivated by a strong desire to protect themselves, their families and the public from criminal behavior. In this context, the article refers to them as “defenders.”
While awareness of the risks of gun ownership varies from person to person, the authors found that information about safety procedures and training programs was readily available. In interviews and online, defenders noted risks such as firing inaccurately, having a weapon taken by another person in a struggle and being subjected to legal proceedings related to gun possession or an actual shooting. Even the use of public toilets came under consideration, with some male participants noting that they avoid using urinals or, when doing so, switch their gun to a more secure holster.
Defenders shared details about practices to decrease risk while maintaining their readiness for armed self-defense, such as storing their weapons in ways that keep them available for use but inaccessible to children and other unauthorized people. Being prepared also means storing weapons close to their beds at night and putting them on their belt when dressing each morning. Some defenders described the importance of physically and mentally conducting practice scenarios in which an assailant poses an unambiguous threat. Unlike some product-related risks, such as driving a car or drinking alcohol, the infrequency of such a threat makes it difficult to engage in actual events, the authors note. “Even with substantial practice, no one can be fully ready. They would need to engage in actual events regularly,” says Barnhart.
These events can produce high levels of muscle-shaking stress. For that reason, some gun owners emphasize the need to practice, practice, practice, enabling them to react from instinct or muscle memory. “By repeatedly incorporating their bodies, understandings and the gun and peripheral objects into an embodied, routinized practice, defenders develop practical understanding of how to perform the practice in ways that reduce risks,” the authors write.
Nevertheless, they add that challenges remain. “We see opportunities for armed self-defense to be safer,” such as expanded requirements for gun buyers to participate in training and education programs. Many gun owners express confidence in the benefits of such efforts. Vendors could offer more information about trigger locks, gun safes and other accessories that encourage safe practices. Just as importantly, training programs could include simulations of situations that require judgment about whether or not a person presents an actual threat. Making that decision accurately, the authors note, could help to avoid some encounters.
The authors also add that defenders face a paradox. While not carrying a gun increases their feeling of vulnerability, some gun owners mention that carrying a weapon can raise the possibility of being targeted by an assailant who becomes aware that they are armed.
To minimize such risks, the OSU researchers quote a gun owner who offered this advice: “A concealed carry holster has to be accessible under as many different possibilities as you find in your daily life. It should not announce that you are carrying under any circumstance. … I have practiced with a number of holsters in every position I can get into, and the shoulder holster is the best for me. I can access it in any position other than (when I am) laying on it, and I can make the draw look like I am going for a cigarette.”
Changing the Gun Culture
While the OSU research team was looking at the beliefs and practices shared by gun owners, they were also considering the issue from a strategic marketing perspective. For many people, the term “marketing” brings up images of advertising and sales pitches for everything from cars to toothpaste.
However, Huff, Barnhart and their team were looking at another aspect of how organizations branded their messages and other communications. The researchers aimed to expand the study of what they and their academic counterparts call “macro-social marketing.” The goal of such marketing efforts — usually conducted by government agencies or nonprofit organizations — is to change the culture, not to sell a commercial product.
“If you’re going to change the culture, you have to address the laws, institutional policies and the ways people behave on a daily basis,” says Barnhart. Until recently, researchers in this field focused on government agencies and campaigns to improve health or social well-being. Think of posters, broadcast messages and magazine ads aimed at curbing smoking, drunken driving or teen pregnancy. Nonprofits have been largely ignored as agents of macro-social marketing.
With fewer resources than the government or corporations, nonprofit groups face high hurdles in achieving their goals. Moreover, opposing interests may define problems and solutions in starkly different ways — presenting researchers with the perfect “wicked” problem.
The OSU team wanted to understand how gun violence prevention groups use marketing tools to achieve their aims and motivate volunteers. For these groups, the heart of the problem consists of the rising rate of injuries and deaths resulting from irresponsible or poorly regulated gun use. The immediate context doesn’t matter to them if people die from defending their property, suicide, criminal activity or accidents, says Huff.
The groups’ immediate objectives tend to be clear and simple: expand background checks, promote safe storage practices and require law enforcement to remove weapons possessed by people diagnosed with mental illness or convicted of violent acts such as domestic abuse.
Even though horrific mass shootings tend to galvanize their supporters, the toll from such events amounts to less than 1% of the total of all gun-related deaths. So gun violence prevention groups focus on the regular drumbeat of day-to-day gun-related injuries and deaths. It may be the toddler who happens upon a weapon left carelessly on the seat of a car, the distressed adult who has decided to end his or her life or domestic violence that escalates into a shooting.
Meanwhile, adds Huff, gun-rights groups see the nature of the problem completely differently. “Such groups see suicide, which accounts for two-thirds of gun deaths in the United States, as a mental health issue.”
Moreover, gun deaths resulting from criminal behavior need to be addressed through law enforcement and an armed citizenry, these groups argue. And they see the rate of accidental gun deaths at an all-time low and suggest, says Huff, that gun safety is not a big issue right now. People who have guns are just fine and are not having very many accidents, according to gun-rights groups.
There has been a lot of research on the pro-gun side. The gun lobby is easier to study because it’s identifiable and dominated by the National Rifle Association, which promotes itself as ‘America’s longest-standing civil rights organization.’ Founded in 1871, the NRA claims more than 5 million members.
Over the past two decades, gun laws have generally become less restrictive, the researchers say, helping to fuel the rise in firearm purchases. For example, since the 2008 Supreme Court decision, handgun sales and the number of permits granted for the concealed carrying of those weapons have more than doubled.
A New Movement
To understand how gun violence prevention groups marketed themselves and their messages, the researchers reviewed communications with members and legislators, interviewed leaders and attended group meetings. In the Journal of Macromarketing in 2017, Huff and her team reported their findings in an article, “Addressing the Wicked Problem of American Gun Violence: Consumer Interest Groups as Macro-social Marketers.”
They found that gun violence prevention groups often target people with moderate views rather than citizens on the extremes. And they observed that the groups voice support for the Second Amendment. None expressed a desire to repeal it or challenge the way it has been interpreted. In communicating their views, they use language such as “gun safety” not “gun control” to focus on responsible gun ownership instead of restrictions.
They target their messages to people with different roles in addressing the issue: politicians, individual gun owners and the friends and family of owners. Just as importantly, they foster an internal culture among their volunteers, who often provide the heart and muscle to speak to the need for new policies.
As more people become exposed to gun violence in their everyday lives, pressure to adopt additional gun safety policies may reach a tipping point that politicians cannot ignore, Barnhart and Huff say. They continue to study these trends in collaboration with OSU sociologist Brett Burkhardt.
Crossing the Divide
The OSU researchers see their role as helping people with a stake in the gun debate to get a glimpse into areas of potential cooperation. For example, says Barnhart, “I think we can all agree that fewer people being shot would be good. And I think it’s safe to say that most, if not all gun dealers, probably don’t want the guns they sell to be used in a crime or in a suicide.”
An initiative by a group known as Spaceship Media gives Barnhart and Huff hope as well as evidence for further study. After the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the media group brought 21 people from diverse backgrounds together for two days of facilitated conversations. The organizers then created a closed community on Facebook with 150 people across the country for a month. They called their project “Guns — An American Conversation.”
On the condition of individual anonymity, Spaceship Media has given the OSU team access to comments by the participants. Working with Inara Scott, a legal scholar and assistant dean in the College of Business, Huff and Barnhart plan to use those comments, polling data and information from previous interviews to analyze how Americans think of the Second Amendment.
“People have lots of thoughts about the complexity of this topic,” says Barnhart. “They tend not to be black and white on it. It’s tied up with other freedoms, such as to engage in leisure activities like hunting and to be self-reliant.”
The conversation is not likely to end any time soon, she adds. “Guns are an American icon, but at the same time, gun violence is an American scar. Talking about guns is difficult, but people have to keep talking — and listening — if they hope to gain true understanding of the issue.”