Noah S. Schwartz is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Concordia University. Specializing in public policy and administration, his research looks at advocacy groups and firearms policy in Canada and the United States. His recent work includes “Guns in the North: Assessing the Impact of Social Identity on Firearms Advocacy in Canada,” which was published in Politics & Policy in 2021, and “Called to arms: the NRA, the gun culture & women,” published in Critical Policy Studies in 2019.
Listen to the audio version of this text, performed by the author.
Social Identity and the Politics of Guns
“Who are you?” That can be a difficult question to answer. You might respond by giving the person asking the question your name or telling them that you are a student. But do either of these things fully describe you?
Human beings are complex, with many elements making up our identity. The term social identity was created by Tajfel and Turner (1979) to describe how human beings form our sense of who we are through belonging to a group. There are many groups that we can belong to, and these groups can be centered around different aspects of our identity: race, class, gender, sexuality, politics, etc. These identities are not political by nature, but can be politicized (brought into politics), especially when a group sees itself as threatened by an outside force (Mason and Wronski 2018). It is also important to note that just because someone objectively belongs to a certain social category—for example, they are a person of color—does not mean that it forms an important part of their social identity. Social identity is subjective (personal) and is navigated in different ways by different people.
Studying social identity is important because our understanding of the world is shaped by our identity. Understanding this can help to explain political phenomena like the left-right partisan divide in Canada. In recent years, the division between left (Liberals & New Democrats) and right (Conservatives) seems to be getting wider. Some scholars think that the internet is to blame. Our political identities naturally lead us to search out and read information that fits our worldview, while rejecting facts that go against it (Druckman and Lupia 2016). The internet has allowed algorithms, complex computer programs, to do this for us.
In my research, I look at the political advocacy of gun owners in Canada and the United States. My research shows that gun ownership is an important part of the social identity of this group of Canadians (Schwartz 2021). That is because gun owners are deeply involved in activities like hunting or the shooting sports, often investing time, money, and personal energy into these activities. Some of the people I talked to in my research grew up with guns as a normal part of their life. They started hunting as children or teenagers, under the careful watch of their parents or grandparents. Some take part in the shooting sports, competing among friends or at high levels, even in the Olympics. For many of the gun owners I spoke to, hunting and shooting were an important part of their social life, and their social network was centered around these activities. When the government brings in new rules or laws to regulate firearms, gun owners therefore feel that it is not just their guns that are under attack, but their core identity.
This might seem strange to you if you grew up in a big city, or did not live in a house where guns were present. You might see guns as objects of fear. However, for gun owners, firearms are meaningful tools that allow them to participate in activities that they find fun, exciting, or relaxing. These activities become a part of who they are, shaping their identity, or how they see themselves. When they feel that their interests are threatened, for example by the recent changes made to Canada’s gun control laws, they are highly motivated to take part in political advocacy to oppose these changes.
Pro-gun advocacy groups understand this and help organize gun owners to do things like writing their Members of Parliament, signing petitions, donating money, or voting for the group’s preferred candidate. This is just one example of how a person’s identity can help us to explain or understand their social or political behavior.
So, I will ask you again, who are you? What you answer might say quite a bit about your politics.
- What elements of your identity are shaped by the groups you belong to? How does this have an impact on your political opinions?
- What are your political opinions on gun control? How have the groups you belong to shaped how you see the issue?
- Thinking of an important political issue, like climate change, race and policing, or healthcare. What elements of a person’s identity might affect their opinions or actions on that issue?
Druckman, J.N., and Lupia, A. (2016). Preference change in competitive political environments. Annual Review of Political Science, 19: 13–31. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-020614-095051.
Hogg, M.A. (2000). Subjective uncertainty reduction through self-categorization: A motivational theory of social identity processes. European Review of Social Psychology, 11(1): 223–255. https://doi.org/10.1080/14792772043000040.
Mason, L., and Wronski, J.. (2018). One tribe to bind them all: How our social group attachments strengthen partisanship. Political Psychology, 39(S1): 257–77. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12485.
McGarty, C., Bliue, A-M, Thomas, E.F., and Bongiorno, R. (2009). Collective action as the material expression of opinion-based group membership. Journal of Social Issues, 65(4): 839–57.
Schwartz, N.S. (2021). Guns in the north: Assessing the impact of social identity on firearms advocacy in Canada. Politics & Policy, 49(3): 795–818. https://doi.org/10.1111/polp.12412
Tajfel, H., and Turner, J. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations, edited by W.G. Austin and S. Worchel. Monterey, CA: Wadsworth.