The New York Times and other US media are reporting that President Obama will feature in a live televised town hall get-together to discuss gun violence in the United States, renewing his emphasis on the pressing need for more gun restrictions.
The event follows meetings with the Attorney General to discuss what executive actions the President can take to curb gun violence, which has been pushed up the political agenda yet again following shootings in San Bernardino, California on December 2nd when 14 people were killed.
However new research, just published in the prestigious academic ‘Journal of Public Economics’, has uncovered the existence of a large ‘Obama Effect’, driving an unprecedented demand for guns in the USA in 2008/2009 – specifically in the months leading up to and just after his election as President.
The ‘Journal of Public Economics’ is edited by distinguished academics based at various eminent universities across the world, including the London School of Economics in the UK, and Dartmouth College, USA.
The study, by Emilio Depetris-Chauvin from the Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia, presents robust statistical evidence that an unprecedented increase in the demand for guns, in the run up to Obama’s election, was partially driven by fears of a future Obama gun-control policy.
Furthermore, this research, mostly conducted when Emilio Depetris-Chauvin was reading for a PhD at Brown University in the USA, found that the ‘Obama Effect’ did not represent a short-lived ‘substitution effect’, in other words that people who had intended to buy a gun at some point in the future, merely brought forward their decision to purchase such a weapon.
A ‘substitution effect’ would indicate that this ‘Obama Effect’ doesn’t mean that more guns entered circulation over the longer term.
This investigation found that the apparent ‘panic’ buying of guns in the months before and immediately after Obama got elected, did permanently increase the total number of guns in circulation.
The stock of guns in “large Obama effect” states became permanently larger. In fact, four years after the election, the demand for guns was 30% larger in the states that had the largest increases during the election campaign.
The research found that states which had the largest increases in the demand for guns during the 2008 election race were also 20% more likely to experience a shooting event with at least three people killed, following Obama’s election.
These states also experienced between 8 and 15% more crime with guns following Obama’s election.
The study entitled, ‘Fear of Obama: An empirical study of the demand for guns and the U.S. 2008 presidential election’, reminds us that during 2008 and early-2009, the United States experienced skyrocketing sales of firearms, as well as shortages in common types of handgun ammunition.
Federal tax receipts from the sales of pistols and revolvers increased by almost 90% during the fourth quarter of 2008, compared to the same quarter a year earlier.
In December 2008, by which time firearm sales were soaring, President-elect Obama urged gun owners to “not rush out and stock up on guns”.
While the concurrent timing of growing gun sales and permit applications with the 2008 U.S. presidential election is strongly suggestive of an effect involving Obama’s election, on the demand for guns, worsening economic conditions, or a more general election effect, might also explain the apparent association.
But this study, using the FBI’s firearm background check reports, found the demand for guns responded especially to monthly information concerning the specific likelihood that Obama would be elected.
According to the most conservative specification, during this election period, a 10-point increase in the probability of Obama being elected is associated with a 4.5% increase in the demand for guns nationwide.
A common explanation for the gun sales surge is the perception and fear that the election of Obama would lead to stronger legal restrictions on gun ownership and their use in the near future.
This potential mechanism is referred to as the “fear of gun control” theory, and this theory itself was strongly supported by the data analysed in this study.
The author of the study, Emilio Depetris-Chauvin, points out that, despite the anti-gun-control lobby’s negative advertising; there was no clear rationale for believing that Obama’s gun policies would be considerably more restrictive than those of Hillary Clinton or John McCain.
Although Obama had consistently supported gun control measures in the past, he also repeatedly claimed to advocate upholding and respecting the “Second Amendment”.
The fact that Obama did not have an especially stronger anti-gun record or campaign position relative to John McCain and Hillary Clinton – both of whom had been criticized by the NRA prior to then, begs the question, according to this study, as to why the particular likelihood of his being elected should induce such a specific surge in gun sales.
But, this study argues, possibly Black candidates in US Elections may induce particularly intense apprehensions and fears among Whites. Can prejudice partially account for the unusual surge in gun sales?
This research investigated the question by analysing racial attitude toward Blacks at the state level and information regarding the likelihood of Obama becoming president. The results suggest that Obama’s election is statistically associated with a 24% increase in the demand for guns for a state with average levels of racial prejudice.
But in states with higher levels of racial prejudice there is even more demand for guns, whenever it looked more likely that Obama was going to get elected.
For instance Louisiana’s racial prejudice level is measurably very significantly above Virginia’s and appeared to contribute to an additional 12% increase in the demand for guns in Louisiana, when Obama was elected.
This study concludes that racial sentiments may have played a role in the unusual increase of the demand for guns during the period of analysis.
That increases in the demand for guns were larger in states with higher levels of racial prejudice, is interpreted by the author as evidence consistent, albeit inconclusive until further research is done, with racial sentiments underlying the ‘Obama Effect’.
The psychology of gun ownership and gun control in the USA is clearly complex and, depending on where you stand in the debate, involves a mix of race issues, culture of violence and victimization, beliefs in conspiracy theories, and general mistrust in the government.
But the author of this research is keen that it should not be used to picture gun owners as “gun nuts”. For instance, Emilio Depetris-Chauvin points out that gun ownership rates in the US are also partly explained sometimes by a rural way of life; gun ownership is large in Montana possibly because those who hunt there may need such weapons for protection against wild animals.
So the unique psychology of this complex North American mind-set needs to be properly grasped if progress on gun-control is going to be made.
But is President Obama reading the psychology of the situation correctly – given the very presence of an ‘Obama effect’?
People who are afraid of gun control go out and buy more guns. In those states which witness these effects the most, there is a paradoxical result: more guns supposedly protect the citizen (according to the anti-gun-control lobby), yet they are in fact, according to this research, linked to more shootings and gun crime.
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