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One Psychologist's Two Cents on Guns

Political arguments usually ignore the complexity of the issues surrounding guns

Luis Molinero/Shutterstock
Source: Luis Molinero/Shutterstock

Here we go again.

The latest massacres in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton once again force us to confront the fact that we have a problem in America. In fact, in an average year, four times as many Americans are killed by guns than the number of coalition soldiers that have died in all of the years of war in Afghanistan.

It seems as if each new month brings yet another story about a high-profile shooting, prompting the predictable impassioned debates between gun-control advocates and gun-rights defenders.

I would like to weigh in on this conversation.

Over the past 15 years or so, I have been doing research on aggression, and some of this research has found its way into popular media outlets ranging from so called “liberal rags” like the New York Times and CNN to FOX News and conservative columns written by people like Jonah Goldberg. Much of this coverage is sparked by the fact that my work is relevant to the very touchy subject of the role played by guns in American life.

Apparently, people see what they wish to see in media portrayals of what I have to say about guns.

Individuals who have never actually read any of my papers confidently denounce my research as “junk science,” and I have been the target of criticism (and some not-so-thinly-veiled threats of violence) from both the extreme right and left wings of the political spectrum by people who think that they know what my opinions about guns are. I have even seen allegations that my research has been funded by the anti-gun lobby in pursuit of its political goals, which, if true, means that someone owes me a lot of money.

I am writing this essay to make my opinions about gun issues clear and public. Many will disagree with what I have to say, which is OK with me as long as they understand what I am in fact saying.

Let me start by saying that I do not hate guns.

I am not a hunter, but I enjoyed any kind of target shooting when I was a kid and I took a marksmanship course as an adult, although I do not own a gun. In fact, I am one of the first to admit that shooting a gun is a lot of fun. I have been interviewed by publications such as Men’s Health Magazine and The Guardian about why men in particular get such a “bang” out of shooting guns, and I understand the biology behind this. In 2006, I published an article in Psychological Science with one of my students and one of my colleagues in which we demonstrated that men do in fact get a testosterone rush just from handling a gun and that this can be easily translated into an impulse toward aggressive behavior.

In other words, just handling a gun makes men feel more powerful and aggressive.

Let’s quickly review some of the other things that we know. Psychologists long ago identified something called the weapons effect; in a nutshell, the sight and feel of a weapon can serve as a cue and trigger for violence in men. However, I will admit that this is most true for men who are not accustomed to thinking about guns as recreational objects, since seeing a hunting rifle does not prime aggressive thoughts in hunters the way it does in nonhunters.

So, spare me the overused argument that guns don't kill people -- that they are just an innocent tool. This argument usually concludes that murderous individuals will somehow find a way to carry out their sinister plans whether they have a high-powered weapon or not. Anyone who uses this argument would rightfully scoff if it was applied to any other "tool." If we were talking about long-distance travel, for example, it would be like saying "airplanes don't fly people -- people fly people!" Yes, there is a person guiding the plane, but you are not going to get anywhere without the airplane. And when it comes to mass shootings, yes a person pulls the trigger, but you do not have a massacre without a trigger to pull.

So, guns don’t kill people, people kill people; but people with guns kill a lot more people than people without guns.

In spite of political protests to the contrary, lower rates of gun ownership are associated everywhere with lower murder rates, which is unfortunate given that the rates of gun ownership in the United States dwarf ownership rates in any other country.

Do I believe that owning a gun will sometimes protect good people from bad people? Yes, of course. There will be times when the “bad guy” gets what is coming to him because a homeowner has a gun. However, data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) indicate that this is offset by the fact that gun owners are 2.7 times more likely to be murdered (usually by someone they know) than people who do not own guns and that they are FIVE TIMES more likely to commit suicide than non gun-owners.

My own research indicates that such gun issues are primarily a young male problem. I could be persuaded to be more permissive about the weapons people are allowed to have if we could somehow make it possible for everyone except males under the age of 45 to have them.

I would also like to chime in on the question of "background checks." In most states, there is more of a hassle for acquiring a dog or a driver's license than there is for acquiring a gun. I assume that most gun owners do not want terrorists, people with a history of mental illness, or those convicted of violent crimes to have easy access to high powered weaponry. And yet, many of these same individuals would vote against measures that would accomplish the goal of making it more difficult for such people to buy a gun.

Luis Molinero/Shutterstock
Source: Luis Molinero/Shutterstock

From everything I have said so far, you may conclude that I am in favor of taking everyone’s guns away and banning handguns, but you are wrong.

I am a pragmatist, and banning guns in America would work out about as well as the prohibition of alcohol in America did in the 1930s. There are simply too many guns in our country and too many people with strong emotional attachments to them to get rid of them.

I believe that individuals are entitled to own handguns for protection and/or for recreational shooting, and people are also entitled to own rifles and shotguns for hunting. There are undeniable risks associated with this position, but given our political and cultural climate, it seems reasonable to me.

However, the gun-rights crowd loses credibility when they resist controls on almost any kind of weaponry. We do not allow people to keep nuclear devices in their basement, nor do we allow them to drive tanks around in the street, and for very good reason.

The only reason a person should want to own a weapon designed for the explicit purpose of killing a large number of people in a short time appears to be that they are planning at some point to kill a large number of people in a short time, and I would prefer that this not be possible. I understand that many people think that it is perfectly acceptable, desirable even, for private citizens to have access to firepower that outguns what is available to local law enforcement. I disagree with this position.

I realize that my essay is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about gun control issues, but I felt the need to contribute my two cents.

A few other references not linked in the essay above:

  • Kellerman, A. L. (1997). Comment: Gunsmoke – changing public attitudes toward smoking and firearms. American Journal of Public Health, 87, 910-912.
  • Kellerman, A.L., & Nine others. (1993). Gun ownership as a risk factor for homicide in the home. New England Journal of Medicine, 329, 1984-1991.
  • Wiebe, D. J. (2003). Homicide and suicide risks associated with firearms in the home: A national case-control study. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 41, 771-782.
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