Debate Magazine

Five Facts About Guns, Anger, and Violence

Posted on the 29 August 2011 by Mikeb302000
Repost from All the Rage--Commentary and Resources on the Science of Anger (see--attribution--not my product, but reprinted by permission)

Gun policy debate appears to be heating up across the country, prompting much discussion about the relationship between guns and violence. Unfortunately, such discussions are rarely data-driven and typically reflect sound bites of the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and the “more guns, more crime” variety.

To counter that, below are five facts about guns, anger, and violence.

Seeing a gun increases aggression. It may sound strange but researchers have known since a 1967 study by Berkowitz and LePage that the presence of a weapon increases aggression. It is an example of a psychological phenomenon referred to as priming whereby, because we associate weapons and violence (due to prior experience), seeing a weapon activates our aggression script. Priming occurs in a variety of contexts. In fact, it is a well known concept in advertising because certain stimuli encourage certain behaviors (e.g., just as seeing a weapon activates our aggression script, seeing food activates our eating script). The findings from the 1967 study have been replicated many times including a 1998 study by Anderson and colleagues that asked “does the gun pull the trigger” and found that “extant research suggests that it does” (p.313).

Holding a gun increases testosterone. The above findings on priming along with research suggesting that testosterone is associated with aggression in humans and animals prompted Klinesmith and colleagues (2005) to look at the relationship between guns, testosterone, and aggression. Remarkably, what they found was that when participants (all males) interacted with a gun for 15 minutes, their testosterone levels increased and they were more likely to engage in an aggressive act than those participants who interacted with a children’s toy. The authors state that, though their study is “far from definitive, its results suggest that guns may indeed increase aggressiveness partially via changes in the hormone testosterone” (p. 570).

Possessing a gun increases the chance of dying in a gun related assault. An often cited reason for owning a gun is the need for protection. Though this has received considerable attention in the literature on gun violence, the most recent and, arguably, the most thorough is a 2009 study by Branas and colleagues exploring the link “between being shot in an assault and possession of a gun at the time” (p. 2034). The authors found that those in possession of a gun were more than 4 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not holding a gun. In those instances when the victim had the opportunity to fight back, those in possession of a gun were more than 5 times more likely to be shot. The authors conclude that “although successful defensive gun uses can and do occur, the findings of this study do not support the perception that such successes are likely” (p. 2037)

When people are angry, they are more likely to think a neutral object is a gun. A 2010 project explored the impact of our emotional state on threat detection. The researchers, Baumann and DeSteno, induced various emotions and asked participants to quickly identify whether or not an object was a gun. Across several tests, participants who were angry were more likely to misidentify a neutral object as a gun, suggesting that in an emotionally heated situation (like a potentially violent encounter), people are likely to error in the perception of the situation. Specifically, they are likely to assume the person they are in conflict with has a weapon when he or she does not.

The data on right-to-carry laws are inconclusive. Those in favor of concealed carry laws often point to a series of books by John Lott, including the 1998 book titled More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws (the third edition was published in 2010). His books argue that crime rates go down when states pass concealed carry laws. Lott’s explanation is that criminals are deterred from violence for fear of being shot by a legally armed citizen. Consequently, the more gun owners in a community, the less violent crime in that community. Not surprisingly, his books have been criticized by gun control advocates for a variety of reasons including using a limited sample, ignoring important variables, and ignoring data from other samples with contrary findings. Later editions of the book have sought to address these criticisms. However, in a 2004 review of the literature on gun violence, which included Lott’s data (found here), Wellford and colleagues conclude that “with the current evidence it is not possible to determine that there is a causal link between the passage of right-to-carry laws and crime rates” (p. 150). Likewise, they argue that “additional analysis along the lines of the current literature is unlikely to yield results that will persuasively demonstrate a causal link between right-to-carry laws and crime rates” (p. 151) and they call for different types of research on this question.

By Ryan C. Martin

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