The more guns a person owns, the more likely they are to report experiencing serious, uncontrollable outbursts of anger and aggression. That’s the conclusion of a new study published in the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law, which found that nearly one in ten Americans have both a history of impulsive anger and access to a firearm.
“The new research also indicates that the 310 million firearms estimated to be in private hands in the United States are disproportionately owned by people who are prone to angry, impulsive behavior and have a potentially dangerous habit of keeping their guns close at hand,” the Los Angeles Times reports. “That’s because people owning six or more guns were more likely to fall into both of these categories than people who owned a single gun.”
The study, conducted by researchers at Duke, Harvard and Columbia universities, analyzed data from 5,563 face-to-face and household interviews that were part of the National Comorbidity Study Replication, a survey conducted in the early 2000s. The survey assessed respondents’ mental health, including several questions about whether or not they had patterns of impulsive anger, how many guns they owned and whether or not they carried guns outside of the home (respondents who were headed to a target range or who carried a gun as part of their job were excluded).
One of the most significant findings was the three-way association between individuals who owned multiple guns, carried a gun outside of the home and expressed a pattern of angry, impulsive behavior. Study participants who owned six or more guns were found to be four times more likely to carry guns outside of the home and to be in the high-risk anger group than participants who owned one firearm.
Participants who were considered to have a high risk for impulsive anger responded affirmatively to some or all of the following questions: “I have tantrums or angry outbursts;” “Sometimes I get so angry I break or smash things;” and “I lose my temper and get into physical fights.”
“In layman’s terms, impulsive anger is concerning in that it’s characterized by repeated episodes of aggressive or violent behavior,” Dr. Emma Beth McGinty, one of the study’s co-authors, told HealthDay. She explained that these episodes can “flare up” very suddenly, leading to acts of violence that were not premeditated.
The results also revealed that married men under the age of 30 who live in outlying areas around cities were more likely than other demographics to show a pattern of spontaneous anger while simultaneously having access to guns. There were also significant regional differences in gun ownership rates among respondents. Respondents from the Midwest, South and West were much more likely to own a gun than those from the Northeast.
‘Current laws don’t keep firearms out of the hands of a lot of potentially dangerous individuals’
Based on the findings, the researchers estimate that roughly 22 million Americans — 9 percent of the adult population — have impulsive anger issues and easy access to guns, and 3.7 million of these angry gun owners routinely carry their guns in public. Furthermore, said lead author Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, very few of these anger-prone individuals are subject to current mental health-based gun ownership restrictions.
“There is a potentially much larger group of individuals in our society who struggle with pathological impulsive and destructive anger that would not normally turn up as serious mental illness on a background check,” Dr. Swanson told HealthDay. He said the findings provide “more evidence that current laws don’t necessarily keep firearms out of the hands of a lot of potentially dangerous individuals.”
The key conclusion, said the authors, is that the tendency to focus on keeping guns from those with diagnosed mental illness does little to reduce the risks posed by the high level of private gun ownership in the United States. The myth that mental illness is responsible for a significant proportion of our nation’s gun violence problem is often cited by pro-gun advocates because it conveniently — though erroneously — suggests that controlling the mentally ill, rather than controlling firearms, is the solution to gun violence.
But serious mental illness is only associated with a fraction of all violent crime in America. Dr. Swanson points out that the best available research shows that if you were able to magically cure all mental illness in the United States — that’s tens of millions of people — you’d only decrease violent crime by about 4 percent.
Indeed, while the new study demonstrated a strong relationship between impulsive violence and gun ownership, the study did not find much overlap between having a serious mental illness — such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder — and being impulsive, anger-prone or having access to firearms. This adds to an extensive line of research confirming that the majority of people who suffer from mental illness are not likely to be violent.
“The idea that the solution is to simply fix our mental health care system to better identify serious mental illness is a little bit of a red herring,” said Dr. Swanson. He suggested that a more effective policy measure might be to restrict gun access based on an individual’s arrest history. Arrests that could indicate a history of impulsive or angry behavior (for example, criminal records of misdemeanor violence, DWIs and domestic violence restraining orders) would likely serve as a more feasible and less discriminatory indicator of an individual’s gun violence risk.
The research team called attention to “dangerous persons” gun removal laws in Connecticut and Indiana as well as the “gun violence restraining order” law recently enacted in California as an effective way of keeping guns out of the hands of people prone to dangerous actions.
Medical and public health experts are increasingly calling attention to the devastation caused by gun violence in the U.S., which accounts for an estimated 33,000 deaths and nearly 75,000 hospitalizations for non-fatal injuries each year. In February, the American Bar Association, the American Public Health Association and various professional medical associations jointly declared that gun violence in the U.S. is a “public health crisis” that needed to be addressed “free of political influence.”