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We Have To Get It Right: Only Gun Owners With Lots of Guns Tend to be Angry, Unstable, Impulsive

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Photo Courtesy: Metro International via Saugus Police

This week an article was circulating around social media with a headline that would draw cheers from many, though by no means all, progressives: “Bombshell: Gun Owners Tend to Be Angry, Unstable, Impulsive.” If one clicks on the article, there is indeed some bombshell research contained within it. However, the headline does not accurately reflect the research study’s findings and misses the chance to inform, as well as advance, a policy argument. It is unfortunate because it doesn’t do progressives any favors to circulate headlines that are erroneous. It ends up putting us on the defensive as we have to defend why statements are being made that don’t reflect reality.

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Researchers at Duke and Harvard conducted research with results that can help form social policy, indicate to family and friends when a loved one may be dangerous, and destigmatize a group that has long been maligned as unsafe. The social scientists who completed this research used the National Comorbidity Study to get their findings. The National Comorbidity Study has been conducted since the 1990s as a study of mental health and substance abuse in the community, most recently using a nationally representative sample of 5,563 people with the purpose of determining the percentages of mental illness and substance abuse in the population. The calculation of whether randomly selected research participants have either problem was done through an extensive, standardized, face-to-face interview. There are also questions about the use of professional services, etc. The most recent iterations have included questions related to gun ownership. This is where the “bombshell” research results come from.

The researchers found that 8.9% of those who reported being impulsively angry also reported gun ownership. This is not a small percentage if we, as Americans, are trying to keep guns out of the hands of people who could easily be at sudden risk of shooting any number of people. On the other hand, it also means that over 90% of the people who get impulsively anger did not have a gun. Because of the way the study is structured, the converse—over 90% of gun owners were not impulsively angry—is also true. Oops, there goes the bombshell idea that “gun owners tend to be angry, unstable, impulsive.”

What made this study so useful is that they were able to pinpoint who is at risk for violent behavior. It comes as absolutely no surprise that people who owned six or more guns or who had a history of violent behavior were those who reported the riskiest behaviors of “outbursts of anger,” “getting into fights,” or “smashing or breaking things.”  These are the people who are at risk for killing someone. The vast majority of these people don’t have a diagnosable mental illness, and reported never having been committed, so the study’s authors point out that the focus on keeping guns away from people with serious mental illness who have been committed is misplaced. It ends up stigmatizing a group further that already struggles heavily with stigma.

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The study’s findings do give the nation some direction in how to proceed. Background checks that look for inpatient hospital commitments are very unlikely to find the people at real risk for violence. Instead, they should focus on violent histories. This does leave many of us stymied as we think of the dozens of mass murders that have sadly accumulated in our nation’s history with perpetrators often committing their crimes as a first act of violence. The study’s other finding is helpful in this regard. People who have six or more guns were statistically more likely to exhibit the angry, impulsive, and unstable characteristics. In the wake of many of these shooting tragedies, we learn that those who did commit them have an arsenal, or their families do. These are the people we should be targeting our attention toward. Stockpiling weapons and acting out violently are two risk factors for impulsive anger, which is strongly associated with the majority of the roughly 14, 000 homicides that happen each year. However, what all of this data also means is the vast majority of people with a gun didn’t exhibit problematic symptoms.

It would be simple if gun owners in general were angry, impulsive, and unstable. We could be convinced as a nation to put the issue to bed, and restrict gun ownership significantly, perhaps finally interpreting the musket-using, Constitution writers in a way that makes sense for public health and safety. However, it is far more difficult, because too many rational, reasonable gun owners believe they can patrol the country with an eye out for the 9% who are ready to pop off at any moment. As many a wise person has said in asking someone stuck in an infinite loop of despair to consider their repeated behaviors, “How’s that working out for you?”

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