Think Out Loud

"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey

A psychological perspective on gun violence in the United States


A 1993 study called “Gun ownership as a risk factor for homicide in the home” found that keeping guns significantly heightens the risk of gun-related deaths in households, and “virtually all of this risk involved homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance,” with use of illicit drugs and a history of aggression being significant risk factors. About four in 10 U.S. Americans live in a home with at least one firearm. (Photo under the Creative Commons license)


A 72-year-old Alzheimer’s patient in Georgia was shot dead on Nov. 27 last year after he was mistaken for a prowler who repeatedly knocked on the door and rang the doorbell of a home belonging to 35-year-old Joe Hendrix and his wife, sometime after 1 a.m. Hendrix claims he feared for his life and will not face criminal charges for taking the man’s life.

About a year earlier on Nov. 23, 2012, 18-year-old Jordan Davis was shot dead in a convenience store parking lot after Michael Dunn approached the vehicle in which he sat with friends and asked them to turn their music down. A verbal altercation ensued and Dunn, also in his vehicle and apparently fearing for his life, drew his weapon and shot repeatedly at the young boys. Dunn was found guilty on three counts of attempted second degree murder and of firing bullets into a vehicle.

George Zimmerman, also from Florida and citing the state’s now-infamous stand-your-ground laws, faced the same criminal charge for shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, purportedly in self-defense, after following him down a neighborhood street while the boy was on his way to a friend’s house. Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges, including manslaughter.

Although it was widely reported after the Newtown school tragedy, which claimed the lives of 20 children and six adult staff, that the majority of Americans favored stricter gun control measures, Pew Research Center found that the wide majority of subsequent gun legislation actually loosened restrictions.

For most U.S. Americans who support relatively modest gun control measures, such as mandatory background checks, this state of affairs is a bitter pill to swallow. One possible route we can take to better understand this is to consider the deeply rooted psychological issues related to gun ownership in the U.S.

A Principled Love Affair?

A Psychology Today article published in 2012, “The tradeoffs of gun ownership,” lists the chief reasons given by advocates for gun ownership. A common theme is lack of trust and fear toward the federal government, which some gun enthusiasts claim is incapable of protecting them from outside threats or, perhaps worse, is seeking to take away their guns. More gun enthusiasts are likely to proclaim their interest in target practice or hunting. But the most commonly cited reason for gun ownership is self-protection.

Self-protection is probably the most salient of reasons for gun ownership, and it is especially important when we consider the three cases briefly described above.

It’s All in Your Head

The will to defend ourselves and our loved ones is deeply ingrained in our psychology. In evolutionary terms, the ability to vigorously (if not always physically aggressively) secure the interests of our families and social networks meant the difference between survival and extinction. Since the neural circuitry for aggression (and corollary emotions like fear and anger) is deeply rooted in the “limbic brain,” which evolved after the so-called “reptilian brain” and before the neocortex, an aggressive impulse has long been a part of the (pre-)human mind.

In their scholarly overview of theories concerning human aggression, DeWall, Anderson and Bushman state that aggression in modern-day people arises from a host of these biological inputs and environmental factors. Their “general aggression model” can be seen below:


The environmental factors governing aggressive behavior are numerous. If your parents were very dominant and acted aggressively toward you, you are more likely to do the same. Your experience has taught you that acting aggressively is necessary to have power and autonomy. Your worldview might suggest that there are only two people out there: the dominant and the dominated.

You may have come to a similar point of view through the influence of your peer group, or through strongly identifying with characters who exhibit this worldview in your surroundings or in entertainment media.

I emphasize aggressive tendencies because several high-profile gun enthusiasts who discharged their weapons in the name of self-defense were characterized by their significant others, peers, or law enforcement as extremely aggressive people in general (Dunn, Zimmerman, Rodriguez). But what of those people who are not generally predisposed to aggressive behavior?

Fear the Reaper

As stated above, anger and aggression are rooted in the limbic system of our brains along with another primal emotion: fear. Fear is the simplest expression of our personal alienation: we feel profoundly disconnected from our environment, an environment that threatens our very existence.

For gun enthusiasts, these weapons are often regarded as icons of personal empowerment and self-reliance. And yet, when used in this way, the complexity of the terms “personal empowerment” and “self-reliance” are reduced to players in a hypothetical violent scenario. To be empowered, by this rubric, is to be able to take another person’s life in defense of your own. Your ability to take care of yourself and your family, to pursue meaningful work and to think independently do not necessarily matter in this interpretation of self-empowerment.

You become a creature, acting on the centuries-old impulse of fear, who ends a threatening altercation with deadly force.

The sense that one is potentially immersed in a near-constant state of threat helps explain the attraction of the gun-strapped hero trope. Unfortunately, it also goes a long way to explain why every year people in the United States are shot unnecessarily by others. These incidents may easily be provoked by individuals who are predisposed to shoot first and ask questions later.

A Call to Action

Is there any hope for change in a nation so bitterly torn by the issue of gun control? Could laws be enacted to curb potential abuse of the stand-your-ground laws?, i.e. statutory laws that note the discrepancy between receiving a threat unprovoked and actually initiating and escalating an altercation that led to deadly violence.

It will take much more than analysis to resolve this issue. Be a part of the conversation in your homes, communities and social networks. Explore methods of protecting yourself in emergencies and techniques for de-escalating violent confrontations with minimal use of force. Plan your response to different unlikely scenarios in which you might feel threatened.

Exercise your sense of empowerment and self-reliance outside the realm of weaponry. Cultivate peace, calm and a feeling of safety in your inner world. Seek insight from others or professional help if you need it.

Also consider letting your representative know where you stand.

Find your Senate representative here.

Find your House of Representatives congressperson here.

And to up your chance of making an impact, find your state and local representatives using their website.

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