Almost 9 percent of American adults — or about 22 million people — have a history of impulsive angry behavior and have easy access to at least one gun, according to a study published last week in the journal Behavioral Sciences & the Law.
Furthermore, about 1.5 percent of people — about 3.7 million people — have impulsive anger issues and carry guns around with them when they are outside their homes.
We’re not talking here about run-of-the-mill anger. The adults identified in this study as being impulsively angry reported that they lose their temper to the point of having uncontrollable “tantrums,” which sometimes include breaking or smashing things or getting into a physical fight.
Needless to say, the study’s findings are worrisome. Impulsive anger is a risk factor for aggressive or violent acts — acts that can become especially deadly when guns are near at hand.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11,208 of the 16,121 homicides committed in the U.S. in 2013 involved firearms.
Study design and results
For the study, researchers at Harvard, Columbia and Duke universities looked at data collected from 5,563 face-to-face interviews with people who participated in a larger national mental health survey conducted between 2001 and 2003. Participants were asked questions designed to identify a variety of personality characteristics and mental disorders. They were also asked about their access to, or ownership of, firearms, including handguns, rifles and shotguns. (People whose job required them to carry a firearm, such as police officers, were excluded from the study.)
The researchers found that 36.5 percent of the survey’s respondents reported having one or more guns in working condition in their homes, and 4.4 percent said they had carried a gun around with them while outside the house at least once during the past month. Two-thirds of the people who reported carrying a gun outside the house said they did so every day.
The study also found that about 20 percent of the respondents reported incidents of impulsive angry behavior. These people were not, however, more likely to have guns in their homes than their peers who didn’t report such behavior.
In other words, there are just as many people without guns who have anger issues as those with them.
Correlation with number of guns
But, as already noted, a significant proportion — 8.9 percent — of the survey’s respondents did have a history of impulsive angry behavior and easy access to guns, and 1.5 percent with that history said they had carried a gun outside the home within the previous 30 days.
The data also revealed “a significant three-way association among owning multiple guns, carrying a gun, and having impulsive angry behavior,” write the researchers. “People owning six or more guns were about four times more likely to be in the high-risk anger/carry group than those owning only one gun.”
- Individuals with impulsive angry behavior who had guns in their homes were more likely to be male, young-to-middle-aged (18 to 44), married and living in suburban or rural areas. They were also more likely to live in the Midwest, South or West than in the Northeast.
- The respondents with impulsive angry behavior who carried guns outside the home were significantly more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for a wide range of mental illness disorders, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), pathological gambling, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse/addiction, several personality disorders and (not surprisingly) “intermittent explosive disorder.”
The study marks the first time a link has been found between impulsive angry behavior and gun ownership, according to its authors.
The findings show “a distressingly large number of seriously angry people with guns — often multiple guns — living in our communities, and a legal system ill-equipped to prevent such tragedies,” write two of those authors, Jeffrey Swanson of Duke University and Dr. Paul Appelbaum of Columbia University, in a commentary published online in the Connecticut Post.
Keeping guns out of the hands of people with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression — the focus of many current legislative proposals — will do little to “fix” the country’s gun-violence problem, they point out, for “even if we could cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression, about 96 percent of violent acts in our country would still occur.”
The current study found that fewer than 1 in 10 of the respondents with impulsive angry behavior who had guns in their home had ever been admitted to a hospital for psychiatric or substance abuse problems — another reason gun-restricting laws aimed only at people with diagnosed mental illnesses would be minimally effective.
“Maybe an approach to gun restriction that is based on actual risk would do a better job of keeping guns from our angriest fellow citizens,” write Swanson and Appelbaum. “Evidence-based indicators of risk that could be used include histories of violent behavior — misdemeanor assault convictions, for instance — multiple DUIs, or being the subject of a domestic violence order of protection. Many states’ laws let domestic abusers keep their guns until temporary restraining orders become permanent, even though evidence suggests that this period presents particularly high risk to a potential victim. Perhaps it’s time, too, for states to pass ‘dangerous persons’ gun removal laws, like Connecticut and Indiana already have, or a ‘gun violence restraining order’ law like California recently enacted. Such laws give family members and law enforcement a tool to get guns out of the hands of risky people immediately.”
“Americans remain deeply divided over the politics of gun control,” they add, “but there may be some common ground here: The angriest of the people in our study should not have access to guns.”