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9% of Americans have serious anger issues and easy access to guns, study finds

Impulsive anger is a risk factor for aggressive or violent acts — acts that can become especially deadly when guns are near at hand.

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.”

Other findings:

  • 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.”

Policy implications

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.”

You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Behavioral Sciences & the Law website. The commentary can be read in full at

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Gary Fischbach on 04/13/2015 - 09:00 am.

    Seems very subjective to me.

    Susan, what do you recommend?

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/13/2015 - 10:06 am.

    This will go nowhere

    As the NRA and a dozen different publications remind us daily, firearms ownership is written into the Constitution, and without qualifiers such as “mental illness” or “temper tantrum,” or “anger issues.” That may be a mistake – I’d argue that it is, though an understandable one, given the times in which the document was written – but it’s political reality.

    I don’t doubt the veracity of the study, but I also don’t think I’m going to live long enough to see significant restrictions placed on gun ownership nation-wide. I’m not necessarily opposed to such restrictions, I just think they’re politically unlikely. That could change, given a few more massacres of innocents, but that seems both far too high a price to pay and far too unlikely an outcome to plan for.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/13/2015 - 10:06 am.

    It’s been my observation

    that the angriest people are also anti-gun people.

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 04/13/2015 - 12:02 pm.

    Fantastic news, 91% of the folks are not angry with guns around!! Plus 98.5 % of the folks didn’t carry a gun while angry. Thank you for this enlightening study that reaffirms that gun owners are responsible people.

  5. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/13/2015 - 02:26 pm.

    Eye roll

    I’m sorry, as a responsible gun owner, I don’t see anything positive (or negative) about gun ownership in general in this article at all, let alone any evidence that indicates that all gun owners are responsible. Rather, it finds that there is a significant number of people who have all of the major factors associated with homicide with a gun.

    Speaking of homicide with a gun, I wonder why they excluded police officers?

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 04/13/2015 - 02:55 pm.

    As I stated great news showing over 98.5% of gun owners don’t carry while angry. Just think if Obamacare covered 98.5% we would be celebrating.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 04/13/2015 - 03:53 pm.

      Odd definition of great news

      “…a significant three-way association among owning multiple guns, carrying a gun, and having impulsive angry behavior,”

      Yeah, that’s great news. It only takes one person with easy access to guns to murder a bunch of people. And there are 3.7 million of them.


  7. Submitted by Kurt Nelson on 04/13/2015 - 07:38 pm.

    I wonder

    if the wanna be cop at age 73 was angry, or just stupid when he murdered a man the other day, mistaking his gun for a taser (what if this old man had to chase someone, how would that turn out other than him having a stroke or heart attack).

    Of, the cop who fired 8 rounds into a man fleeing (legally according to the Supreme Court) and who today stated he was jazzed by the adrenaline rush from killing an innocent man (innocent from the death penalty for not paying child support for you law and order types).

    But really, what’s to fear with angry white men and a firearm on their belt, nothing bad would ever come from that. Like alcohol and night swimming – it’s a winning combination.

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