One popular mantra of the National Rifle Association (NRA) to support their opposition to gun control is that guns don’t kill people; people kill people. As a social psychologist I have always found this argument curious. Yes, it is true that people kill people. However, you can do a whole lot more damage with a gun than with a fist. On the other hand, if you are contemplating aggression and you only have your fists, you might think twice before engaging in an altercation. If it is fight or flight, it would be my guess that with only your fists you would be more likely to choose flight, whereas with a gun you might be much more inclined to engage in a fight response.
What does the psychological research say about this issue and what are the implications for our modern society and for gun regulation? As it turns out, the research is very clear. Let me briefly summarize two research studies that have direct implications for this question.
In the summer of 1964, the Democrats held their national convention to select a presidential candidate in Chicago. Over the course of the convention violent protests and riots broke out. The police were called in to quell the violence and they did it with a massive show of force and some would say a considerable amount of brutality. Following the Democratic convention psychologists analyzed the videotapes of the protests in an attempt to better understand the response by the police. What they found was that the level of armament available to each individual police office was related to the level of aggression directed against the protestors by that officer. For example, some police offices had only a standard police club. Other officers had clubs and handguns, while still others had these plus shotguns. What they found was that the level of aggression displayed by individual officers was positively related to the level of armament available to them.
Does this mean that if an officer had a shotgun, he used it? The answer is clearly no. However, officers with shotguns, showed a greater level of aggressiveness towards the protestors than those who only had a handgun or a police club. For example, they might more aggressively strike demonstrators with their police clubs or strike them with the butt of their shotgun. What these researchers suggested was that the level of armament available sets a range of aggression possible and that police with more aggressive potential indeed were more aggressive.
The second area of research is focused on what has been called the €Cue€ theory of aggression. In the context of this discussion the implication is that the presence of a gun can cue a more violent response than would normally occur, particularly when a person is agitated. In a series of experiments psychologist Leonard Berkowitz examined this possibility. In one a research subject was angered by a confederate (a person unbeknownst to the subject who worked for the experimenter). The research subject then had the opportunity to administer shocks to the confederate. In one variation, there was a gun lying around €inadvertently€ left by someone previously. In another condition, a badminton racquet replaced the gun. What Berkowitz found was that the intensity of the shocks administered by the angered research subjects was substantially greater (by roughly 40% on average) when there was a gun in the room compared to when there was a badminton racket. In other words, the gun acted as a cue for greater aggression in response to the research subject’s negative emotional state. These findings have been replicated in a number of other research studies.
In contemporary times we have seen this play out in a number of ways. Think of the killing of Travon Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida. Martin was walking through a neighborhood where Zimmerman was a neighborhood crime watch captain. It is highly likely that if George Zimmerman had not had a gun, he would not have challenged Travon Martin and the whole incident would not even have been newsworthy. The implication is that Travon Martin did not respond to Zimmerman’s challenges which angered Zimmerman. Add a gun to the equation and Travon Martin was killed. Then there is the incident involving Michael Dunn. Dunn encountered a car with four black teenagers who were blasting rap music at a gas station. He demanded that they turn the music down and when they didn’t and started taunting him he retrieved a handgun from his glove compartment and shot into the car killing one teenager. In other words, Dunn was in an agitated state and the availability of a handgun turned the incident into one of violence. This is very consistent with the results from Leonard Berkowitz’s experiment.
So, in deference to the NRA, yes people kill people. However, the cue theory of aggressions would argue that this is much more likely when a gun is available. It is not only the gun or the person, but the combination that seems to lead to more aggressive behavior and bad outcomes. Without the gun, a bad outcome would be much less likely; people would not have the means or the cues to push them to extreme violence.
However, I think that this goes beyond just handguns and rifles. Recently, I watched news coverage of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri over the shooting of a black teenager by a police office. It occurred to me that this situation goes well beyond gun violence. You see, as we wind down the war in Afghanistan, war related equipment coming back to the US is being given to local police departments. It has always struck me as somewhat surrealistic: Local police officers with the weapons of war on a city street. One scene in the media coverage in Ferguson was of a police officer, decked out in military fatigues, lying on top of a large and highly armored military vehicle, pointing a high-powered rifle (or maybe it was a machine gun) at a loud, but physically peaceful crowd. My first thought was how long would it be before this scene would turn violent because now the police have the weapons of war which can substantially increases the potential for extreme violence on their part? What a perfect cue to aggression. The situation had all of the components for disaster.
So, it seems that the lesson is clear. The legal grounds for gun control may be up for discussion. However, from a psychological perspective the lack of a coherent gun control policy in the US is leading to violence and needless deaths. The psychological research makes this clear and recent events simply reinforce these conclusions. Net, add a gun to the equation when emotions are high and you are courting disaster.