Five Facts About Guns, Anger, and Violence

Gun policy debate appears to be heating up across the country, prompting much discussion about the relationship between guns and violence.  Unfortunately, such discussions are rarely data-driven and typically reflect sound bites of the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and the “more guns, more crime” variety.

To counter that, below are five facts about guns, anger, and violence.

Seeing a gun increases aggression.  It may sound strange but researchers have known since a 1967 study by Berkowitz and LePage that the presence of a weapon increases aggression.   It is an example of a psychological phenomenon referred to as priming whereby, because we associate weapons and violence (due to prior experience), seeing a weapon activates our aggression script.  Priming occurs in a variety of contexts.   In fact, it is a well known concept in advertising because certain stimuli encourage certain behaviors (e.g., just as seeing a weapon activates our aggression script, seeing food activates our eating script).  The findings from the 1967 study have been replicated many times including a 1998 study by Anderson and colleagues that asked “does the gun pull the trigger” and found that “extant research suggests that it does” (p.313).

Holding a gun increases testosterone. The above findings on priming along with research suggesting that testosterone is associated with aggression in humans and animals prompted Klinesmith and colleagues (2005) to look at the relationship between guns, testosterone, and aggression.  Remarkably, what they found was that when participants (all males) interacted with a gun for 15 minutes, their testosterone levels increased and they were more likely to engage in an aggressive act than those participants who interacted with a children’s toy.  The authors state that, though their study is “far from definitive, its results suggest that guns may indeed increase aggressiveness partially via changes in the hormone testosterone” (p. 570).

Possessing a gun increases the chance of dying in a gun related assault.  An often cited reason for owning a gun is the need for protection.  Though this has received considerable attention in the literature on gun violence, the most recent and, arguably, the most thorough is a 2009 study by Branas and colleagues exploring the link “between being shot in an assault and possession of a gun at the time” (p. 2034).  The authors found that those in possession of a gun were more than 4 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not holding a gun.  In those instances when the victim had the opportunity to fight back, those in possession of a gun were more than 5 times more likely to be shot.  The authors conclude that “although successful defensive gun uses can and do occur, the findings of this study do not support the perception that such successes are likely” (p.  2037)

When people are angry, they are more likely to think a neutral object is a gun.  A 2010 project explored the impact of our emotional state on threat detection.  The researchers, Baumann and DeSteno, induced various emotions and asked participants to quickly identify whether or not an object was a gun.  Across several tests, participants who were angry were more likely to misidentify a neutral object as a gun, suggesting that in an emotionally heated situation (like a potentially violent encounter), people are likely to error in the perception of the situation.  Specifically, they are likely to assume the person they are in conflict with has a weapon when he or she does not.

The data on right-to-carry laws are inconclusive.  Those in favor of concealed carry laws often point to a series of books by John Lott, including the 1998 book titled More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws (the third edition was published in 2010).  His books argue that crime rates go down when states pass concealed carry laws.  Lott’s explanation is that criminals are deterred from violence for fear of being shot by a legally armed citizen.  Consequently, the more gun owners in a community, the less violent crime in that community.  Not surprisingly, his books have been criticized by gun control advocates for a variety of reasons including using a limited sample, ignoring important variables, and ignoring data from other samples with contrary findings.  Later editions of the book have sought to address these criticisms.  However, in a 2004 review of the literature on gun violence, which included Lott’s data (found here), Wellford and colleagues conclude that “with the current evidence it is not possible to determine that there is a causal link between the passage of right-to-carry laws and crime rates” (p. 150).  Likewise, they argue that “additional analysis along the lines of the current literature is unlikely to yield results that will persuasively demonstrate a causal link between right-to-carry laws and crime rates” (p. 151) and they call for different types of research on this question.

By Ryan C. Martin


  1. This is an invaluable resource in the long campaign to rid society of these dangerous and quite useless weapons. It is good and important to see the research reviewed. Keep up the good work. Make this a regular thing and I’ll keep coming back.

  2. Not meaning to be disrespectful because we all have different opinions, after reading this post I was reminded of what our founding father, Thomas Jefferson said, “No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government”.

    I agree with this and I feel it is our established right to keep and bear arms.

    1. Jayne,

      I appreciate the post and I don’t find it disrespectful at all. Just to clarify, I’m not a legal scholar at all and am not trying to sell myself as one. This post isn’t so much on whether or not guns should be legal or illegal (though, I have my own personal feelings on that). It’s about whether or not they make the owner safer. I believe that the evidence presented above, along with other evidence, suggests that they do not make us safer.

      The decisions people make about guns aren’t just whether or not they should be legal. They make decisions about whether or not they should own one. I’m hoping to inform that decision with this post.

    2. Thomas Jefferson and the other resting fathers of the nation primarily had the British monarchy type of government in their back of their minds.. In a “Hat-if” scenario, they thought it is better to have this line added in the absence of any army. They thought they did good to protect the “new world” from being run over by the British army.

      You are hung up on an archaic fear in the name of personal freedom.

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