Whenever Jeffrey Swanson publishes research on gun issues, it’s worth taking a break from whatever else you are doing and read what he has to say. His work is always rooted in attention to detail, analytical models which fit the problem he is trying to address and, best of all, Is presented in a context which is both realistic and sensitive to other research being conducted in the same field. If I sound like a fan of Swanson, I am. And today I caught up with his most recent effort as regards guns and behavioral factors that might increase risk.
The study compares rates of impulsive, angry behavior with access to guns. Swanson and his research colleagues asked 5,653 respondents to answer questions about their own behavior, and also asked these same research subjects if they owned and/or carried guns. The subjects lived in cities, suburbs and rural areas throughout the United States, and roughly one-third stated that they owned or had access to firearms, which seems to be what we consider the national firearm ownership rate to be today.
Every respondent was asked whether they had tantrums or angry outbursts; broke something in anger; lost their temper and got involved in physical fights. These are classic indicators of impulsive, angry behavior, with the tantrums/outbursts being the least serious, the fights being the most serious and the breaking of some object in between. Both the owners and non-owners of guns reported engaging in all three types of behaviors, with tantrums being three times as common as physical fights for both groups, and the percentage of gun owners and non-gun owners engaging in any of the three anger indicators being about the same.
What struck me as I read the survey results was that overall, there was not a great difference between gun owners and non-gun owners regarding to what degree they admitted engaging in any form of impulsive, angry behavior. Where the difference was clearly pronounced was among the 5% (roughly 290 people out of 5,600) who admitted to owning 11 guns or more, which was the only gun-owning group whose penchant for getting into fights was significantly higher than people who owned no guns at all. For that matter the percentage of the 11+ gun-owning group to get into physical altercations was substantially higher than gun folks who owned less guns.
Where the number of guns owned by individuals seemed to be a real risk issue can be found in the correlation between number of guns owned, engaging in any of the three anger indicators and carrying a gun outside the home. The good news in this survey was that less than 5% of the respondents reported that they walked around with a gun. The not-so-good news is that folks who owned 6 or more guns and carried a concealed weapon reported that they engaged in at least one of the three impulsive behaviors 4 times more frequently than persons who owned 5 or fewer guns.
This is the first study I have seen that finds a correlation between the numbers of guns owned and a propensity to carry one of them around. It undercuts the usual pro-CCW argument that people carry guns to defend themselves against crime. I always thought that folks who are “into” guns are more likely to carry one, simply because they enjoy doing whatever they can do with their guns.
Notwithstanding my admiration for Swanson’s overall work, I am a little skeptical of his conclusion in this article when he says that it is “reasonable to imagine” that many people with common mental disorders leading to angry, impulsive behavior have an arrest history and therefore should be denied access to guns. Swanson joins other scholars who have called for more restricted access based on misdemeanors, DUI and other non-felonious behaviors, but I’m not convinced that research so far shows any link between angry impulses and using a gun. I’m not saying the connection isn’t there; I’m saying that it remains to be found.