© Josh Sager December 2013
Debates over increasing gun control in the United States often devolve into vitriolic shouting matches, where one side considers guns to be dangerous weapons and the other considers them to be amoral tools. Despite the iniquitousness of this argument, few realize that there is a significant body of sociological and psychological research that proves one side demonstrably correct.
A number of reputable studies indicate that firearms act not just as the means by which people kill, but also as an inciting factor for violence—this incitation is called the “weapons effect.”
Put simply, the presence of a gun at the scene of conflict exacerbates that conflict and makes those involved more aggressive than if no gun is present—this increase in aggression exists even for those who are not planning any violence and those who are not in direct possession of the weapon.
Guns may be amoral, but they also produce a predictable increase in aggression for a statistically significant portion of the population. Because of this increase in aggression, nobody can credibly argue that guns bear no culpability in the violence that is committed with them.
The Weapons Effect
In 1967, a study by Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePaige was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which pioneered the idea of guns as “aggression-eliciting stimuli.” Volunteers for this study were given electric shocks by research assistants and then given the chance to shock the assistants back, up to seven times. During the experiments, a table was present that held either nothing, badminton equipment, or several guns.
Over a series of 100 volunteer experiments, it was demonstrated that the presence of guns increased the retaliatory shocks given to the research assistants beyond that of the control badminton set or the empty table. This disparity indicates that the presence of guns had some effect on the aggression level of the volunteers and made them slightly more likely to be willing to inflict harm on others.
In 1998, a study by Craig Anderson, Arlin Benjamin, and Bruce Bartholow demonstrated that guns create a “priming effect” on aggression that makes people process aggressive stimuli more rapidly than peaceful stimuli. This study involved priming volunteers with images of either guns or foliage and then asking them to read out a mixture of aggressive and peaceful words, so that researchers could measure comprehension time.
Volunteers who were exposed to guns before the experiment more rapidly reacted to aggressive words than they did to non-aggressive words or the control group did to the very same aggressive words—in short, they were “primed” towards aggression.
In 2006, a study by the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that the presence of firearms in a car increases instances of road rage. When guns are in a car, a driver is more likely to engage in road rage and, in cases where the firearm is visible (ex. in a window rack), other drivers to engage in road rage against the armed car.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the presence of visible guns in a car causes even those in other cars to act with increased aggression against the armed individual. This tends to indicate that the weapons effect is unconscious and disconnected from any rational assessment of the facts of any one specific situation.
On a surface-level, many may not understand exactly HOW the presence of guns could make normal people more violent, but there are actually biochemical reasons for this increase in aggression. In 2006, a study by Jennifer Klinesmith, Tim Kasser, and Francis T. McAndrew of Knox University found that the presence of guns can increase testosterone levels—as testosterone is linked to aggressive behavior, this explains the exact mechanism by which guns can incite violence.
Similar to the Berkowitz-LePaige study, the Klinesmith et all study used environmental cues and the willingness to inflict pain on others in order to test its hypothesis. Volunteers were given either a toy gun or a real (unloaded) gun for fifteen minutes in a sterile environment before they were asked to add hot sauce to water that another person was going to drink. In order to gauge testosterone levels, volunteers were also given buccal swabs before and after they were told to interact with the toy/real weapons.
Statistically speaking, the results of this study indicated that the volunteers who were given the real gun put more hot sauce in the water and had larger increases in testosterone than those who were given the toy gun. The presence of a gun stimulates the production of aggression-causing hormones in a way that unfortunately synergizes with the fact that guns are an effective way of carrying out violence.
Given the preponderance of the evidence, it is clear that the pro-gun control side of the debate is correct on this issue: guns are not simply the means of murder but also an inciting factor to the aggression that causes the murder. Whenever an anti-gun control activists argues that guns are simply neutral tools that are only dangerous when given to an already violent person, they are either ignorant of the facts or are intentionally trying to obfuscate the truth.
While the presence of guns is in no way causal with increased levels of violence—many people don’t experience the testosterone-driven aggression from guns—it is certainly a correlative factor in some violent confrontations. This correlation is extremely worrying and strong justification for taking a long and hard look at our country’s extremely lax gun laws.
Guns not only create an unconscious and pervasive heightening of aggression but they also give a person the ability to cause immense harm quickly; as such, we, as a society, must ensure that the laws take such a combination into account—something that we are currently an abject failure at—and limit the accessibility of guns to the people who are most likely to be made aggressive enough to harm others.