THE BLOG
10/31/2014 03:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Psychology of Guns

by julie mcinnes via Getty Images

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Humans are barbaric. It's embedded in our DNA. View a spat between two adult male chimpanzees and you easily see where our violent tendencies came from. But our brutality was important and vital to us a hundred-thousand years ago when we needed that extra aggression to help bring down large animals for food. It also helped connect the evolutionary bridge from survival of the fittest to hunter-gatherer, and onto our more domesticated ancestors, our docile farmer cousins. More recently, we saw the capabilities of the brutality of man in the Mayans and the Romans, who sacrificed disposable citizens by cutting out their hearts and allowing them to be eaten alive by animals.

Had guns been available ten or even five thousand years ago, it's quite probable that gun violence would have been the preferred method of killing for settling disputes among rival tribes, rather than yielding hatchets or throwing rocks. Winning a dispute was paramount. You weren't just trying to be the dominant male, but you were literally fighting to the death. A battle was something in which the loser was dead. It was kill or be killed. Humans desperately needed that level of violence. But as we evolved, we became tamer, less savagely, and resorted to other milder ways to settle our disputes.

But guns were and still are a convenient tool. Which is why we prefer guns to anything else. They offer certain advantages to killing someone that, say, our bare hands don't. As we became more sensitive to the intimacy of killing with our hands, guns became the convenient way of committing the act from afar -- without having to get our hands dirty.

Modern humans are not comfortable dealing with overly gruesome imagery. The auditory sounds of breaking a bone or the squish-like noise of an eyeball being pulled out of its socket is too much for most of us to handle. It's why you're more likely to watch a violent movie or gruesome video on mute rather than listening to the act without visualizing it. The sounds are so much worse.

Still, the majority of gun violence in America is committed by people who are generally non-violent in nature, that is to say, they aren't serial killers or sociopaths. They are crimes committed in the heat of passion, or maybe retribution for something gang-related. But every tangible item around us can be considered a dangerous weapon. A chair leg to the temple can render somebody unconscious and kill them. Razorblades are in every household. One cut to a few specific areas on the body would drain the body of blood in a matter of minutes, killing them. And while knives are frequently used as weapons in domestic violence cases, guns are used even more. Why, then, is the average person, not predisposed to violence, using the most violent weapon to kill? Because guns remove the intimacy of killing. The thought of having to approach your victim and kill them by using physical force unsettles enough of us that we decide on shooting a gun from thirty feet away-- away from the blood, away from having to personalize and internalize the act.

In 1967, psychologists Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage conducted a study to test the validity of Berkowitz's theory that frustration can lead to aggressive behavior in the presence of environmental triggers associated with aggression, such as guns.

As summarized below by Arron Quentin Umberger:

In their study, Berkowitz andLePage enlisted a group of 100 male college students who were assigned a problem-solving task.Upon completion of their task, the subjects were given a series of electrical shocks as their

Social Psychology in the Gun Control Debate 5evaluation, an act meant to potentially anger the students. After they had received their shocks,the students filled out a questionnaire about their mood and then the students and confederates switched places. Students were then instructed to evaluate the confederates just as they had been evaluated. Students in the control condition were placed in a room with a table which held nothing but the shock device. In the situational cue condition, there was a shotgun and a revolver placed on the table with the shock device. Upon completion of the evaluations, it was noted that students who reported no anger on their questionnaire were not swayed by the weapons present in their environment; however, angry students administered more shocks to confederates while in the presence of these weapons (Berkowitz & LePage, 1967). These findings give reason to the argument that weapons are not only a means to cause violence themselves, but the mere presence of weapons can influence aggressive behavior in individuals.

Their conclusions support something called the "weapons effect," or the theory that the mere presence of a weapon or picture of a gun can lead to more aggressive behavior in humans, more so if the subject is already slightly aroused or agitated -- an argument, in other words.

A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine on gun violence in homes, concluded that people who have ready access to a fireman (in the home) are twice as likely to be killed and three times as likely to commit suicide. Furthermore, a woman was three times more likely to be killed in a home that had a firearm in it. The study confirms previous data showing that three-quarters of women who are killed in a home, are killed by guns.

We are desensitized by gun violence in this nation. As we should be. We've lived with guns our entire lives. We've played Cowboys and Indians as children, watched our fathers watching John Wayne movies. We've sat and watched Saturday morning cartoons with Yosemite Sam shooting everything with reckless abandon. Shooting people is second nature to us.

But take the gun out of the equation. Now, what do you have? Are there 87 school shootings since Newtown? Suppose the shooter doesn't have access to the parent's firearm. Does he or she walk into school with a sword in his jacket? Or what about the gang member on the Southside of Chicago? Does he knock on his rival's door, risking his own life should he not be strong enough? Or does he drive-by with his Glock out the window from thirty feet away and in the safety of a car?

If you take the gun out of it, I'd argue we'd be less likely to commit acts of gruesome violence against each other. Because nobody wants to get our hands dirty, after all. We're lazy, by default. And the last thing we want to do is fight to the death. That would involve exercise.