Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. So, if we want to reduce gun violence we need to target individuals who are likely to use firearms to perpetrate violence.
This is the logic of Duke psychiatry professor Jeffrey Swanson, who recently led a study looking at individuals with serious anger problems and their access to firearms.
“To have gun violence you need two things: a gun and a dangerous person,” Swanson told The Washington Post. “We can’t broadly limit legal access to guns, so we have to focus on the dangerous people.”
But who exactly are these dangerously angry and armed individuals?
Well, according to Swanson they are “mostly young to middle-aged men who get so angry that they smash and break things, lose their temper and get into physical fights.”
Swanson’s research suggests that there are quite a few people who fit this description, as he said in a recent op-ed, “over 10 percent of the adult population in the U.S. exhibits impulsive angry behavior and has firearms at home. A smaller proportion – 1.6 percent – are angry and carry guns outside the home.”
To quantify those percentages, that means roughly 22 million Americans have anger problems, and 3.7 million of them carry guns in the public square.
It should be noted that Swanson is not talking about the “mentally ill” per se, as those with mental disorders (e.g. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook school shooter) account for a small percentage of gun-related violence.
As Swanson wrote, “Even if we could cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression, about 96 percent of violent acts in our country would still occur.”
So, while attention should be paid to those with mental disorders, even more attention should be paid to these armed and angry Americans. But how does the government prevent them from having access to firearms?
Swanson proposes the following:
Maybe an approach to gun restriction that is based on actual risk would do a better job of keeping guns from our angriest fellow citizens. Evidence-based indicators of risk that could be used include histories of violent behavior – misdemeanor assault convictions, for instance – multiple DUIs, or being the subject of a domestic violence order of protection. Many states’ laws let domestic abusers keep their guns until temporary restraining orders become permanent, even though evidence suggests that this period presents particularly high risk to a potential victim. Perhaps it’s time, too, for states to pass “dangerous persons” gun removal laws, like Connecticut and Indiana already have, or a “gun violence restraining order” law like California recently enacted. Such laws give family members and law enforcement a tool to get guns out of the hands of risky people immediately.
While Swanson seems to focus on “anger” as an identifier for those at risk of committing violent acts with firearms, I believe there are other identifiers that are more accurate at predicting one’s future behavior. Mainly, I think we should be targeting or identifying anyone who has connections to street gangs and anyone who has a history of drug addiction. I think individuals who fall into either one of these categories should be the priority.
Many of these folks do not yet have a criminal history that would prohibit them from owning firearms. However, one could argue that it’s only a matter of time. Obviously, the government cannot go around depriving individuals of a fundamental Constitutional right on a hunch, but at the same time law enforcement has to do a better job of keeping an eye on those who abuse drugs and/or participate in gang activity.
I’d wager top dollar that the majority of the 12,000 gun murders each year involve drug users and gang members or both.