As more people die at rallies, in places of worship and public venues, and⏤most heartbreakingly of all⏤in schools, the case for carrying arms becomes more complicated and divisive. It’s a big issue on both sides of the political aisle.

In general, liberals lean toward the belief that an absence of guns will lead to a lack of gun violence. I can’t tell you the number of domestic violence perpetrators I’ve evaluated who beat their spouses to a bloody pulp, but by the grace of God (and luck) didn’t have access to a weapon when they lost their tempers. In many of these cases, it’s the only reason the spouse survived. I’ve also seen young offenders who will now be in prison for years because a stupid argument between two hotheads turned deadly because one of pulled out a gun.   

On the other hand, more conservative thinkers tend to value the right to carry, emphasizing what would happen if only bad guys had guns. The people who⏤like me⏤grew up with a gun in the house know the sense of security that comes from knowing that Daddy’s shotgun is close enough to grab out of the bottom of the closet. My father got his shotgun out only twice when I was growing up, one time to kill a fox that came dangerously close to the house (and who we later found out had rabies) and once when he thought he heard an intruder. Both of these times I was glad he did.

The research muddies the water even further. When we think about murderers, many of us picture the mentally unstable, the clinically insane, the jilted or the postal workers of the world. This implies that the problem lies solely in the personality, quick temper or mental illness of the individual. And yet, research points to a common denominator in terms of what is a major predictor of homicide – whether or not the shooter has access to a gun. When they do, certain individuals who otherwise might throw a punch or scream at each other are more likely to aim and shoot.

It’s not that a gun makes people violent; it’s that guns make aggressive people more lethal.    

Personality Traits that Load the Gun

We can all agree that guns, in and of themselves, are harmless. And owning a gun clearly does not tempt the average law-abiding target shooter, hunter or police officer to shoot someone. In addition, most gun owners practice safe ownership habits, use lockboxes, educate their children about the hazards of firearms, and put rules in place about when is an appropriate time to carry or handle a weapon. Clearly, it is not the presence of guns per se that results in violence. 

We can also rule out general mental illness. A recent study examined the relationship between mental health and gun violence and found that shooters were no more likely than the rest of the population to suffer from anxiety, depression, stress, PTSD or borderline personality disorder. That was true regardless of other traits such as ethnicity, age, gender and past history. So, focusing on limiting gun ownership based on mental illness in the absence of a history of violent behavior is likely to be ineffective and unnecessarily stigmatizing. 

What the study did find, though, was a link between impulsivity, or the tendency to make quick decisions without thinking them through, and hostility, a cognitive trait that is defined as “a devaluation of the worth and motives of others, an expectation that others are likely sources of wrongdoing, a relational view of being in opposition to others, and a desire to inflict harm or see others harmed.” 

Individuals with these personality traits are more likely to carry a gun outside the home, threaten other people with a gun, and, in the heat of conflict, fire it. Research also suggests that people who own a lot of guns (six or more) are four times as likely to both have anger issues and carry outside the home.

I’m certainly not suggesting we go around looking for angry, impulsive people and then take their guns away. But we do know that a lot of angry, impulsive, hostile people have an arrest history⏤for fighting, substance use, domestic violence and so forth. Just as individuals convicted of a DUI may lose their license and be forced to take substance abuse classes before they regain their right to drive again, it makes sense to me that a similar strategy might work with misdemeanor convictions of violence, violations of a restraining order, and so forth. 

This strategy would not only temporarily restrict gun access to those individuals who are most likely to misuse it, it could actually force the individual to develop the coping skills (anger management, impulse control, abstinence) that will help him or her lead a happier and more productive life.