9 percent in U.S. have anger issues, access to guns

WASHINGTON — Roughly 22 million Americans — 8.9 percent of the adult population — have impulsive anger issues and easy access to guns. 3.7 million of these angry gun owners routinely carry their guns in public. And very few of them are subject to current mental health-based gun ownership restrictions.

Those are the key findings of a new study by researchers from Harvard, Columbia and Duke University. “Anger,” in this study, doesn’t simply mean garden-variety irritation. It means explosive, uncontrollable rage, as measured by responses to the National Comorbidity Survey Replication in the early 2000s. It is “impulsive, out of control, destructive, harmful,” said lead author Jeffrey Swanson of Duke University. “You and I might shout. These individuals break and smash things and get into physical fights, punch someone in the nose.”

Angry people with guns are typically young or middle-aged men, according to Swanson’s research. They’re likely to be married, and to live in suburban areas. In a recent op-ed, Swanson and a co-author point to Craig Stephen Hicks, a North Carolina man who “had frightened neighbors with his rages and had a cache of fourteen firearms” and who shot three Muslim students earlier this year, as a quintessential example of an enraged gun owner.

“To have gun violence you need two things: a gun and a dangerous person,” Swanson said. “We can’t broadly limit legal access to guns, so we have to focus on the dangerous people.” Taken at face value this isn’t a controversial claim. After all, guns don’t kill people, people kill people, as gun rights advocates are fond of saying.

But in practice we haven’t done a great job of identifying these dangerous people. After high-profile national tragedies like Sandy Hook or Aurora, the conversation quickly turns to limiting gun access for the seriously mentally ill — people with schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder, for instance. This is palatable to gun rights advocates because it suggests that controlling the mentally ill, rather than controlling firearms, is the solution to gun violence.

But serious mental illness is only associated with a fraction of all violent crime in America. Swanson said the best available research shows that if you were to wave a magic wand and cure all serious mental illness in the United States, you’d only decrease violent crime by about 4 or 5 percent. Keeping guns out of the hands of these folks is a common-sense first step, but it won’t take a serious bite out of our gun crime problem.

To do that, we need to have a better sense of which kinds of people make for the most high-risk gun owners. And that’s where the new research by Swanson and his colleagues come in. In addition to the startling findings about the share of the overall population with both gun access and serious anger issues, the researchers also found that people with lots of guns — six or more — are more likely to carry their guns in public and to have a history of anger issues. And people with more than 11 were significantly more likely to say that they lose their temper and get into fights than members of any other gun ownership group.

It’s important to note here that gun owners as a whole aren’t any more likely to suffer anger issues than non-gun owners. And the vast majority of these people never have, and never will commit a gun crime. So you can’t simply ask someone if they have anger issues and take their guns away if they say “yes.” But there are other things policymakers can do to limit gun access among the most high-risk members of this population.

Federal law already limits gun access for individuals convicted of a felony, and for people with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions. Swanson and his colleagues suggest taking that one step further and placing additional misdemeanors on the restriction list: assault, brandishing a weapon or making open threats, and especially DUI, given the well-documented nexus between problematic alcohol use and gun violence. Other research has shown that people with a single prior misdemeanor conviction are “nearly five times as likely as those with no prior criminal history to be charged with new offenses involving firearms or violence.”

Again, the argument goes like this: if people, not guns, kill people, then it only makes sense to limit gun access among the most dangerous people. Swanson’s research suggests it’s time to move the conversation past the low-hanging fruit of serious mental illness, and start asking which other types of behavior might reasonably disqualify a person from owning a gun.

Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.

Talk to us

More in Local News

An example of the Malicious Women Co. products (left) vs. the Malicious Mermaid's products (right). (U.S. District Court in Florida)
Judge: Cheeky candle copycat must pay Snohomish company over $800K

The owner of the Malicious Women Co. doesn’t expect to receive any money from the Malicious Mermaid, a Florida-based copycat.

A grave marker for Blaze the horse. (Photo provided)
After Darrington woman’s horse died, she didn’t know what to do

Sidney Montooth boarded her horse Blaze. When he died, she was “a wreck” — and at a loss as to what to do with his remains.

A fatal accident the afternoon of Dec. 18 near Clinton ended with one of the cars involved bursting into flames. The driver of the fully engulfed car was outside of the vehicle by the time first responders arrived at the scene. (Whidbey News-Times/Submitted photo)
Driver sentenced in 2021 crash that killed Everett couple

Danielle Cruz, formerly of Lynnwood, gets 17½ years in prison. She was impaired by drugs when she caused the crash that killed Sharon Gamble and Kenneth Weikle.

A person walks out of the Everett Clinic on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
The Everett Clinic changing name to parent company Optum in 2024

The parent company says the name change will not affect quality of care for patients in Snohomish County.

Tirhas Tesfatsion (GoFundMe) 20210727
Lynnwood settles for $1.7 million after 2021 suicide at city jail

Jail staff reportedly committed 16 safety check violations before they found Tirhas Tesfatsion, 47, unresponsive in her cell.

A semi-truck rolled over blocking all traffic lanes Thursday morning on I-5 north just south of Arlington on Sept. 21, 2023. (Washington State Patrol)
Overturned trailer spills fish onto I-5 near Arlington, closing lanes

The crash blocked all lanes, forcing drivers going north during rush hour to use the left shoulder.

The Marysville Municipal Jail is pictured Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, in Marysville, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Marysville weighs mandatory jail time for repeated ‘public disorder’

The “three strikes” proposal sets a minimum sentence of 30 days in jail for crimes like public drug use and trespassing.

Everett police on patrol heard gunshots near 26th Street and Lombard Avenue and closed off multiple roads as they investigated on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (Everett Police Department)
3 teens arrested after gunfire in downtown Everett

No one was injured. Police heard gunfire in the area of 26th Street and Lombard Avenue.

It’s time to celebrate and say thanks

Local journalism — and community support — will be the stars of Behind the News Stories on Oct. 24 in Edmonds.

Most Read