Evolutionary Psychology and Extreme Gun Ownership

Via Josh Marshall, there’s a good article by David Frum on our fruitless gun control debates. Frum points out that the entire debate has been bound by rigid rules that keep us from talking about the central issue, which is that it’s just plain too damn easy to get guns in the U.S.

Americans die from gunfire in proportions unparalleled in the civilized world because Americans own guns in proportions unparalleled in the civilized world. More guns mean more lethal accidents, more suicides, more everyday arguments escalated into murderous fusillades….

… There are subtle, sophisticated, and nuanced approaches to the gun problem that balance the rights of gun owners against the imperatives of gun safety. They may well even make some difference at the margin. But they are unlikely to make any significant difference. Americans debate these approaches not because they are likely to be effective, but because the methods that will work–that have worked in every other advanced society–are here politically taboo.

Was there one legal change that could have thwarted Stephen Paddock? Probably not. But the reason crimes like his are so common here, and so rare in western Europe, is not that we are afflicted with more Stephen Paddocks than they, but because their Stephen Paddocks find it so much more difficult to obtain guns, and especially large quantities of guns.

Another long-time rule is that we’re not allowed to talk about firearms being a problem except in terms of crime. The firearm rights activists always want to turn the conversation around to gang bangers shooting each other in Chicago, or the inner city youth holding up a liquor store to buy drugs. Law-abiding citizens owning guns are not the problem, they say. And the response to that, of course, is that Stephen Paddock was a law-abiding citizen right up to the moment he opened fire.

As Frum points out, we have a lot of different gun problems. The problem of guns used in street crimes and the problem of mass shooters like Stephen Paddock are, in many ways, different problems. The kid who waves a gun to get a clerk to clear out the cash register is not necessarily operating in the same social-psychological space as a guy who hauls an arsenal into a hotel room so that he can kill a lot of strangers from a distance. And we’ve already got a lot of laws to deal with the former problem. It’s the latter problem that is vexing us.

Gun nuttery in general appears to be a culture-bound syndrome in American men, something like the way anorexia nervosa is a culture-bound syndrome in western women. The solution appears to be two-fold — reduce the availability of firearms, and change the culture. Not easy.

I found an article on the evolutionary psychology of mass shootings. Basically, men — younger men, especially — are often driven to displays of violence or risky behavior to “prove” themselves. And guns seems to be a part of that these days.

In 2006 I coauthored a laboratory study on men’s responses to guns in the journal Psychological Science with my colleague Tim Kasser and one of our students. We demonstrated that males who interacted with a handgun showed a greater increase in testosterone levels and more aggressive behavior than males who interacted with the board game Mouse Trap.

In the study, each participant dismantled either a gun or the mousetrap, handled its components and then wrote instructions for how to assemble the objects. Then we gave them the opportunity to put hot sauce into water that was going to be consumed by another person. The participants who handled the gun put in significantly more hot sauce — and were also more likely to express disappointment after learning that no one was going to actually drink the concoction.

Thus, cues tied to threats often won’t result in aggressive responses unless testosterone is involved. Elliot Rodger, the disturbed college student whose violent 2014 rampage through Santa Barbara, California, was foretold in a chilling YouTube video, clearly experienced a testosterone surge upon purchasing his first handgun.

“After I picked up the handgun,” he explained, “I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. Who’s the alpha male now, bitches?”

So, yeah, as we all have pretty much figured out by now, the guy who strolls the aisles of Home Depot with an SIG SG 550 strapped on probably has masculinity issues. But the mass shooter has other problems.

British clinical psychologist Paul Gilbert has developed something he calls the Social Attention Holding Theory. According to Gilbert, we compete with each other to have other people pay attention to us; when other people take notice, we build status. The increased status that comes from having others attend to us leads to all kinds of positive emotions. But persistently being ignored by others produces much darker emotions — especially envy and anger.

It’s no mystery why the media will often describe mass shooters and terrorists as misfits or loners. In many cases, they are. …

… Apparently, a lack of attention from others results in a lack of status, resulting in a lack of access to women. Combined with a young man’s testosterone, it creates a toxic, combustible mix.

There may not be much we can do to change the structure of the young male mind that evolved over the course of millions of years. However, ignoring or denying its existence doesn’t do us any favors.

Stephen Paddock was not young, but by all accounts he was very much a loner, pathologically so.

The author also discusses men who join terrorist organizations:

Nicolas Henin was a Frenchman who was held hostage by ISIS for ten months. Here’s how he described his young, murderous, Jihadi captors:

They present themselves to the public as superheroes, but away from the camera are a bit pathetic in many ways: street kids drunk on ideology and power. In France we have a saying — stupid and evil. I found them more stupid than evil. That is not to understate the murderous potential of stupidity.

Is there any motivational difference between why one youth joins ISIS and another joins an inner-city gang? Possibly not. It’s probably the same damn syndrome expressing itself in culturally different ways.

So what are we gonna do?

The good news is that the rate of Americans who own guns has actually been going down over the past several years. In 1994, 53 percent of American households had at least one firearm. In 2016, it was 36 percent. So we aren’t all guns nuts on this bus.

Put another way — 78 percent of Americans own no guns. However, just 3 percent of Americans own 50 percent of the guns in the U.S. And there probably are more guns in circulation in the U.S. than there are people.

Further, — the U.S. has 4.4 percent of the world’s population but contains nearly half of the world’s privately owned firearms.

Just try to get a gun nut to address those numbers. Can’t be done. It’s not the gun, it’s the person, they’ll tell you. But it’s the person who can easily get guns that perpetrate mass shootings. As David Frum said,

Was there one legal change that could have thwarted Stephen Paddock? Probably not. But the reason crimes like his are so common here, and so rare in western Europe, is not that we are afflicted with more Stephen Paddocks than they, but because their Stephen Paddocks find it so much more difficult to obtain guns, and especially large quantities of guns.

As I’ve written before, owning six or more firearms is an indicator a person is likely to be violent.

Josh Marshall:

Guns have been embedded in American culture, particularly though not exclusively rural culture, for centuries. But what we might call extreme gun ownershipindividuals owning large numbers of often quasi-military firearms — is quite new. The mass casualty shooting is no longer a random freak out by a troubled person: it’s an established American idiom of violence, a way certain people choose to make a statement to the society at large.

We absolutely must address the issue of extreme gun ownership. We can make a distinction between the extreme gun owner and the antique firearm collector, but otherwise we must have limits on how many firearms a person can legally own at one time. And that’s going to require registrations and a database to keep track of such things, and the firearm activists will hate it. And I’m sure a lot of them will become criminals to keep their arsenals. But it’s got to be done to even begin to get a handle on the mass shooting problem.

Another point made by Josh Marshall last week is that we need to “de-normalize” firearms and the open carrying of firearms. We should not accept or just get used to the sight of civilians strolling around with firearms.

It may be the case that the specific open carry ‘activist’ probably isn’t going to aim his AR-15 at the restaurant crowd and start shooting. But guns are inherently dangerous and especially so in civilian spaces. Normalizing them in this way is dangerous and part of the problem. This cultural component is as critical as the legal restrictions. But we are not collectively powerless in the face of culture. We know this from the evolution of perceptions of drunk driving, smoking, domestic violence and numerous other de-valorized activities. We reify cultural norms in laws and laws, along with the behaviors they shape in turn, changes culture.

If we could get across the perception that a firearm does not make you the “alpha male” and instead is a badge of weakness, we might get somewhere. I’m not sure how that will be accomplished, though.

8 thoughts on “Evolutionary Psychology and Extreme Gun Ownership

  1. Once again, great analysis. On my way to and back from hiking today, I saw raised pickups with huge flags and NRA etc. stickers. It’s not an uncommon site where I live, but your analysis hits home.

  2. Being an alpha male is obviously defined differently by different groups. Sort of like trumps behavior being perceived by some as leadership and others as an embarrasment. Gorka regularly referred to alpha males in charge. Most women would scoff at that. Same with the guns. Women may use a gun but wouldn’t get the rush from it.

  3. I’m a little fuzzy headed this morning, and I can’t remember the name of the congress person who has a particularly potent way of exploiting the 2nd Amendment community. She’s an “attractive” blonde who used to act in kind of racy “B” movies. (I put the quotes around “attractive,” because some of us prefer a more natural look.) She often poses with various firearms in what would best be described as publicity pictures, a holdover from her acting career I suppose. For me, the striking feature of the photos is that the “sexy” pose, always incorporates a lifeless, pitiless stare. I gather this connects with an aspiration to be ruthless and remorseless, and to regard these qualities as virtues.

    You can imagine how potent these images are to socially awkward, testosterone swamped young men. The ample bosom draped in a bandolero belt, the revealing clothing are part of the delivery system, but, the payload is the vacant, merciless stare.

    As the character Quint from “Jaws” asked, “Did you ever see a shark’s eyes? … They’ve got lifeless eyes, like a doll’s eyes. They don’t seem to be living.”

    I apologize for the sloppy nature of this comment. I might not have offered it, but, I went to Facebook, and found that my neighbor had posted a photo of a similar attractive blonde cowgirl, with a semi-automatic pistol, alluding to Chicago, NOLA and St. Louis as victims of their own strict gun laws. It was an absolutely perfect fit for this article. This sickness is common, and it runs deep.

  4. I don’t know of any scientific study but I heard the same story when I put my dating profile out in Russian on an Internet dating site read in Russia and the former USSR satellites. A very large percentage of men had become alcoholics and it seemed to me that the spike was associated with the sudden fall of their empire. Yes, Russians have always loved their vodka, but the drinker was a functional heavy drinker. When the Soviet dominance ended, a big chunk of Russian males could not deal with a blow to their Alpha identity.

    As a result, women who did not want to be a nurse with a purse”, medically and financially enabling a man who could not participate in a married relationship, there was a bear market for any man anywhere in the world who could participate in a real and balanced family environment.

    The perceived decline in dominance seems to feed much of the rage that manifests in some of the mass killers. Dylann Roof and Timothy McVeigh seem to qualify. The rise in relative power racially and politically of social groups who were not part of their clan drove them to violence. Is there a common denominator that the perceived tectonic shifts in the role of race, religion, sexual roles (especially male dominance) are fueling outbursts of random rage. The guy who went after republican members of Congress might also qualify if he was responding to the perceived power shift in the direction of fascism within our government.

    If my theory was supported by evidence, I’m not sure where that would lead us in terms of remedy. The propaganda in the Soviet block conditioned males to link their personal identity with the Soviet state. In a similar manner, males in the USA are conditioned to view their position in terms of “American Exceptionalism”, or sexual dominance, or racial superiority. By demanding equality in areas that they demand superiority, I drive them closer to the edge, every time I succeed in taking a measured step to empower women, expose racial injustice, and speak directly to the warped values these insecure misfits revere.

    Then again, I may be barking up the wrong tree.

  5. How we talk about guns has to change. We have these useless “debates” that never move the issue one way or the other, regardless of the latest horrific mass shooting. Newtown didn’t do it; Las Vegas won’t either. And that’s because discussions are framed in ways that almost guarantee public opinion is not moved more towards action. Sure, polls say a solid majority of voters on the left and right, including a majority of NRA members are for things like closing gun show loopholes and some form of registration, but obviously they don’t care enough about the issue to keep that in mind when it comes time to vote. And that’s because the NRA/GOP has successfully controlled and framed the debate so that both sides concede out the gate that solutions are hopeless.

    For example:

    “Was there one legal change that could have thwarted Stephen Paddock? Probably not.”

    A real semi-automatic weapon ban would have limited if not prevented the damage Paddock would do. The gun nuts come back with idiocy such as “trucks were used in France to kill hundreds, what are we going to do, ban trucks?” No, fool, trucks have a purpose, transporting goods. Guns, and particularly semi-auto weapons have no other purpose but to kill large numbers of people. It is common sense to regulate them.

    Characterization of calls for remedies to mass shootings as “political.”

    It is really political to them, but to a human being who doesn’t put death and violence and the money to be made supporting that through unfettered gun sales, e.g. the vast majority of the public, first and foremost are not thinking “politically” by calling for remedies to mass shooting.

    Describing responses to mass shootings as “emotional” in order to discredit any argument for regulation and essentially shut down debate.

    Why is it that the emotional “arguments” of the far right (and the entire GOP is now “far right”) to anything — guns, race, economy, etc — when common sense does not support them, are valid, and yet a normal emotional human response to these mass killings must always negate solutions that are called for in the wake of these preventable disasters? For example, during the entire Obama presidency, they cried about Obama taking our guns, and raising our taxes. Neither were true, but the right conceded these were “emotional” arguments and no less valid.

    “The 2nd Amendment is sacrosanct, in order to prevent tyranny.” I actually heard VA Rep. Taylor (R) say this in a “debate” this morning.

    No, the purpose of the Bill of Rights and the right to vote is the prescription for tyranny. Besides, the idea that the 3% who own 50% of the guns, who regularly blow their own and their loved ones limbs and heads off with them, is going to go up against the US armed forces is absolutely ridiculous.

    Its neither rational nor reasonable to say that emotion should not play into discussing solutions in the aftermath of these regularly occurring massacres. Nor is it to say “nothing can be done.” And if the 2nd Amendment is so damned important, then its reasonable to asses the cost of defending the “right” to own these killing machines in the numbers of lives lost.

    Put the right on record: the 58 lives lost in Vegas, and the hundreds more to come, this year, are the price you insist must be paid in order for people to have guns that serve no other purpose than to deprive others of their right to life. We need to change the frame of the debate, define the cost in human terms and make them own it.

  6. I contribute this highly recommended comment from the NYT to Freidman’s column a few days ago.  Perhaps a proper paint job would be in order as step one. Credit to Jocelyn Ahlers of Vista, CA.
    “I am starting to wonder whether the NRA could be called a terrorist organization, or, at the very least, a sponsor of terrorism. Terrorism is defined as the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to attain goals that are political or ideological in nature. The ads and political monies the NRA spend deliberately attempt to convince people that the only response to mass shootings is for everyone to own weapons. At the same time, they quash any efforts to enact sensible gun control legislation, leaving the door open for anyone to amass an arsenal that can easily kill and injure hundreds. And then they circle back around to convince people that they should own weapons to protect themselves from nuts with weapons. If that isn’t using the threat of violence (enabled by lax gun control) to further a political/ideological aim, I’m not sure what is.

    And none of this even begins to address the politics of race inherent here. If people of color were gathering weapons in these numbers and using them to commit heinous acts such as this… Well, I’m thinking the response would be different.”

  7. To me it looks like no one in power is really willing to take on the NRA. After Newtown sen. Feinstein re-introduced an “assault weapons” ban, 60 senators voted against it including my democratic senator and a few other dems. Why isn’t someone running an ad showing video of the carnage in Vegas with the names of those sixty senators on a scroll? The NRA is will not be defeated unless our side starts fighting to win? I saw Chris Murphy (D-CT) on CNN yesterday, he gave one of the weakest arguments for gun control I’ve ever heard, raise the white flag?

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