Impulsive Anger Issues and Gun Ownership

According to a study published this month in Behavioral Sciences and the Law, an estimated 9% of adults in the United States (US) have a history of impulsive, angry behavior and have access to guns. The study, which was co-authored by scientists at Duke, Harvard, and Columbia universities, also found that an estimated 1.5% of adults report impulsive anger and carry firearms outside of their homes.

Study researchers analyzed data from 5,563 face-to-face interviews conducted in the National Comorbidity Study Replication survey (NCS-R), a nationally representative survey of mental disorders in the US led by Harvard in the early 2000s.

The study found little overlap between participants with serious mental illnesses and those with a history of impulsive, angry behavior and access to guns.

“As we try to balance constitutional rights and public safety regarding people with mental illness, the traditional legal approach has been to prohibit firearms from involuntarily committed psychiatric patients,” says Jeffrey Swanson, PhD, professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke Medicine and lead author of the study. “Now we have more evidence that current laws don’t necessarily keep firearms out of the hands of a lot of potentially dangerous individuals.”

Researchers found that anger-prone people with guns had an elevated risk of a range of fairly common psychiatric conditions such as personality disorders, alcohol abuse, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress, whereas only a tiny fraction suffered from acute symptoms of major disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Fewer than one in 10 angry people with access to guns had ever been admitted to a hospital for a psychiatric or substance abuse problem, the study found. As a result, most of these individuals’ medical histories wouldn’t stop them from being able to legally purchase guns under existing mental health–related restrictions.

Swanson and co-authors reasoned that looking at a prospective gun buyer’s history of misdemeanor convictions, including violent offenses and multiple convictions for impaired driving, could be more effective at preventing gun violence in the US than screening based on mental health treatment history.

As for those who already own or have access to firearms, the researchers suggested the data could support “dangerous persons” gun removal laws, like those in Connecticut and Indiana, or a “gun violence restraining order” law like California recently enacted. Such laws give family members and law enforcement a legal tool to immediately seize guns and prevent gun or ammunition purchases by people who show warning signs of impending violence.

In 2012, more than 59,000 people were injured by the intentional use of firearms, and another 11,622 were killed in violent gun incidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Duke, Harvard, and Columbia analysis appears in a special issue of Behavioral Sciences and the Law that focuses on mental illness and gun violence.