Angry Brain and Guns
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
Last week as I entered an art classroom, a woman came up to me with excitement in her eyes and said, “I read your book cover to cover. I couldn't put it down. Then I passed it on to a couple I know. They read it and got a lot from it, now they just loaned it to another couple we know. So I need to buy another copy.” Luckily along with my art gear I have been toting around some books in my car, due to my heavy schedule of interviews, author talks and book signings at libraries and bookstores this month. So I zipped to the car and grabbed her a book, before we began painting poinsettias.
When is a self-help book, like the one I wrote on communication skills, not enough? My book provides cognitive skills, like how to craft a complete message and somatic tools, like how to breathe to change your mood. But there may be some people whose issues interfere with getting the most out of self-help books. Either genetic factors or environmental learned factors may inhibit their ability to master these skills. I want to discuss two related problems. One is how chronic stress lowers the brain’s ability to handle anger and the other is the link between violence and gun ownership.
First, why can’t some people control their anger more easily? Some people tend to act out in hostile and violent ways, and have difficulty coming down from an angry state. They have trouble listening to the voice inside that tells them not to blow up in anger. Why? When we have chronic stress, stress hormones are being released too often, which decreases the function of neurons (brain cells). Researchers at Yale showed that chronic stress reduces the functioning of the Prefrontal Cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for self-control. So the help needed to manage angry impulses internally is too weak in some people.
A 2015 study (Behavioral Science and Law) revealed that gun ownership and uncontrollable anger go hand in hand. The study said that at least 9% of the adult population in the USA has both a history of impulsive angry behavior and easy access to guns. It turns out that prior violence is the best indicator of violent crimes. However, people with a record of violent misdemeanors can still buy a gun! There is also a three-way association between people who own multiple guns, carry those guns outside their home and have a history of impulsive angry behavior. Americans like Nikolas Cruz (Parkland massacre shooter) had a documented history of anger problems and owned guns. Other recent USA mass shooters with a similar history of documented explosive behavior disorder are Omar Hatten, Devon Kelly and Elliot Rogers.
The first problem is the stressed brain’s inability to help us curb our angry impulses. The good news is that the brain has plasticity and we can often train the brain to improve. When a self-help book is not enough, a psychotherapist or treatment program can provide the outside support to reach the person and help strengthen their brain functioning to make them more resilient to stress. A caring environment lowers stress and can help repair damaged areas of the brain. However some people with psychopathic tendencies are not able to regain any empathy for others and need to be protected in society (by incarceration or inpatient treatment) from harming themselves or others.
The problem of gun violence prevention is a divisive social and political issue in the USA. Given the relationship between people with anger impulse histories and gun ownership, I think that one answer is to promote legal mechanisms to confiscate guns from potentially violent people. Some states have enacted laws that allow for a temporary civil order to remove guns from high-risk individuals. San Diego City Attorney Mara W. Elliott’s office was the first in the state of California to obtain Gun Violence Restraining Orders against gun owners who pose a threat to themselves or others. Elliot filed her first GVRO in December 2017, and 80 more since the program’s inception. Her office has removed about 170 firearms, including a dozen assault rifles, from dangerous gun owners. She will now be training law enforcement agencies throughout California on how to use GVROs to save lives. It was inspiring to hear Ms. Elliot speak at a vigil for gun violence victims that I attended on December 14th, the 6th anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre. Given this clear connection between people with violent histories and guns, this is at least one useful tool in the war against gun violence.
In some cases self-help alone is not enough. Explosive control problems are often related to a brain damaged by chronic stress. The ease in the USA to acquire guns creates a dangerous opportunity for the people with the weakest control over anger. This lethal outlet has wreaked havoc. In 2018 there have been 40 thousand deaths from gun violence in the USA. I believe that we need to support efforts to remove guns from people who cannot control their aggressive impulses.
Her is a link to a radio interview I did at the Union Tribune community spotlight: