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Guns, Violence and Psychology: Cause and Effect?

By: Dr. Michael J. Perrotti, Ph.D.
Tel: (714) 528-0100
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Does the availability of weapons lead to violence? Citizens certainly have a right to bear arms and defend themselves. However, what does the science say about this area?

Harvard Injury Control Research Center conducted a comprehensive review of the literature. Hepburn and Hemenway (2004) found a broad array of evidence that indicates that gun availability is a risk factor for homicide. Case-control studies, ecological time-series, and cross-sectional studies indicate that in regions in the US where there are more guns, both men and women are at a higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide.

Hemenway and Miller (2000) investigated the relationship between homicide rates and firearm availability across 26 high income countries. States with higher levels of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm homicide and overall homicide. This relationship held for both genders and all race groups, after accounting for rates of aggravated assaults, robbery, unemployment, urbanization, alcohol consumption, and resource deprivation (e.g. parenting). There was no association between gun prevalence and non-firearm homicide. One cannot draw a causal relationship between gun prevalence and homicide.

Many individuals in mass shootings are disaffected individuals with poor social skills who somehow feel victimized in some fashion by society. Some are disaffected workers, such as in the case of the TV reporter and technician being shot on live TV. The station manager went into a rant as to how the state should provide more mental health services. However, one wonders why the station apparently had no Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to which the perpetrator could have been referred for employee-mandated counseling. This would have addressed the problem early in the process.

This author firmly believes in the constitutional rights of citizens to bear arms and defend themselves. Focusing on "Gun Control" seems to be where our primary focus should not be. The effects of society to reduce homicide should be focused on management of domestic violence, substance abuse, and community mental health services as well as parenting. Children growing up without "Tough Love" and/or consequences end up victimizing others. Enabling parents encourage the "victim mentality" and entitlement enables these types of individuals.

We live in a society which is becoming more and more dependent on cellphones and other devices. This leads to parents buying "things" for their kids and not spending time with them. This in turn leads to kids being loners and isolated from others. In the school shooting in Connecticut, the mother of the perpetrator had apparently home schooled him, thus depriving him of necessary socialization. To compound matters, she reportedly taught him to use high powered firearms at a range. Individuals such as this have more difficulty expressing their feelings. On the surface, they are affable and engaging, yet under the surface they pent up their feelings. When feelings are suppressed, they accumulate. Then there is explosive discharge.

This author has seen, in cases of matricide, individuals severely depressed who believe they had found a "better place" and take others with them via homicide, matricide, as well as mass casualty events. This relates to the phenomena of dissociation, viz, thoughts and experiences dissociated from consciousness and awareness and immersion in an altered mental state. As a protective mechanism against pain, the mind splits off from immediate consciousness and an individual dissociates into another mental state removed from the immediate conscious mental state.

It is the author's opinion that a contributor to the escalating trend with violence was the era of "Reagonomics" wherein the mental health system of California was systematically dismantled. Gone were the comprehensive mental health services in psychiatric hospitals and community mental health centers. There is a robust relationship between violence and mental illness. It is ironic that Reagan was shot by a mentally deranged individual. In violence risk assessment, mental illness and substance abuse are risk factors for violence. These areas are where our focus should be. It all starts in our homes and functions with us. Parents are well advised to keep lines of communication open between their kids and themselves. The teaching and example by parents of forgiveness and humility is a great starting point. Professional sports teams need to hold individuals accountable, e.g. Grey Hardy, of the Cowboys (no discipline yet physically confronted special teams coach), as parents need to keep their children accountable. Children who truly feel loved and who are encouraged to use their God-given gifts to help others are far less likely to resort to firearms and violence. It all starts with each one of us- together, we can make our society safer. We have more potential to save lives and turn others from their destructive ways.


Dr. Perrotti received his PhD in Clinical Psychology from Alliant University in San Diego, CA. He is a licensed psychologist in California and Pennsylvania. Dr. Perrotti is a member of the National Register of Health Service Provider in psychology and the National Academy of Neuropsychology. He was an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine, USC from 2005-2006. Dr. Perrotti is the author of numerous publications in forensic psychology and assessment, traumatic brain injury in college, professional sports and military populations, and child trauma and complex PTSD.

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