When a Gun is Visible

If you walked into a public place, say a Mall, a restaurant, or a retail store, and you saw another customer wearing a gun, how would you feel? Would seeing that gun make you feel safer, more secure and comfortable, or would you feel some stress and anxiety?

It’s interesting that at a time when Americans are becoming more and more vocal about the need for sensible laws dealing with guns, some states are actually loosening some of their gun restrictions. Thirty-one states allow open carry of guns. Texas, for instance, recently legalized open carry of guns in churches, schools, and foster homes.

Open carry, of course, makes the weapon visible to others. Many argue that such visibility will have an inhibiting effect on violence by others. Let’s note, however, that it’s been 30 years since psychologists first presented evidence – evidence that has been replicated in multiple studies — that the presence of a gun can increase aggressive tendencies in others.

The standard interpretation is that the sight of a gun might produce aggression-related thinking in the observer. Naturally, this effect could be more pronounced in certain individuals, and even absent in others, but let’s take home an important lesson: Open-carry laws will not necessarily have an inhibiting effect on violence in everybody. In fact, in certain individuals the effect might be to increase the likelihood of aggressive actions.

People love to use “psychology” to give simplistic answers to social problems. Case in point: “Gun violence is a mental health problem.” Next time you hear that one, ask the speaker to define “mental illness.” While they struggle with their answer, remind them that conditions we all often see in our families – such as post-traumatic stress; anxiety and panic attacks; narcissism; absence of guilt following wrongdoing – can often qualify as formal disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychological and Psychiatric Associations.

Is there a coping lesson here? Yes. When you are armed with facts and valid evidence, you are inoculated against the psychological effects of false propaganda, and better empowered to make up your own mind.

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