On Tuesday, Texas gun-rights The Truth About Guns (TTAG) put out a call for volunteers to participate in a simulation of the Charlie Hebdo shooting. Their reasoning was that “an armed civilian (or two) could have prevented a great deal of slaughter in the Paris terrorist attack.” The simulation was held using non-lethal paintball guns and 40 “warm bodies.” The results were far from what TTAG expected. No matter who was given the gun to fight off attackers, that person invariably “died” in the simulation. According to Raw Story, who covered the event, the only time the armed civilian survived was when they ran away at the first sign of shooting. Despite their intentions, all TTAG proved was that anyone who would have had a gun during the Charlie Hebdo shooting would have been killed. They would not have changed the outcome of the tragedy at all, but they almost certainly would have sealed their own fate.
But they might have felt safer overall. That is the conclusion of many psychological studies which have examined how people act when they are armed with a gun. The fact is, guns can change a person’s psychology, a conclusion borne out by plenty of scientific research. A Psychology Today article concluded that, “the main benefits of gun ownership are feeling safe, free, independent of the government, and powerful.” But feeling safer and actually being safer are two different things. In fact, studies are showing that having gun not only may not make you safer, but could endanger the people around you as well.
Back in 2012, two psychologists authored a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance which looked at how people are affected by guns. Specifically they looked at how holding a gun affects people’s perception of the world and their behavior. In a scientific experiment, they found that people who were holding a gun, rather than just near one or not holding or near one at all, were far more likely to assume that someone else had a gun. They were also more likely to raise the gun in a manner to make shooting possible.
James Brockmole, one of the authors, discussed the findings of this research. He summarized it as succinctly as possible: “A gun certainly changes what action choices you make.” In this case, it seems as though it changes people’s decisions in an aggressive way, a conclusion that has been supported by plenty of research. Studies have shown that children who use toy guns in play sessions are more aggressive than their peers who do not. Additionally, “gun ownership is the strongest predictor of homicide in U.S. homes.” Science has examined the theory that guns make people more aggressive and found it to be sound.
It is easy to conclude from this that in situations where a gun is present because someone is armed, whether legally or not, the amount of danger in a situation is increased. Part of this is because of the effect that guns have on people’s psychology. Because of their heightened awareness of threat due to their awareness of their weapon, any situation can be volatile. There have been cases where civilians carrying guns with a gun permit have shot and killed an unarmed person because they thought they had a gun. Essentially, owning and carrying a gun makes people less able to accurately assess a threat and can lead to tragedy.
As TTAG’s simulation shooting shows, arming civilians does not necessarily make anyone safer. This can in part account for people’s fear when they see someone who is open carrying a gun of any kind. With open carry protests where activists are carrying pistols, rifles and automatic or semi-automatic weapons, this fear has been on full display. One person confronted with that kind of protest said, “There was a lot of firepower, and a lot of potential for carnage out in that parking lot. Absolutely I was scared.” Guns are a threatening object and people are wary of them because they know the damage they can cause when present in any situation. That damage is increased by the change in people’s psychology when they carry a gun.
Because of increasing violence in the United States and incidents like that in France with Charlie Hebdo, more and more people are arming themselves and carrying their weapons with them. There is a natural reaction to want to keep you and your family safe. But psychology and scientific studies are increasing showing that having a gun does not necessarily make people any safer. In fact, it can make them more dangerous to those around them, more volatile and likely to perceive a threat where their is none and, in turn, more likely to pull the trigger on an unarmed person. Guns change the psychological outlook of the people who hold them. While people are advocating for open carry, they need to keep this fact in mind. It could save someone’s life.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury