“Bang, bang, you’re dead” has been uttered by millions of American children for generations. It is typical of the ordinary, angry, murderous thoughts of childhood; variations of it are universal. We expect children to learn to control their anger as they grow up and not to play out their angry wishes in reality. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen.
Following the many recent dramatic, crazed mass shootings, some commentators have called for restricting gun access for those with mental illness, but psychiatrists have rightly pointed out that murderers, including terror-inducing mass murderers, do not usually have a history of formally diagnosed mental illness. The psychiatrists are right for a reason: The potential for sudden, often unexpected, violence is widespread. This essay will employ a developmental perspective on how people handle anger, and on how we come to distinguish between fantasy and reality, to inform an understanding of gun violence.
Baby hyenas often try to kill their siblings shortly after birth. Human babies do not. They are not only motorically undeveloped, but their emotions appear to be mostly limited to the nonspecific states of distress and satisfaction. Distinct affects, such as anger, differentiate gradually. Babies smile by 2 months. Babies’ specific affection for and loyalty to their caregivers comes along a bit later, hence stranger anxiety commonly appears around 9 months. Facial expressions, sounds, and activity that look specifically like anger, and that occur when babies are frustrated or injured, are observed in the second half of the first year of human life. In the second year of life, feelings such as shame and guilt, which are dependent on the development of a distinct sense of self and other, appear. Shame and guilt, along with loving feelings, help form the basis for consideration of others and for the diminishment of young children’s omnipotence and egocentricity; they become a kind of social “glue,” tempering selfish, angry pursuits and tantrums.
There is a typical developmental sequence of how people come to handle their anger. Younger children express emotions directly, with little restraint; they hit, bite, and scream. Older children should be able to have more impulse control and be able to regulate the motor and verbal expression of their anger to a greater degree. At some point, most also become able to acknowledge their anger and not have to deny it. Adults, in principle, should be able both to inhibit the uncontrolled expression of anger and also, when appropriate, be able to use anger constructively. How tenuous this accomplishment is, and how often adults can function like overgrown children, can be readily observed at children’s sports matches, in which the children are often better behaved than their parents. In short, humans are endowed with the potential for enormous, destructive anger, but also, in our caring for others, a counterbalance to it.
The process of emotional development, and the regulation of anger, is intertwined with the development of the sense of self and of other. Evidence suggests that babies can start to distinguish self and other at birth, but that a full and reliable sense of self and other is a long, complicated developmental process.
The article by pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena – A Study of the First Not-Me Possession,” one of the most frequently cited papers in the psychoanalytic literature, addresses this process ( Int J Psychoanal. 1953;3489-97 ). While transitional objects are not a human universal, the process of differentiating oneself from others, of finding out what is me and what is not-me, is. According to Dr. Winnicott, learning what is self and what is other assists babies in their related challenges of distinguishing animate from inanimate, wishes from causes, and fantasy from reality. Mother usually appears when I’m distressed – is she a part of me or a separate being? Does she appear because I wish, because I cry, or does she not appear despite my efforts? People never fully complete the developmental distinctions between self and other, and between wishes, fantasies, and magic, as opposed to reality.
Stressful events, such as a sudden loss, for example, commonly prompt a regressive denial of reality: “I don’t believe what I see” can be meant literally. When attending movies, we all “suspend disbelief” and participate, at least vicariously, in wishful magic. Further, although after early childhood, problems understanding material reality are characteristic of psychosis, all people are prone to at least occasional wishful or fearful errors in grasping social reality – we misperceive the meaning and intentions of others.
Combining the understanding of the development of how children handle anger and how they learn to differentiate self and other, and fantasy and reality, leads to an additional, important point. Suppose a person can’t tolerate his own angry wishes and he doesn’t distinguish well between self and other. He can easily attribute his own unwanted hatefulness to others, and he may then want to attack them for it. This process is extremely common, and we are all inclined to it to some degree. As childishly simplistic as it sounds, for humans, there is almost always an us and a them; we are good and they are bad. In addition to directing anger inappropriately at others, people can, of course, turn anger against themselves, and with just as much unreasonableness and venom. However much we grow up, development is never complete. We remain irrational, with a tenuous and incomplete perception of reality.
One would never give a weapon to an infant, but in light of these difficulties with respect to human development, should one give a weapon to an adult?
Whether or not humans have the self-control to possess weapons of great power and destructiveness, weapons are part of our evolution as a species. They have likely contributed to our remarkable success, protecting us from predators and enriching our diets. It is worth noting, however, that small-scale societies such as those we all evolved from often have high murder rates, and that lower rates of intra-societal violence tend to be found in larger, more highly regulated societies. People do not always adequately manage aggression themselves and benefit from external, societal assistance.
We humans all have the capacity to be mad: to be angry, to be crazy, to be crazed with anger. Fantasies of revenge are common when one is angry, and expectable when one has been hurt. Yet, expressions such as “blind with rage” and “seeing red” attest to the challenges to the sense of reality that rage can induce. The crucial distinction between having vengeful wishes and fantasies, and putting them into action, into reality, can crumble quickly. In addition to anger, fear is another emotion that can distort the perception of reality. Regular attention to the news suggests that police, whether they are aware of it or not, are more fearful of black men than of other people. They are more likely to perceive them as being armed and are quicker to shoot. For police and civilians alike, the presence of guns simultaneously requires greater impulse control and makes impulse control more difficult. The more guns, the more fear and anger, the more shootings – a vicious cycle.
Most people who commit crimes with guns, whether a singular “crime of passion” or a mass murder, have been crazed with anger. Some have been known to police as angry individuals with histories of getting into trouble, others not. But most have been angry, isolated individuals with problematic social relationships and little warm or respectful involvement with others to counterbalance their anger. Given the challenges inherent in human development, it is not surprising that in most societies there are a fair number of disaffected, angry, isolated individuals with inadequate realistic emotional regulation.
According to the anthropologist Scott Atran , who has studied both would-be and convicted terrorists, in addition to those individuals who are angry and disturbed, many recruits to terrorism are merely unsettled youth eager to find a sense of identity and belonging in a “band of brothers (and sisters).” He has described the “devoted actor,” who merges his identity with his combat unit and becomes willing to die for his comrades or their cause. These observations are consistent with both anthropological ideas about cultural influences on the sense of self in relation to groups, and with psychoanalytic emphasis on the difficulty of achieving a firm sense of self and other. In fusing with the group and its ideology, one gives up an independent self while feeling that one has gained a sense of self, belonging, and meaning. Whatever the psychological and social picture, it is obvious that the angry, isolated individuals who may regress and explode, and the countless unsettled youth of modern societies, cannot all be identified, tracked, and regulated by society, nor will they all seek help for their troubles. The United States’ decisions to allow massively destructive weapons to anyone and everyone are counter to everything we know about people.
Among many other things, Sigmund Freud is known for highlighting the comment that “The first man to hurl an insult rather than a spear was the founder of civilization.” Anger that is put into words is less destructive than anger put into violent action. From this point of view, the widespread presence of guns undermines civilization. Guns invite putting anger into action rather than conversation – they are a hindrance to impulse control and they shut down discussion. Democracy, a form of civilization contingent on impulse control, discussion, and voting, rather than submission to violent authority, is particularly undermined by guns. Congress should know: It has been so intimidated by the National Rifle Association that it has refused to outlaw private possession of military assault rifles and at the same time has submitted to outlawing the use of federal funds for research about gun violence. Despite this ban on research, there is overwhelming evidence that the presence of a gun in a home is associated not only with significantly increased murder rates, but also, as mental health professionals well know, greatly increased incidence of suicide.
As humans, we all have the ability to control ourselves to some degree. But, we all have the potential to become mad and to lose control. Our internal self-regulation is sometimes insufficient, and we need the restraining influence of our fellow humans. This can be in the form of a comforting word, a warning gesture, a carrot or a stick, or a law. The regulation of guns, assault rifles, and bomb-making materials is a mark of civilization.
Dr. Blum is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Philadelphia. He teaches in the departments of anthropology and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and at the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia.