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The problem isn't mental health—it's access to guns, new research suggests

The "dangerous people" framework is a myth.

Chris Hill, founder of the Georgia Security Force III% militia, loads a rifle during a field training exercise July 29, 2017 in Jackson, Georgia.

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
  • A new study by University of Texas Medical Branch researchers states that gun access, not mental health, leads to gun violence.
  • The team discovered that mental illness and personality traits are not reliable indicators of gun violence.
  • This line of research could have important implications for legislation and rehabilitation.

America doesn't have a gun problem; it has a mental health problem: a post-mass shooting slogan trotted out time and again. Like many other slogans, it suffers from a major flaw: it isn't true.

That's the consensus of a recent study published in the journal, Preventive Medicine, by two University of Texas Medical Branch researchers. Yu Lu and Jeff Temple investigated three potential links to gun violence—gun access and ownership; mental illness; and personality traits—and discovered only one actually predicted gun violence.

It's all about access.

"Counter to public beliefs, the majority of mental health symptoms examined were not related to gun violence. Instead, access to firearms was the primary culprit."

Language matters, as it is the entry point into understanding the root of any problem. In this case, the stakes are dire. Up to 100,000 Americans are non-fatally injured by firearms each year; between 30,000-40,000 Americans die every year from gunshots. One-third are homicides and 61 percent are suicides, with roughly 1 percent attributed to accidents.

While that's disturbing enough, Lu and Temple write that there has been a mass shooting (four or more people killed) every single day over the past two years. In these situations, access and ownership appear to be the main catalyst.

The Second Amendment: How the gun control debate went crazy | Kurt Anderson

This fact has been obscured by the dangerous people framework: guns don't kill people, people kill people. Lu and Temple respond with the dangerous weapons framework. Give people an opportunity to own weapons and they take advantage of the possibilities.

For this study, Lu and Temple analyze the "temporal relationships between mental health and gun violence" among 663 participants of diverse backgrounds: a third self-identified Hispanics, 27 percent black, 26 percent white, 13 percent other nationalities, with an average age of 22 years old. Notably, 62 percent of respondents were female.

While mental health definitions are sometimes difficult to assess, they investigated a number of conditions, including anxiety, depression, stress, PTSD, hostility, impulsivity, and borderline personality disorder. They discovered that these conditions are not good predictors of gun violence. In fact, out of this list only one—hostility—increased the likelihood of the person threatening another with a gun.

Yet even that number paled in comparison. Those who reported hostile inclinations were 3.5 times more likely to threaten another individual with a gun. What truly predicted gun violence? For gun owners, the risk of threatening another was 18 times greater.

"Prior gun carrying, having access to a gun, and owning a gun were all linked to future gun carrying. Although gun carrying itself is not a violent behavior, research has demonstrated a strong link between this behavior and gun violence victimization."

David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez, survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., assemble on the East Front of the Capitol during a rally to organize letters to be delivered to congressional offices calling for an expansion of background checks on gun purchases on Monday, March 25, 2019.

Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

There's that old sentiment about being a hammer and everything looking like a nail. All technologies become extensions of our bodies, as Marshall McLuhan so eloquently phrased it. Our bodies take on the contours of cars when we're driving; my mind is extended through the pecking of my fingers on this laptop. Everything we touch becomes an instrument to use. Put something in our hands and we assume it is part of us, and treat it as such.

So much more so with weaponry. If I feel hostile toward someone, it takes a lot of work to physically confront that person with words, much less fists. Extend my consciousness with a gun and the ability to threaten becomes more seductive. The fetishism of firearms is a biological tenet: we like to feel power. Given the opportunity we're likely to exploit that trait.

Yes, dangerous people exist. Give them a dangerous weapon and their likelihood of engaging in danger increases—by a lot, as this research shows. Volunteers for the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment likely didn't expect to be torturing fellow citizens a day into the study, but that's how quickly we adapt to new environments, especially when placed in positions of authority.

As the authors note, this research could be helpful in deciding how to proceed with future gun legislation and treatment for criminals. We just have to ensure that we're treating the right symptoms. Thanks to research like this, we're understanding what to focus on, an important step forward in one of the most contentious issues in America today.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

Videos
  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

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