In that vein, I cover a number of topics that often take the blame for all of society's ills. This particular excerpt has to do with guns. Are they good for boys? Are they bad? Are they somewhere in between? Spoiler alert: they are somewhere in between.
There is no way to know exactly how many guns are in existence in the United States, but the FBI estimates it is likely somewhere between 200 and 300 million. That is almost one gun for every American man, woman, and child. A growing number of people are arguing that guns are to blame for aggression and violence in boys. If the guns weren’t there, boys would not be so dangerous. After all, more Americans now die in gun violence than die in car crashes every year. Children die accidentally from guns. Shooters bring guns to school. Husbands kill wives and then themselves. Isn’t it possible that guns are the problem?
It’s not that simple. Certainly, one of the best predictors of whether someone will die during the course of an act of violence is whether a gun is used to perpetrate that violence. But, do guns actually make boys violent? Let’s reflect on that question…
Many boys first experience toy guns at a young age. What does that do to their aggressiveness? In 1992, researchers from Brandeis University studied thee to five year-old children and the effect toy guns have on their level of aggression. They found a relationship between these children playing with toy guns and real aggressive behavior (as opposed to play or pretend aggression). The kids who played with toy guns were also the kids who were more aggressive.
So, there you have it. Toy guns lead to aggression in boys. Except, maybe not. In the study, these researchers found correlations between toy gun play and aggression. That does not mean toy guns cause aggression. It could be that aggressive boys choose to play with toy guns as a way of working out their aggression.
Or, it could be that something else causes both toy gun play and aggression. For example, these same researchers, in the exact same study, discovered a relationship between parental punishment and real aggressive behavior. The more extreme a parent’s punishment, the more aggressive the boy will be. Maybe that causes a boy to seek outlets for his aggression and anger, such as aggressive play with toy guns.
In looking further into the research, the picture clears a bit. For example, researchers from the United Kingdom discovered that when male college students held and interacted with guns for a short period of time, their testosterone levels increased, as did their aggression toward others. By the time boys enter late adolescence, they understand the difference between real and toy guns—their testosterone and aggression levels only increased after handling a real gun.
Other researchers have found similar results. One research team discovered that merely looking at pictures of guns increased aggressive thoughts in boys and men. This same research team studied the phenomenon further and realized that both hunters and nonhunters had more aggressive thoughts after looking at pictures of guns, indicating that familiarity with guns does not necessarily cause a decrease in the level of aggression experienced in boys.
Essentially, it has been known for decades that the presence of a gun increases aggression. It even has a name—it is called the weapons effect.
Case closed—guns are bad. Except, that is not always the case. Researchers from the Netherlands studied the differences in aggression between members of shooting associations versus nonmembers. These individual’s personalities were studied separately from the presence of guns (in other words, they hadn’t just seen or shot a gun). The researchers found members of shooting associations tended to be less aggressive, impulsive, and neurotic than nonmembers. Other researchers discovered that the decision for adolescent boys to actually carry a gun revolved around those boys’ need for acceptance from their peer group and their level of aggression. It wasn’t necessarily that the guns caused the aggression in boys. It was actually the other way around—the boys who were more aggressive chose to carry guns. It didn’t hurt that these same boys often had friends who also carried guns.
So, guns might be bad, but they might not be. From the research, it appears that boys who are trying to feel powerful will be more prone to want to carry a gun. But, boys who grow up with a familiarity with guns may be less aggressive than others (when guns are not present).
With that in mind, it is also important to note that gun safety training works. For all boys. Of all ages. Training tends to work best for boys who engage in hands-on safety classes. However, merely discussing gun safety without guns present is helpful, too. Even radio public service announcements lead to an increase in gun safety. An important caveat to mention is that gun safety training is less effective for younger boys than it is for older boys. It still helps, but younger boys (ages zero to four) tend to have a hard time resisting playing with a gun if it is around.
With all of the above information in mind, a few main trends emerge from the research:
1. Aggressive boys tend to be drawn to guns, no matter their age.
2. Guns increase aggression in boys who are not familiar with them.
3. Younger boys (up to age five or six) are at fairly high risk of playing with guns if they are available. No amount of gun safety training will completely eliminate this.
4. Gun safety training works extremely well for boys starting around age six or seven.
5. Familiarity with guns and shooting may actually decrease aggression and the dangerous weapons effect.
If you want your boys to be raised around guns, that is fine, under the following conditions: Do not allow them to have access to guns without supervision, and take the time to teach your boys how to interact appropriately and safely with guns. Teach them yourself, and sign them up for gun safety classes. If you do these things, your boys will most likely be safe, and they will grow into responsible adults. They may even be less aggressive because of their appropriate gun use.
If you don’t keep your guns away from unsupervised boys and don’t take the time to teach them to handle guns appropriately, you are part of the problem. Your boys will likely be more aggressive, and they will not improve the world. They will equate guns with power and control. They will also probably choose to spend time with other irresponsible, gun-wielding boys.
Thanks for reading. If you are interested in learning more about the book, please visit my website. You can see the table of contents and sign up to receive an email when it is available for purchase.
-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.
 Data from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention
 Watson, et al. (1992)
 Klinesmith, et al. (2006).
 Anderson, et al. (1998)
 Bartholow, et al. (2005)
 Berkowitz & LePage (1967)
 Nagtegaal (2009)
 Dijkstra, et al. (2010)
 Himle, et al. (2004); Miltenberger, et al. (2005)
 Meyer, et al. (2003)
 Hardy, et al. (1996)