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[D]ANGER: If You’re Mad, Don’t Pick Up a Firearm

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Everyone has hot buttons. As an attorney, I frequently have to deal with people with whom I disagree. Usually, the disagreements are of a professional nature: what a particular statute says or what a case stands for. But, sometimes, as with any other line of work, the disagreements involve unkind remarks. Having been the victim of my own intemperate remarks (judges really hate it when attorneys act badly), I know that ignoring insults and keeping it on the straight and level is the best choice. But, occasionally, I get really angry, and that is not the time to reach for a gun.

Guns are unholstered only when there is a direct physical threat to your personal safety or the personal safety of another. Yet, in spite of this, people frequently reach for a gun when angry — not with the intent of actually using it but rather with the intent of scaring someone.

Occasionally, I get really angry, and that is not the time to reach for a gun. Guns are unholstered only when there is a direct physical threat to your personal safety or the personal safety of another.

Recently, Earl Thomas, a safety for the Baltimore Ravens in the National Football League, was allegedly caught by his wife cheating on her with another woman. Her response was to find her husband’s Beretta, track him down and point the gun at his head after telling his female companion that she brought something for her too. Thomas reportedly took the gun from his wife, but she had thoughtfully brought a knife to her own gunfight and chased him around a parked vehicle.

Police arrested Thomas’ wife, and the prosecutor charged her. She reportedly told officers that she’d taken the magazine out of the weapon so she wouldn’t hurt anyone and was apparently dismayed to learn that there was a round in the chamber. Her excuse: She just wanted to scare her husband.

Readers of this journal know well that self-defense and the limited defense of others are the only times that a weapon can be lawfully pointed at another human being. Pointing one under other conditions, such as in an attempt to frighten someone, is assault. Yet in spite of that, hundreds of times a year, arguments are ended with gunfire precisely because people do not follow what I would submit should be the Fifth Rule of Gun Safety: If you’re angry, don’t pick up a firearm.1

Long-Term Considerations

Early in my legal career, I had the privilege of clerking at the Missouri Supreme Court. One of the judges on that court, Stephen Limbaugh, was always patient and unfailingly unflappable during oral argument. During one colloquy with a lawyer, the lawyer kept saying things so stupid everyone in the room wondered if he was really a lawyer. But Judge Limbaugh just kept patiently questioning him until he had to admit that the judge had a point.

Later that afternoon, I asked the judge how he could remain so patient in the face of stupidity. “I ask myself,” he said, “will this issue or problem matter to me in 20 years?” He said that was the first step in remaining calm. If your life will be no different in 20 years, no matter what was said or done, then getting angry can only cloud your judgment and make you say or do things you’ll later regret.

During one colloquy with a lawyer, the lawyer kept saying things so stupid everyone in the room wondered if he was really a lawyer.

Judge Limbaugh’s advice is solid and finds proof in history.

Examine the single most important gunfight in American political history. Aaron Burr ran for governor in New York, and Alexander Hamilton allegedly defamed him. Burr had become vice president (rather than president) in 1800 principally through the machinations of Hamilton, and the two became bitter enemies. After the supposed defamatory remarks, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton shot the branch above Burr’s head, while Burr shot Hamilton in the chest, killing him. Burr was charged but never convicted of murder, but his political career was destroyed by the affair.

Much can be learned from the Burr-Hamilton duel. Hurt feelings on both sides of the duel led to two grown men shooting at each other on cliffs overlooking New Jersey. Scripture tells us that pride goes before a fall, and certainly as he was falling after having been shot, Hamilton likely wished his pride had let him take back his injurious comments. Similarly, as he was being led away to jail and charged with murder, a reflective Burr might have thought he could have handled defending his “honor” in a better way.

Getting Hot

Whether we like it or not, emotion plays a huge role in judgment and decision-making. Researchers know that having a product — soap, breakfast cereal, pain-relief rub — endorsed by a celebrity tends to positively influence consumers’ evaluation of the product, even though the quality of the soap and the taste of the cereal are independent of that endorsement. Similarly, placing those advertisements in a funny or uplifting show yields good results, while placing them in a program with darker themes affects product judgments negatively.2

Anger is one of the strongest emotions we feel, and it is closely correlated with aggressive behavior.3 Anger produces a release of hormones that affects blood pressure and may also increase physical reaction times and impair a person’s ability to think clearly. Impairing your ability to process information and think while you are holding a firearm is an unsound strategy. Similarly, increasing physical reaction time while holding a firearm may well make a negligent (or intentional) discharge far more likely.

Simply put, anger is not your friend. Studies have shown that drivers who drive angry tend to engage in riskier behavior, have more accidents and experience more bad outcomes.4 Students who are angry tend to have much lower test scores. If you’re angry, the last thing in the world you should be holding is a firearm.

Controlling Anger

Anger can, however, be managed. There are a number of strategies that can help a person deal with the negative emotional effects of anger, principally getting away from the person or incident that makes you angry. “Walk it off” is more than just a strategy for dealing with bumps and bruises. It can be an effective way to channel anger into physical release and dissipate the hormones that raise blood pressure and affect your ability to think clearly. It also takes you away from the person or persons who may be making you angry and allows you time to process that anger.

Taking that “walk it off” time to ask yourself questions is also helpful. Psychologist Jordan Peterson recommends asking yourself a question like “What was my contribution to the problem?” Judge Limbaugh’s question — “Will it matter in 20 years?” — is also an effective way of determining the gravity of a problem. Both questions, however, require rigorous honesty. Almost no problem between two people has one cause.

One of the reasons I advocate for a gun safe in every home is that having a firearm in a fast-action safe with a four-button combination requires a person to think about something else, even if only for the moment it takes to punch in the combination. Those few seconds can sometimes produce enough pause for someone to ask him or herself, “What was I thinking?”

Legally Speaking

It is important to note that “I was angry” is never a defense in a case of any criminal act against another person. While a lawyer may be able to explain to a jury why you reacted violently to an emotional situation, the law doesn’t permit your level of anger to become a defense to an assault.

A recent case drives home the point that being angry and using a gun for purposes other than saving innocent life is a very bad idea. A Sanford, Florida, teen, Adrien Green, was allegedly breaking into cars on a gated property when the homeowner saw him. Instead of calling the police and letting them do their job, that homeowner took his firearm outside, yelled at the burglar and then fired shots. When asked if the burglar was armed, the homeowner said, “I don’t know. He just ran, he just ran. He faced me, and I got super scared and my wife was behind me with the baby cause we kept hearing like a big bump. We kept hearing something.”

It is important to note that “I was angry” is never a defense in a case of any criminal act against another person.

Later in the 911 recording, he said he just wanted to scare the burglar off. Unfortunately, one of the “scare” shots the homeowner sent in Green’s direction hit the young man in the back and killed him. Although media reports were calling it a possible “stand-your-ground” case, the law does not apply to defense of property outside the home.

Although damage to property can be maddening, particularly when the property had been broken into previously, it is never the basis to fire a shot. Call 911, get the police involved and be a good witness. Cases like this set back the quest for expanded gun rights and make it more difficult for lawful self-defenders to get permits to carry.

If for no other reason — if you’re not going to think about needlessly injuring another person or spending years or decades in prison for committing a felony and losing your right to firearms ownership — think about how your behavior could impact others’ rights. You — and indeed anyone who carries — need to know when to walk away.

Endnotes

(1) Also colloquially known as, “If you’re vexed, let it rest.”
(2) Batra R, Stayman DM. “The role of mood in advertising effectiveness.” Journal of Consumer Research. 1990;17:203–214.
(3) Garfinkel, Sarah N et al. “Anger in brain and body: the neural and physiological perturbation of decision-making by emotion.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Vol. 11,1 (2016): 150-8. doi:10.1093/scan/nsv099.
(4) “Anger, aggression, and risky behavior: a comparison of high and low anger drivers.” Behaviour Research and Therapy. 2003 Jun;41(6):701-18.

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