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Posted 10.06.04

Exposure to Firearms Elicits Aggression, MU Researcher Finds

Hunting Experiences Results in Different Reactions to Hunting vs. Assault Weapons

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- For many Americans, guns bring thoughts of aggression and hostility because they tend to be viewed as instruments used to hurt or kill people. A team of researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia and Iowa State University, attempting to answer the question of whether individual levels of experience with firearms impacts reactions to weapons, found that non-hunters become more hostile and aggressive in the presence of hunting and assault guns while hunters become more hostile and aggressive only in the presence of assault guns.

"When people see a weapon, thoughts about aggression and hostility automatically come to mind, and aggressive thoughts are one pathway to aggressive behavior," said Bruce Bartholow, an MU assistant professor of psychology. "Our findings support the idea that aggressive responses in the presence of guns depend upon both the type of gun and the person's level of prior experience with guns."

Bartholow and his colleagues conducted three experiments examining how hunters and non-hunters reacted to firearms. The first experiment showed that compared to non-hunters, males with prior hunting experience had more positive emotional reactions to hunting guns, and more easily distinguished hunting guns from guns intended for killing people. In the second experiment, 188 males viewed pictures of hunting guns and assault guns, along with aggressive and non-aggressive words shown briefly on a computer. Their task was to read the words as quickly as they could. In the final experiment, 169 males completed a task that measured aggressive behavior while either an assault gun or a hunting gun was in their peripheral view.

For all three experiments, the pictures of hunting guns were more likely to produce hostile thoughts and aggressive behaviors among non-hunters, whereas pictures of assault guns were more likely to produce aggressive thoughts and behaviors among hunters. Bartholow was surprised that the non-hunters expressed more negative reactions to hunting guns than to assault rifles. He thought this finding could reflect negative attitudes toward hunting held by some of the non-hunters in the experiments.

"These studies have clear implications for current discussions on gun ownership as well as debates concerning how exposure to media violence affects aggressive behavior," Bartholow said. "Our results support the idea that the presence of assault weapons can increase aggression and violence, even when they are not used in committing an aggressive act. However, they also suggest important distinctions in how people react to guns intended for sport compared to guns whose sole purpose is killing people."

Bartholow’s study will be published soon in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.


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