Relationships, red flags and gun violence

Westborough, MA July 23, 2014  The pendulum of public opinion on gun ownership swings back and forth between those with the fierce belief about the inalienable right to bear arms granted by the U.S. Constitution and those who believe intuitively that fewer guns will result in fewer deaths.  The argument is not a simple one especially when it comes to people suffering with mental illness.  I read a paper authored by Liza Gold, M.D. in which Dr. Gold, a psychiatric physician is quoted as saying “most people with mental illness are not dangerous, and most dangerous people are not mentally ill” (Gold, 2013).  I agree with this point and have written about it in the past.  More recently, mass shootings have occurred when the perpetrator had a history of major depression and was receiving treatment.  These isolated cases fan the flames of misattribution that mental illness and gun violence are correlated.  It is important to remember the vast majority of persons receiving treatment for emotional problems are not violent.  It is true that fewer guns may result in fewer gun-related homicides but not necessarily the rate of death itself.

There is no single road map to understanding the complexity of human behavior in general and homicide in particular. If there were the rate of domestic violence homicide might be reduced to zero”, according to Michael Sefton (Sefton, 2013) .  Arguably, there are often signs or “red flags” that forecast the increased likelihood of a violent outburst. These include an increase frequency of aggression or threats of aggression, advanced substance abuse, marginalized demeanor, stalking, and defiance of an active protection from abuse order.  The presence of firearms in the homes of these individuals raises the risk of domestic violence homicide or DVH across the board.  “It is much easier to be anti-gun than to be anti-murderer, and to correctly structure the murder prevention methodology around the manner of murder (person) rather than mode of murder (bomb, arson, knife, gun, person, motor vehicle, strangulation, rope, poison, drowning, etc.)  absolutely necessary to keep people alive” according to Brian Gagan (2014).

As a psychologist, I am interested in the underlying triggers of aggression and the continuum of violence among intimate partners.  Those who would abuse grow unpredictably violent based on their own idiosyncratic attribution of a spouses motive and an internalized need for power and control.  The emotional inequity in these violent dyads calls for stopping the cycle of abuse early in the formative stage of the relationship.  Containment of individual abusers should take place when this fails and red flags such as physical violence, threats of death or threats of suicide are made.  Initially containment might be in the form of behavioral support, substance abuse education, and anger managment.


Gagan, B. (2014) Personal communication.

Gold, L. (2013) Gun Violence: Psychiatry, Risk Assessment, and Social Policy. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Volume 41, November.

Sefton, M. (2013) Roadmap to violence. Blog: Taken 7-14-2014.

Sefton, M. (2005) The Evil that Kid’s Do. Exlibris, Philadelphia.