Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Do Humans Have the Self-Control to Possess Weapons?

Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Do Humans Have the Self-Control to Possess Weapons?

Article excerpt

"Bang, bang, you're dead" has been uttered by millions of American children for generations. It is typical of the ordinary, angry, murderous thoughts of childhood; variations of it are universal. We expect children to learn to control their anger as they grow up and not to play out their angry wishes in reality. Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen.

Following the many recent dramatic, crazed mass shootings, some commentators have called for restricting gun access for those with mental illness, but psychiatrists have rightly pointed out that murderers, including terror-inducing mass murderers, do not usually have a history of formally diagnosed mental illness. The psychiatrists are right for a reason: The potential for sudden, often unexpected, violence is widespread. This essay will employ a developmental perspective on how people handle anger, and on how we come to distinguish between fantasy and reality, to inform an understanding of gun violence.

Baby hyenas often try to kill their siblings shortly after birth. Human babies do not. They are not only motorically undeveloped, but their emotions appear to be mostly limited to the nonspecific states of distress and satisfaction. Distinct affects, such as anger, differentiate gradually. Babies smile by 2 months. Babies' specific affection for and loyalty to their caregivers comes along a bit later, hence stranger anxiety commonly appears around 9 months. Facial expressions, sounds, and activity that look specifically like anger, and that occur when babies are frustrated or injured, are observed in the second half of the first year of human life. In the second year of life, feelings such as shame and guilt, which are dependent on the development of a distinct sense of self and other, appear. Shame and guilt, along with loving feelings, help form the basis for consideration of others and for the diminishment of young children's omnipotence and egocentricity; they become a kind of social "glue," tempering selfish, angry pursuits and tantrums.

There is a typical developmental sequence of how people come to handle their anger. Younger children express emotions directly, with little restraint; they hit, bite, and scream. Older children should be able to have more impulse control and be able to regulate the motor and verbal expression of their anger to a greater degree. At some point, most also become able to acknowledge their anger and not have to deny it. Adults, in principle, should be able both to inhibit the uncontrolled expression of anger and also, when appropriate, to be able to use anger constructively. How tenuous this accomplishment is, and how often adults can function like overgrown children, can be readily observed at children's sports matches, in which the children are often better behaved than their parents. In short, humans are endowed with the potential for enormous, destructive anger, but also, in our caring for others, a counterbalance to it.

The process of emotional development, and the regulation of anger, is intertwined with the development of the sense of self and of other. Evidence suggests that babies can start to distinguish self and other at birth, but that a full and reliable sense of self and other is a long, complicated developmental process.

The article by pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, MD, "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena--A Study of the First Not-Me Possession," one of the most frequently cited papers in the psychoanalytic literature, addresses this process (Int J Psychoanal. 1953;34[2]89-97). While transitional objects are not a human universal, the process of differentiating oneself from others, of finding out what is me and what is not-me, is. According to Dr. Winnicott, learning what is self and what is other assists babies in their related challenges of distinguishing animate from inanimate, wishes from causes, and fantasy from reality. Mother usually appears when I'm distressed--is she a part of me or a separate being? …

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