President Trump generally responds to mass shootings by talking about mental illness. As a psychologist, I note that he gets it almost right. He just fails to correctly identify the patient.
The patient is America, and the illness is addiction. Our nation is addicted to guns, with increasingly deadly consequences.
Wherever you find addiction, there you find denial. The alcoholic who says, “I can quit any time I want,” and the gambling addict who says, “If I hit it this time, everything will work out,” are in the same boat as those who say, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” They are all addicts in denial, refusing to see the overwhelming evidence of the damage caused by their behavior.
When allowed to continue unchecked, addictions destroy lives.
The neuroscience of addiction is the same regardless of the addictive behavior or substance. The brain doesn’t care if it’s porn addiction, shopping addiction, cigarette addiction, video game addiction or whatever you like, including gun addiction.
Here’s how it works: Dopamine is the brain’s neurotransmitter that is released when you expect a reward – when you expect pleasure. The brain is flooded with dopamine when a shooter gets ready to fire a gun. Firing a gun releases endorphins – the pleasure hormones – the same ones we experience with sex, with taking certain substances, and with other enjoyable activities. Pleasure (BANG! and endorphins) follows anticipation so quickly and reliably, that the brain easily learns to connect the psychological loop: guns – dopamine – pleasure/endorphins. The psychological loop is compelling, and some brains become preoccupied with seeking more dopamine. More guns.
The desire for more is another defining characteristic of addiction. The addict develops tolerance and requires more to get the same rush. Americans own more guns in absolute and relative terms than any other nation. We own about half the world’s guns although we are barely 5 percent of the world’s population.
And some of us own a great many guns, indeed. Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas concert murderer who committed the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, was found to have an arsenal of 47 deadly weapons. That put him in the 3 percent of gun owners who own large numbers of guns. This is exactly what addiction theory predicts - some users will seek more guns, bigger guns, with more firepower, in order to achieve the feelings they seek.
When President Trump visited the hospital where some of the victims of the latest school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, were being treated, he verbally paid his respects to the doctors. A more meaningful show of respect from the president would be heeding the doctors’ words about gun policy.
Organizations representing nearly half a million physicians and medical students, including family physicians, pediatricians and psychiatrists, called on the president and Congress to do the following:
• Call gun violence what it is, a national public health epidemic.
• Fund appropriate research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as part of the FY 2018 Omnibus spending package.
• Establish constitutionally appropriate restrictions on the manufacturing and sale, for civilian use, of large-capacity magazines and firearms with features designed to increase their rapid and extended killing capacity.
We need real leaders to take action. Thoughts and prayers alone won’t cure the country’s lethal addiction.