The New York Times, always keeping a weather eye for new evidence that guns are dangerous, reported this week that men who handle guns get more stirred up than men who handle children's board games.
The study by psychologists at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., enrolled 30 men and measured the testosterone levels in their saliva. Then the men were divided and given separate tasks. One group was asked to take apart and reassemble a large handgun and then write down instructions on how to put it together. The other group was asked to do the same with the game Mouse Trap.
Afterward, those who handled the gun showed a jump in testosterone levels. Subjects were then asked to drink a cup of water with hot sauce in it and then prepare a similar drink for someone else. Those who handled the gun were more likely to add more hot sauce than those who didn't. This means, according to the paper, that "handling a gun stirs a hormonal reaction in men that primes them for aggression."
Time magazine's Andrew Sullivan gleaned major news here: "A new front has just opened up in the Second Amendment debate. The usual NRA argument is that guns don't kill people; people kill people. I've always been almost-persuaded by this. The missing link is what actually owning or handling a gun does to male psychology. Does it ramp up testosterone all by itself and thereby make firing a gun more likely?"
One could spend all day raising serious questions about the merits of this study. First of all, have you ever tried to put Mouse Trap together? It's really hard, emasculating even, perhaps to the point of causing testosterone to plummet to tea-party-with-your-toddler levels. And why a game at all? Why not a motor or something equally benign but a bit more, you know, manly? And maybe adding extra hot sauce has less to do with aggression than it does with testosterone's effects on a desire for spicy food? Perhaps testosterone levels tend to rise in men invited to participate in a "taste study," only to be handed a big honkin' gat by a total stranger? And what about the ladies? Shall we venture to guess what hormonal fluctuations await women asked to dismantle guns or absurdly complex toys?
But all of this misses the point. A more insidious danger than guns is the rush to medicalize behavior. Let's stipulate that handling a gun causes testosterone levels to rise. Let's also concede that elevated testosterone levels are associated with aggression. So what? Does this tell us anything important or new? Science is learning how to measure all sorts of really interesting things, from the effects of porn on the male brain to the effects of porn on the male brain. Whoops. I guess that answers what those effects are.
Anyway, every day we hear about new studies "revealing" what should have been obvious to sentient beings for generations. A few recent headlines: "Fat kids become fat adults, says new study," "Housewives not as desperate as singles over 40, a new study finds," "Drowsiness, inattention play big role in car accidents, study finds." Every few months, newspapers breathlessly report that - surprise! - men and women are different, children are impressionable, and poisons are bad for you. What next? "Research shows wolverines don't like to be teased"? or "Running with scissors inadvisable, Mayo Clinic reports"?
Folk wisdom has more scientific rigor than we give it credit for. Your grandmother didn't need a double-blind study to tell you that you should wash your hands after you go to the bathroom. And I don't need some paper to tell me that a man will get a small hormonal buzz from getting to play with a gun while the guy next to him is stuck with a lame board game.
The important question is, "So what?" Prohibitionists were correct that alcohol affects the brain a heck of a lot more than handling a gun does. Do we need a new study to tell us that? And when it does, should we bring back Prohibition? So testosterone might jump when men tinker with guns. That no more means responsible men, including cops, can't handle the rush than it means irresponsible men have an excuse when they kill people. The testosterone made me do it! The "NRA argument," as Sullivan puts it, is unchanged.
Long before science conclusively "proves" that human beings are sinful and prone to temptation, we already know exactly that. Identifying the hormones and genes that make this so should not change our views. Science may study humans as mere biological organisms. But civilization and our constitutional order demand that we look at people as something more: as citizens responsible for their own actions first, and as testosterone machines a distant second.