The country reacted with shock when protestors brandished assault rifles on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol on April 30th. Their demands? Reopen businesses and end stay-at-home orders issued during the COVID-19 pandemic. But why did they bring guns?

One possibility is simply that they could. Michigan’s laws allowed them to not only openly carry assault weapons, but to bring them inside the capitol building. Some lawmakers wore bullet proof vests while they tired to work during the session of the State Senate. Some of them “felt uncomfortable.” Who wouldn’t?

The internet responded to the protest with an outpouring of humor and ridicule. Photoshopped images replaced the guns with dildos, and one Michigan native tweeted his own version of a “Pure Michigan” ad. “What’s with the guns anyway?,” asks the narrator. “Are they going to shoot the virus?

But is there a connection between coronavirus and guns?

Unfortunately there is, but it is not a direct one. It’s all about fear.

Fear is a tricky thing. Our biology uses fear to help us get safe when we are threatened, and sometimes that means we’ll do anything to feel strong. Our behavior often makes sense to us, even if it seems extreme to others.

That’s because the fear response is deep in our brain circuitry. It happens at a preconscious level, and even changes the way we think. Because the response is unconscious, it takes mindfulness to notice it. If we don’t recognize what fear does, we might think it makes perfect sense to march on the capitol building carrying weapons of intimidation.

But are men with weapons like that actually scared? Yes. That’s why they have the weapons. It’s a fear response designed to make them feel stronger when facing a threat.

Scientists have found how the brain turns on our physical response to fear.

It all starts to make sense when you look at the biology. That’s why a recent study from Nagoya University is so timely.

The study, which was published in Science, has clarified a pathway that scientists have been trying to find for some time now. It’s all about the sympathetic nervous system, home of the fight or flight response.

We’ve known for a long time that when we feel stress, the sympathetic nerve triggers changes in our metabolism. Our temperature, heart rate and blood pressure rise and boost our physical ability to protect ourselves. What we didn’t know is where exactly the circuit was.

To find it, the scientists used tracers to see what happened in the brains of rats when they were bullied by a dominant rat. They found that, “the circuit begins in deep brain areas, called the dorsal peduncular cortex and the dorsal tenia tecta (DP/DTT), that send stress signals to the hypothalamus, a small region in the brain that controls the body’s vital functions.”

The finding is exciting for the future treatment of stress-related disorders. Finding the brain pathways behind post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or psychosomatic disorders may lead to new treatment options.

But is also helps us understand Michigan’s armed protest.

The stress response is all about safety.

The point of the stress response is to get us to safety. At the beginning of COVID-19, we very rationally acted like the mouse in the illustration and fled to the safety of our homes. The stress response allows two options: flee or fight. When we hide out at home, we don’t exactly feel robustly strong. We feel vulnerable and uncertain about the future.

Many of us value the stay-at-home strategy as the rational and courageous way to protect each other from a pandemic. And yet, facing a threat as contagious and deadly as the novel coronavirus makes some of us feel small like, well… mice.

And that’s where guns come in. We don’t want to feel like the mouse, we’d rather feel like the cat. When animals are afraid and choose to fight, they do what they can to appear bigger and more threatening. Humans carry guns for this very reason: it makes them feel big and strong.

When we arm ourselves, we are sending a clear message that we are ready to fight. The wisdom comes in making sure we are fighting the correct enemy.

The question remains, who are we fighting?