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Jurors, verdicts, guns, and a tragedy we’ll see over and over

Sunday, July 14, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

NotGuilty1The Jury Room strives to be an objective resource for information about the issues we find in research and in the news. That does not mean that we are without opinions, obviously– we have beliefs and values and points of view just like everyone. And today seems like a good day to discuss the news in that light.

The Zimmerman verdict is in. A lot of people are celebrating, and a lot of people are deeply troubled. But what is most important is that the jurors who were called to serve discharged their duties with seriousness and a commitment to justice. I have no doubt that this is exactly what they did, and they are to be thanked.

The most confounding issue in this case (to my mind) wasn’t nearly as prominent in this case as it might have been. It wasn’t about race, it was about guns. And it was kept less prominent because the jurors followed the law. It is the law I criticize, not the jurors. Laws that permit virtually anyone to carry a gun are going to make this sort of confrontation and tragedy inevitable. Extreme versions of ‘carry law’ such as the ‘Stand Your Ground‘ statute are an invitation to tragedy.

Why? Isn’t everyone entitled to protect themselves? Their loved ones? Shouldn’t the average, law-abiding citizen be just as entitled to use deadly force as a criminal assailant? It sounds hard to dispute on ‘fairness’ grounds, but it overlooks human nature.

People who are carrying guns are more likely to take chances that people who are unarmed do not. The applicable laws in Florida negated the questions that a lot of people found most troubling:

Why would Zimmerman defy the police and confront Martin?”; 

“Wasn’t Zimmerman provoking a confrontation when he challenged Martin?”; 

“Isn’t it wrong for a citizen to act as if they are a police officer?” 

But the laws of Florida, and many other places, blur these distinctions and invite tragedy. You can pretty well make judgments for yourself in Florida that in different times or different places must be made by the authorities. That includes knowingly putting yourself in a position that could be risky, or behaving in a way that provokes retaliation, and then legally respond to it with deadly force. Bizarro-world.

Perceptions shift when you are holding a gun. We wrote about this in our article titled “The Hoodie Effect” which examined what the social sciences research could tell us about the Martin/Zimmerman story. Here is an excerpt from that article:

“New research shows that if you carry a gun yourself, you are much more likely to believe others are holding guns. It’s more than a sense of suspicion–you actually see innocent objects (for example, a shoe, a cell phone or a soda can in this study) as guns (Witt & Brockmole, 2012).” [snip] “In other words, racial biases can result in intensifying pre-existing stereotypes when we identify the person holding the object as more of a threat. The researchers quote the familiar saying “when you hold a hammer, everything looks like a nail“. They point out that when you have a gun you are more likely to see situations as justifying shooting. Obviously, in this situation George Zimmerman had a weapon in hand. By his own report, he did not know if Trayvon Martin was armed. He told the 9-1-1 operator he believed Trayvon Martin was “black” and “really suspicious, looks like he’s on drugs“. Zimmerman’s actions would not have been possible without that weapon and having the weapon made him more likely to see a hoodie-wearing teen wielding a cell phone, iced tea and Skittles as a threat to his own safety. He reacted by pulling the trigger.”

Other research we reviewed for that article told us that when you think someone has a gun–they appear more threatening to you. “According to Science Daily, “new research confirms what scrawny thugs have always known“. Holding a gun makes you look bigger to others (Fessler, Holbrook, & Snyder, 2012). George Zimmerman is reportedly 5’8″ (shorter than the US average at 5’9.5″) and weighs about 185 (again lower than the US average at 191). While he would likely not describe himself as “scrawny“, he is under-tall and under-weight compared to US averages. This research says that when observers know someone has “a gun or a large kitchen knife“, we perceive them to be “taller, larger and more muscular” than those with more “mundane objects“.”

The background story on George Zimmerman suggests he was prone to overstep his role as a citizen and as a ‘neighborhood watch captain’. But as the research suggests, this is a distortion and over-reach that is predictable and inevitable when you are carrying a gun. So if laws allow people to carry guns anywhere for any reason, many people are going to feel safe taking unnecessary risks– they will feel less reluctant to do risky things– because they feel more powerful.

Would Mr. Zimmerman have stepped out of his car if he did not have a gun? Not likely.

Would he have observed from a safe distance and waited for the police if he observed something suspicious? Almost certainly.

But when guns enter the picture, otherwise sensible and cautious people start acting recklessly.

The gun debate is usually cast in terms of personal protection, which makes sense. The tragedy comes when it ignores the limitations of human nature. Very few people, and no one who has joined this public discussion to our observation, appreciates the mental and emotional shift that occurs when people feel protected by a gun. Feeling backed up by a gun results in a shift toward riskier behavior.

And as long as we ignore that reality, we will see this tragedy replayed over and over.

Witt JK, & Brockmole JR (2012). Action alters object identification: wielding a gun increases the bias to see guns. Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance, 38 (5), 1159-67 PMID: 22506781

Fessler DM, Holbrook C, & Snyder JK (2012). Weapons make the man (larger): formidability is represented as size and strength in humans. PLoS ONE, 7 (4) PMID: 22509247 

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