It’s About the Gun

The country has been riveted by the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case in Florida. Zimmerman, it was announced today, now faces 2nd degree murder charges and the possibility of life in prison. Trayvon Martin… well everyone now knows his fate.

Two families ripped apart in the course of six minutes behind some condos in Sanford Florida. Because Martin was black and Zimmerman was not (he is of mixed race background) there are many who make this to be all about racism. It’s not.

It’s about the gun.

What happens to a man when he carries a gun with him and goes looking for trouble in his neighborhood? Does he behave differently than if he was unarmed? The answer, according to psychologists James Brockmole (Notre Dame) and Jessica Witt (Purdue) is a resounding “Yes!”

In their study (published in an upcoming Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance) Brockmole and Witt cite the tragic 1999 case of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man who was shot 41 times by New York City police when they mistook the wallet he was trying to show them for a gun. But the study’s findings also seem relevant in the wake of Trayvon Martin shooting. The man who shot him, Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, had been patrolling Sanford’s suburban streets with a handgun.

With a gun in his hand, was Zimmerman more likely to assume — as this new study suggests — that Martin was also armed? And if everything is more likely to look like a gun when you’re carrying one, shouldn’t we be rethinking our permissive concealed weapons laws?

“The familiar saying goes that when you hold a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” says Brockmole. “The apparent harmlessness of this expression fades when one considers what happens when a person holds a gun.”

Brockmole, who specializes in human cognition and how the visual world guides behavior, said he and Witt chose guns for this latest study because they offer a dramatic example of how the presence of an object may not only alter the way we see and perceive information, but also our behavior.

“A gun certainly changes what action choices you make,” said Brockmole.

But only, interestingly, if the gun is in someone’s hand. When the gun was simply nearby but not in the hands of the subjects, the subjetcs were not more likely to jump to the conclusion that the people in the images were armed.

This study also found that the race of the people in the images did not play a significant role in how the students’ responded, but that finding may have been because race was not central to the study’s investigation. “It’s clear [from other research] that race does matter,” said Brockmole.

I believe that the gun was responsible for George Zimmerman having the courage to get out of his truck and confront Martin. What happened next is irrelevant to me, because it was precipitated by Zimmerman getting out of his truck.

For those who think that this is a personal attack on their second Amendment right to bear arms, it isn’t. It is a reasonable conclusion drawn from common sense and published scientific research that says when we have a gun in our hands we act differently. That difference cost Trayvon Martin his life. The question remains: should we consider this before creating new laws that allow more people to walk around more places with more guns in their pockets?

What do you think?

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A Post Script:
Here are a couple of media clips to listen to and watch. The first two are two audio clips from our radio show (Your Family Matters). They are two halves of a 17 minute conversation about this very issue from March 31 and include a well-known pastor in Detroit’s inner city Christian community, Pastor Emory Moss.

YourFamilyMatters TrayvonMartin 1

YourFamilyMatters TrayvonMartin 2

The second is a clip from a recent Meet The Press where Bill Cosby puts a more folksy charm to the same point…

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