In the wake of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida’s, much has been made of the “Stand Your Ground” law, and the soundness of letting people who feel threatened use deadly force instead of trying to flee. The shooter George Zimmerman wasn’t charged because he claimed that he was protecting himself. But what if holding a gun makes people more likely to feel threatened?
A new study by Notre Dame Assistant Professor of Psychology, James Brockmole, says just that. In five experiments, Brockmole had subjects hold either a toy gun or a ball while he showed them images of people and asked if they were carrying a gun, or a more benign object like a cell phone. He sometimes had the people in the pictures wear ski masks, varied their race, and changed the way that subjects were supposed to react. In every case, the group with the gun in hand was more likely to perceive a threat, though having the toy gun nearby had no effect. The ability to act, he found, was the key. According to the study, holding a gun expands a person’s idea of what is possible, and creates the expectation that others have guns too. In other words, it wasn’t Trayvon’s hoodie that convinced Zimmerman he was a threat; it was the gun Zimmerman was carrying.