The Situationist

Race, Guns, and the Danger of Private Law Enforcement

Posted by Adam Benforado on March 21, 2012

It is heartbreaking to read the details that are emerging concerning the killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.

Various theories have been advanced to explain how Trayvon, an unarmed African-American teenager, was shot in the chest by a neighborhood watch captain in a gated community.  Some have focused on the potential bad disposition of the shooter, while others have cast Trayvon as a potential aggressor.  But the most compelling explanation may relate to the impact of implicit racial bias.

Indeed, the tragedy of this case may ultimately come down to a toxic combination of negative stereotypes (linking blacks and crime) and a culture increasingly encouraging private law enforcement.

A little over a year ago, I wrote an article (Quick on the Draw: Implicit Bias and the Second Amendment) that takes up this precise topic.  Below is the abstract:

African Americans face a significant and menacing threat, but it is not the one that has preoccupied the press, pundits, and policy makers in the wake of several bigoted murders and a resurgent white supremacist movement. While hate crimes and hate groups demand continued vigilance, if we are truly to protect our minority citizens, we must shift our most urgent attention from neo-Nazis stockpiling weapons to the seemingly benign gun owners among us – our friends, family, and neighbors – who show no animus toward African Americans and who profess genuine commitments to equality.

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Our commonsense narratives about racism and guns – centered on a conception of humans as autonomous, self-transparent, rational actors – are outdated and strongly contradicted by recent evidence from the mind sciences.

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Advances in implicit social cognition reveal that most people carry biases against racial minorities beyond their conscious awareness. These biases affect critical behavior, including the actions of individuals performing shooting tasks. In simulations, Americans are faster and more accurate when firing on armed blacks than when firing on armed whites, and faster and more accurate in electing to hold their fire when confronting unarmed whites than when confronting unarmed blacks. Yet, studies suggest that people who carry implicit racial bias may be able to counteract its effects through training.

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Given recent expansions in gun rights and gun ownership – and the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of private citizens who already use firearms in self-defense each year – this is reason for serious concern. While police officers often receive substantial simulation training in the use of weapons that, in laboratory experiments, appears to help them control for implicit bias, members of the public who purchase guns are under no similar practice duties.

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In addressing this grave danger, states and local governments should require ongoing training courses for all gun owners similar to other existing licensing regimes. Such an approach is unlikely to run into constitutional problems and is more politically tenable than alternative solutions.

If you’d like to read a free copy of the entire article, click here.

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One Response to “Race, Guns, and the Danger of Private Law Enforcement”

  1. [...] Race, Guns, and the Danger of Private Law Enforcement [...]

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