The Situationist

The Psychology of Guns and Race

Posted by Adam Benforado on November 2, 2010

I have just posted my forthcoming article, Quick on the Draw: Implicit Bias and the Second Amendment, on SSRN.  The abstract appears below:

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.

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about racism and guns—centered on a conception of humans as autonomous, self-transparent, rational actors—are outdated and strongly contradicted by recent evidence from the mind sciences.

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.

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.

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.

To download a copy of the entire paper, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,’ “He’s a Banana-Eating Monkey, but I’m Not a Racist,” Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Policing Racial Bias” - Video,”A Situationist Considers the Implications of Simpson Sentencing,” Guilt and Racial Prejudice,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” and “Banaji & Greenwald on Edge – Part IV.”

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