When judging a home-invasion self-defense shooting, jurors expect women to be gun-incompetent and men to be gun-competent. They more often convict and give longer sentences to anyone who violates either expectation. Jurors are also influenced by seeing a weapon as “evil-looking”. They more often convict and give longer sentences to users of military-looking rifles, pump-action shotguns, or semiautomatic pistols than respectively, to traditional-looking rifles, double-barreled shotguns, or revolvers. Finally, female jurors are harsher than males.
For well over a decade, ever since Massad Ayoob published “Firepower: how much is too much?” in Combat Handguns, (2002), 21:4, 8-9, 90-91, researchers have investigated the impact of weapon-appearance and gender on jurors’ decision-making in self-defense trials. A dozen studies later, a consensus has emerged. The results are reviewed and updated in: Meyer, et al. “Juries, Gender, and Assault Weapons” in Journal of Applied Social Psychology, (2009), 39: 945–972. Those results are also summarized online at: Will It Hurt Me in Court? by Glenn Meyer.
Here is a typical scenario presented to mock jurors:
You (the defendant) were awakened at night by a noise. You retrieved your weapon and went downstairs to investigate. In the living room you saw a young, fit burglar stealing your electronic entertainment system. He did not have a visible weapon. You pointed your gun at him from 15 feet away and ordered, “Don’t move!” He turned towards you and responded with a curse and threatened to kill you. You fired twice, killing him. You immediately called 911 and told police what happened, as described above. You are now charged with homicide.
The prosecution argues that the homeowner had the criminal at a disadvantage so there was no need to kill him. The defendant homeowner could have retreated and let the unarmed burglar take the property. Alternatively the shooter could have told the thief to leave empty-handed. At worst, the killer could have simply held the unarmed, misguided young man at gunpoint until the police arrived.
Defense counsel argues that the homeowner feared for his life. When the thief turned he could have rushed the homeowner and closed the distance in under a second. A disparity of force existed due to burglar’s physique and musculature. The castle doctrine allows a homeowner to confront a criminal home invader with deadly force and not have a duty to retreat.
Without changing anything above, scenarios were presented to many groups of mock jurors, varying only the gender of the juror, the gender of the homeowner, and the weapon used. The results are startling.
All other factors being equal…
1. Female jurors convict more often and give harsher sentences than male jurors. Apparently, women jurors dislike violence and so punish the sole survivor of the incident. [Diensbier, et al. “Effects of weapons…” Basic and Applied Social Psychology (1998), 20:2, 93-102.]
2. Male homeowners who demonstrated lack of firearms skill were more often convicted and given harsher sentences than skilled men were. On the other hand, female homeowners who demonstrated great firearms skill were more often convicted and given harsher sentences than unskilled women were. Apparently, defendants are punished if they violate, in either direction, the stereotype of manly males and helpless females. [Branscombe, et al. “Social inferences…” Aggressive Behavior (1993) 19:2, 113-24.]
3. Homeowners who used “evil-looking” guns were more often convicted and given harsher sentences than those who used “traditional-looking” guns. Specifically, an AR-15 user was more likely to be convicted (and also given a longer sentence) than a Ruger-14 user. The user of a pump-action shotgun (Winchester 1300) was more often convicted and given a longer sentence than someone using a double-barrel Winchester. And users of semi-automatic pistols (G-19) were more often convicted and given longer sentence than revolver (S&W 642) users. [Note: Given the two-rounds-fired scenario, both weapons in each pair are functionally identical. The only difference between them is cosmetic.]
4. No significant differences were found regarding the shooter’s social class nor that of the juror.
In short, all objective factors being equal, the homeowner most likely to be exonerated or to receive a light sentence for a home-invasion self-defense shooting would a well-trained male with a Ruger-14, a double-barrelled shotgun, or a revolver, and judged by a male jury. The person most likely to be convicted or to receive a harsh sentence would be a well-trained female with an AR-15, a pump-action shotgun, or a semiautomatic pistol, and judged by a female jury.
Here is the abstract of the original paper, Meyer, et al. “Juries, Gender, and Assault Weapons” in Journal of Applied Social Psychology, (2009), 39: 945–972:
Firearms appearance can have psychological import in legal proceedings by keying aggressive ideations, impacting sentencing and gender-based attributions. We presented mock jurors with a homeowner’s defensive gun use. Reasonable arguments were for shooting or not in the scenario by the defendant. The firearm varied in type. Assault rifle use led to harsher legal outcomes than did other firearms. A female defendant was at more risk than a male. In the last experiment, a police shooting scenario was tested. In that case, the male officer was at more risk than the female officer when wielding the assault rifle. Weapons and gender interactions were, for the most part, congruent with social cognitive theories of attribution and weapons priming of aggressive ideation.
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Frank W. Sweet is an NRA-certified firearms instructor who teaches the safe and effective use of handguns for self-defense. He was awarded an M.A. in Civil War Studies in military history from American Military University in 2001. He is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), Six Gems of Forgotten Civil War History (ISBN 9780939479023), and of numerous published historical essays. To receive a schedule of his firearms training courses, email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The information above should not be construed as legal advice.
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