Gender and Firearm Shape Influence Jurors

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 fwsweet@ccwvslaw.org. The information above should not be construed as legal advice.


Other Backintyme sites: Essays on the U.S. Color Line Armed Citizens and the Law
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6 Responses to “Gender and Firearm Shape Influence Jurors”

  1. A.D. Powell Says:

    Frank, if you could write “ideal” laws regarding gun ownership and when guns can be used, what would they be?

    How would you answer this guy?

    http://oursalon.ning.com/profiles/blogs/a-jewish-reaction-to-the-killings-in-connecticut

  2. Frank W Sweet Says:

    The person’s opinions are a mix of ignorance and stupidity. Ignorance evidenced by “100-round magazines”. This is as silly as opposing exploding bullets or guns that shoot around corners.

    Stupid because his solution for people who laugh at laws is to make more laws! The following photo says it best:
    special kind
    Criminology is not rocket science, but it requires at least introductory reading.

    On average, the US has one school shooting every 60 days. The solution to school shootings has been thoroughly tested and proven. Not in Europe. Europe suffers proportionately more school shootings than the US. In Israel. Israel has not had a school shooting in nearly 40 years. Not one! If he wants to learn why, I suggest that he visit http://jpfo.org

    I shall address legislation in a future blog. But let me ask this: What in your opinion would be the goal of such laws? What social benefit would they seek?

  3. A.D. Powell Says:

    I really don’t know what laws we should have involving guns. I’m trying to learn.

  4. Frank W Sweet Says:

    Sorry, A.D. I was not clear. My question was not “What gun laws would you propose?”, but “What goal would you aim for?” For example:

    • If the goal were socialist property redistribution, a useful law would be to punish any gun owner who refuses to donate half of his guns to the poor.
    • If the goal were to give capitalism free rein, a useful law would be to repeal all environmental regulation affecting gun manufacturers.
    • If the goal were to stop predatory violent sreet crime (robbery, murder, rape), a useful law would be to punish any adult who goes out in public unarmed. (as Gainesville GA, General Longstreet’s home town, does).
    • If the goal were to stop domestic violence, a useful law would be to confiscate the gun (and badge) from any police officer who refuses to enforce a restraining order.
    • If the goal were to stop U.S. schools from being killing zones every 60 days, one might repeal the laws that punish trained, licensed, armed teachers and administrators (as Israel did almost 40 years ago).
    • If the goal were to attract mass-murderers to, say, attorneys’ offices, a useful law would be to decree that attorneys’ offices are henceforth “gun-free zones”.

    My question was prompted by my inability to propose legislation without knowing what specific goal you had in mind.

    Given a goal within the realm of possibility (no “make politicians truthful”), I would be glad to propose legislation aimed at that goal.

  5. A.D. Powell Says:

    Let’s start with cases where someone decides to massacre a bunch of people a la Newtown, Aurora, etc. Before the shootings, the shooter was not usually defined as a “criminal” (no record) or mentally ill (People had suspicions, but he was not certified as mentally ill). I don’t know why the shooters (usually young males, it seems) wanted to commit suicide AND take a bunch of innocent strangers with them). What kind of laws can we have, if any, to minimize the likelihood that such people will obtain guns (especially the kind of guns that make it very easy to kill a large number of people in a very short time)?

    http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/12/17/nyregion/connecticuts-rules-for-purchasing-this-gun.html

  6. Frank W Sweet Says:

    What kind of laws would minimize the likelihood that undiagnosed crazies will obtain guns?

    Considering that he stole the guns, the laws against larceny obviously did not work. Considering that he was under 21, the federal law against minors acquiring handguns did not work. Considering that he took the guns to the school, the state law against carrying weapons without a license clearly did not work. Given that he smashed his way through a locked glass door, the law against breaking and entering did not work, etc., etc. Unfortunately, I can think of no law that would have been any more effective than the ones already broken.

    You seek a law that prevents an act. But no law can ever prevent anything. From speeding to murder, laws can only punish, not prevent. Threat of punishment might deter someone (and thus prevent an act). But what punishment could possibly deter a suicide?

    Why not make it harder for everyone to buy a gun? Because this just creates a black market. In countries (like Mexico, Brazil, Great Britain, or Australia) where it is a serious felony for any civilian to own any sort of firearm, millions of people have guns, and you can buy a gun on any street corner. The stricter the law, and the harsher the punishment, the more lucrative the black market becomes until (as in the nations mentioned) the police and military are the main suppliers, selling their issued weapons for profit. As with liquor-drinking or drug-taking, unenforceable feel-good laws just make a problem worse by creating a black market.

    Regarding guns that make it easy to kill a large number of people in a short time, current federal law accomplishes this. It is precisely because semi-automatic guns (one shot per trigger-pull) are legal in the U.S. that no black market exists for automatic weapons, so neither the police nor the military have any incentive to sell theirs. That is why machine guns, sub-machine guns, and rifles that rapid-fire as long as you hold the trigger back are illegal and nonexistent among U.S. civilians but illegal and ubiquitous in the countries named above,