NEW YORK (AP) — No one knows what led a Florida neighborhood watch captain to shoot Trayvon Martin, a teenager carrying no weapon.

But a new study raises an intriguing question: Could the watch captain have been fooled into thinking the youth was armed in part because he himself was holding a gun?

In the study, volunteers who held a toy gun and glimpsed fleeting images of people holding an object were biased toward thinking the object was a gun.

It’s another indication that the brain shapes what we perceive in the world beyond the information that comes in through our eyes, said James Brockmole of the University of Notre Dame, who did the work with psychologist Jessica Witt at Purdue University.

In a telephone interview, Brockmole stressed he had no inside information on the Feb. 26 shooting of 17-year-old Martin, who was shot and killed in a gated community in Sanford, a suburb of Orlando. The neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, said he shot the teen in self-defense because the youth attacked him. The case has drawn outrage and protests, and the federal Department of Justice said Monday it will investigate.

Brockmole said it’s possible that Zimmerman’s perception might have been skewed by being armed.

Race may have also played a role. Martin is black; Zimmerman’s family says he is Hispanic. Past research suggests that people can be more likely to perceive a poorly seen object as a gun if it’s held by a black person than by a white person, experts say.

Zimmerman has not spoken publicly. The police report does not mention whether he thought Martin had a firearm. But during his patrol of the neighborhood in his SUV, Zimmerman called 911 and told a police dispatcher that he was following Martin. “We’ve had some break-ins my neighborhood. …There is a really suspicious guy.”

Then a bit later, he said the youth was approaching and “he’s got something in his hands.”

In the study which was carried out well before the shooting, undergraduates at Notre Dame and Purdue glimpsed scenes of people holding objects and had to decide quickly whether the object was a gun. The results showed they were biased toward thinking so if they themselves were holding a toy gun, rather than a plastic ball. Just having a gun nearby didn’t make a difference, researchers found.

Why is that? Brockmole said people are primed to act in the world rather than just passively see it. So their minds have to contain information both about what they see and what they might do in response. Evidently, each kind of information can influence the other, he said.

He said the work, which is set to be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, is not intended to support gun control. But he said it suggests that people should know that when they hold a gun “that might change how you’re going to interpret what’s around you.”

Brockmole’s findings make sense, said Evan Risko, who studies perception and attention at Arizona State University. “Our perception is influenced by a number of different factors, and that can have important consequences,” he said.

Dennis Proffitt, who studies visual perception at the University of Virginia, said there are many reasons why one person might think another is armed, such as if he is worried about his own safety or if he thinks the other person is a robber. The effect of holding a gun oneself “could be part of the story” in Florida, he said.


Associated Press writer Mike Schneider in Sanford, Fla., contributed to this report.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Comments (10)
  1. Erik says:

    Dude, witnesses say a guy 6″ taller than Zimmerman just beat him into the ground, breaking his nose and smashing his head on the sidewalk — I don’t think it mattered whether or not Treyvon had a gun.

  2. nurse ratched says:

    What a horrible article TOTALLY UNRELATED to the headline and spread of misinformation relating to the case, which you have no factual evidence on hand to be writing about. Lets incorporate a small tidbit about how kids like veggie tales as well to make this more well rounded.

  3. Don't be bothered with facts, like the Duke Lacross case says:

    Did the “study”…LOL!!! Also include the respondents having the back of their heads smashed with a full can of Arizona Tea?

    After the “study respondents” fell to the ground, did this LOL…”study”…include the respondents having their heads grabbed, and then having the respondents heads smashed into the sidewalk?

    And while this is happening, is this when the “study” respondents are asked to make the identification?

  4. Eduardo says:

    And might those that perceive a black man as having a gun more often think so because of the extremely high rate of violent crime committed by young black men.?

    1. solid citizen says:

      Why would any one in Florida feel threatened at night by a teenage black male? Just ask Shawn Tyson

      Did Trayvon actually pay for the Skittles? .. what does the convenience store security camera show? If he actually paid for the merchandise, it would be a good example for the flash mobs that periodically descend upon small businesses

      Quo warranto, B.O.?

  5. John says:

    >>> No one knows what led a Florida neighborhood watch captain to shoot Trayvon Martin

    Having his head smashed against a concrete sidewalk?

  6. imasahm says:

    What would dampen the flames that OBAMA, jackson and sharpton, et al. are continuing to stoke, is if Zimmerman’s lawyer would put the facts out there … ALL THE FACTS. The reason this is such news at all is because OBAMA wrongly assumed that “Zimmerman” was a WHITE guy. If obama considers himself BLACK, then George, who is half mexican, can be considered MEXICAN. All that aside, Zimmerman’s attorney needs to release all the facts to put this at rest. But you sure don’t hear about the three black guys that set the young white boy on fire, do you? Or any of the other black on white crimes being committed left and right!!!

  7. big bob says:

    are you kidding me ! what study did they do lol so his gun tricked him into killing him because he though he had a gun. sounds like a whole bunch of b.s. I hit my neighbor on the head with my hammer cause I thought that he might have had a hammer under his coat.

  8. don says:

    Oh that article is just awesome. If you hold a gun in your hand other people hands appear to be holding a gun as well.

    It sounds like all gun owners walk around holding their guns in plan view!

    First, Florida is a Concealed Carry State, no open weapons of any kind. It is actually illegal to have a weapon in the open, unless you are fishing or hunting.

    Secondly, if Martin had seen a gun, I doubt he would have tried to beat Zimmerman with a can of Arizona Tea.

    Point Three, Concealed Weapons training is all about “NOT” pointing your weapon toward anything you don’t intend to kill, and actually it should be kept holstered until you use it for that purpose. If that weapon is unholstered, you intend to use it.

    I doubt Martin ever knew what hit him, I would bet Zimmerman pulled the trigger while he was on his back getting his head bashed in.

    Zimmerman should have left the police work to the uniformed officers. If for no other reason, because he had a weapon on him. Don’t put yourself in a position that you may need to draw your weapon, sit in your car and wait for the police.

    1. Dr Iownyou says:

      Nice response. I agree with almost everything you said. Additionally, Martian “STOOD HIS GROUND” HE DIDN’T HAVE A DUTY TO RETREAT. Which would mean if this “law” were remotely justifiable Zimmerman would be sitting in jail for murder Google the article where Zimmerman’s former coworker describes him as Jeckle and Hyde and how he was fired for being overly aggressive @ a security job. His three arrests information that reduces his credibility to 0.

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