The Great American Gun Control Debate has entered a new phase, an era of public relations. The National Rifle Assn., long a strident but effective lobby against gun-control legislation, has recently gone Madison Avenue. Full-page ads are appearing not in the American Rifleman but in metropolitan dailies normally regarded by opponents of gun control as the enemy camp. The advertisements speak with the sophisticated simplicity of approach that is the mark of a true professional.
"What does a convenience store clerk think just before he is attacked?" reads the headline in one full-page advertisement that ran recently. The question is answered in the text:
"He has no time to think. Instead, his instinct to survive takes over as he attempts to defend himself. He deserves a fighting chance in the face of vicious criminal assault. That's why our Constitution guarantees his right to own a firearm. A right that can be as precious as life itself."
Now this may be wonderful advertising, but it is terrible advice to store clerks. Resisting the armed robber is far more likely to lead to a store clerk's death than save his life, and for reasons that the National Rifle Assn. would not find comforting.
In the United States, robbery is the single most important cause of homicides committed by strangers, and commercial robbery is a special danger. In our recently published study of robbery in Chicago, James Zuehl and I found that a robbery occurring in a commercial setting like a convenience store was about six times as likely to lead to a victim death as robbery that takes place in the street.
One reason commercial robbery was so much more dangerous was the presence of guns. Most street robbers in Chicago do not carry guns, but about two-thirds of the people who attempt to rob stores in Chicago are carrying guns, and the fact that robbers with guns are much more likely to kill their victims as robbers with other weapons is one reason why store clerks are placed in peril.
With risks like these, the NRA might ask, why not just even things up by having clerks reach for guns?
Statistics show that advising store clerks to try to resist armed robbers is like trying to put out a kitchen fire with a gallon can of gasoline. The evidence is overpowering; about 8% of all Chicago robberies involve the active resistance of their victims, that is, one out of 12 robberies. But the victim was resisting the robber in more than half of the robberies that lead to the victim's death in our study. The majority of all killings happen in the one out of 12 cases where resistance occurs.
The bottom line is that the victim who actively resists a commercial robbery is more than 40 times as likely to be killed in a robbery as the victim who cooperates. One interesting confirmation of this is a difference between the sexes. Female victims, who resist less, are killed in commercial robberies far less often than males.
There are lots of good reasons to support a statistical finding like this: the robber's gun is out and threatening the victim before the victim has had a chance to start his response, and the robber has had far more experience at being ready to shoot people than any of the convenience store clerks he is likely to encounter.
But the good news is that we do not have to debate logical reasons why one should or should not try to resist armed robbery. The statistical proof is compelling. The major corporations in the convenience store business tell their employees that their best "fighting chance" when robbed is for victims to hand over the money, cooperate with the police and return to their families alive.
Twenty years ago, arguments about guns and gun control proceeded in a factual vacuum. The empirical boo-boos committed in this latest NRA advertising campaign are in a way understandable because for years any assertion could survive without direct contradiction when nothing was known. It is only recently that embarrassing things like facts have entered the arena of debate.
Now scholars are beginning to gather basic facts about guns and violence in the United States. Not all the research is impartial or of quality, and most of it is far from definitive. But the golden age of the bald assertion has passed. A little more homework is the least that the NRA owes to the retail clerks of America.