IV. Robbery and Weapon Choices
Surveys of inmates indicate that more lethal weaponry, such as guns compared with knives or no weapon at all, are preferred tools for completing robberies. The preference for guns, paradoxically, is linked to the notion that they make it easier to control victims and thereby reduce the need for overt physical violence. Robberies involving perpetrators with less lethal weapons or no weapon at all are more likely to result in some kind of injury to the victim, because the threat posed by robbers who are not armed with a gun is less persuasive. Therefore, physical force is likely more necessary to control victims in such situations. If one looks at the number of gun robberies that are committed, according to data sources, the use of a gun as compared with a knife or other weapon is more strongly associated with both successfully completing the robbery and the possibility of lethal outcomes.
The NCVS indicates that about 1 of every 4 or 5 robberies involves a gun, yet the proportion of robbery fatalities that involve a gun is more than 50%, if one traces robbery circumstances and weapons types from 1976 to the present using the SHR data. It is apparent from discussions with robbers, both active and incarcerated, that committing robbery while equipped with a gun helps to establish the “illusion of impending death,” as noted by Wright and Decker (1997b). The notion that robbers choose weapons to establish credible threats has been corroborated over time in interviews with robbers in the United States and abroad. For example, interviews with incarcerated English commercial robbers generally echoed the concept of having a gun so that less physical force would be necessary to complete the crime. Interviews with active street robbers in the city of St. Louis, Missouri, also affirmed that sentiment.
An examination of weapon patterns in the NCVS robbery data indicates that, in 2006, of nearly 650,000 robberies that were estimated to have occurred, 41% involved no weapon. Victims reported that robbers wielded a firearm in 23% of robberies and knives in 8%. It should be noted that victims reported that they did not know if the perpetrator had a weapon in 15% of the crimes. Similarly, the UCR data on robbery weapons indicate that in 2006, an estimated 42% of robberies involved a firearm and about 40% were “strong arm” or unarmed robberies. Clearly, while robbery with a gun is the image most frequently evoked by the term, non-gun robbers make up the majority of these events in any given year according to both victimization surveys and official police data.