Fair play not an issue when guns are involved

Mike Royko

August 12, 1991|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

A WISE OLD THIEF once told me the two secrets of his success and longevity.

He never carried a weapon. So even if he was caught, a judge might be lenient because he hadn't endangered anyone.

And by avoiding people, he didn't run the risk that one of them might have a gun and would blow a big hole in his chest.

That's why someone choosing a career in crime is much better off becoming a warehouse burglar, embezzler, junk bond wizard or politician. You're less likely to be shot.

So I don't understand why there has been even the slightest controversy or debate about a gun-toting robber who was shot )) by a bus driver the other day.

If you missed the story, this is what happened.

A Greyhound bus was going from New York to Atlantic City when a man drew a gun, hijacked the bus, and began robbing the other passengers. It's thought that he might have picked that bus because it was heading for a casino town and the passengers were likely to be carrying thick wads.

When he got near the driver, the driver stomped the brakes. The gunman stumbled. The driver and another passenger wrestled the robber for the gun. The gunman shouted that he would kill the driver.

They fell from the bus. The driver wound up with the gun. The robber ran and the driver fired and wounded him in the back.

A perfect case to be submitted to that ultimate American jury -- the radio call-in talk show.

Flipping through my car radio, I heard it being discussed on two stations. While most people praised the bus driver, several said that shooting the man was wrong.

Their argument went this way: The driver had already disarmed the robber, so the robber was no longer dangerous, especially since he was trying to run away. And it is wrong, even a criminal act, to shoot an unarmed man in the back.

This tells me two things about these people.

First, they are kind and gentle, with a strong sense of fairness, since they don't want to see even a robber shot, especially in the back. As we all know, from watching old Western movies, shooting someone in the back isn't sporting.

Second, it's a safe bet that not one of those who sympathized with the wounded robber has ever looked down the barrel of a gun held by a menacing stranger.

That jarring experience can change your ideas about fairness. Show me somebody who has been robbed at gunpoint and I'll show you someone who probably thinks it would be quite fair to drop the gunman off the top of the tallest building in town.

So they're missing a key element in the bus shooting. And it's this: When somebody points a gun at you -- an act that amounts to the threat of death -- you are to be forgiven if you don't react kindly, gently and with total fairness.

And it's a bit unreasonable to expect a driver whose bus was hijacked while he was at the wheel, and who struggled with a man who shouted death threats, to remain calm and ponder the appropriate use of force.

The driver didn't have much time to consider various options. One moment, he was struggling with a potential murderer. The next, he had the gun in his own hand and a potential murderer was running away.

At such a time, it's unlikely the average citizen would rub his chin, and say: "Hmmmm. Although he might have killed me, I recall from high school civics that he is entitled to have his rights read to him, and if he can't afford counsel, one will be appointed, and he will be judged guilty or innocent by a jury of his peers. On the other hand, he is escaping. And since he is clearly a danger to society, shouldn't I stop him? What to do, what to do? Hey, is anybody on this bus an ACLU lawyer?"

In contrast, the robber had a lot of time to consider his career choice. Pointing guns at people can be profitable; you set your own hours; you don't need a resume, references or even a high school diploma; you don't pay union dues; and it's unlikely that you would pay state or federal income taxes.

Not a bad deal. But there is a down side. Point a gun at people and one of them might shoot you. Any self-respecting stickup man knows that is a hazard that comes with the job.

Unfortunately, it doesn't happen often. In any year, more Chicago cops are shot than robbers. And more cab drivers and grocers are shot than cops.

So when someone such as that bus driver bags one on the fly, why quibble over hip, thigh or back? I'm sure that if the stickup man was given a choice of being shot in the back or the nose, he'd take the back. If nothing else, he still has his looks.

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