Robbed at gunpoint, some gamble with lives

J. David Goodman / New York Times News Service /

NEW YORK — The first armed robbery attempt was in October, on a residential Bronx block near an elevated train stop. The victim fought back. He was shot in the leg.

The next came a month later and roughly a mile away. Once again, the victim resisted and was shot.

After the third robbery attempt, in February, two distinct patterns became apparent. The police suspected a single group was to blame, a group that cruised in cars and attacked lone men at night.

But a more unusual pattern was seen among the three victims: When faced with a gun and a straightforward proposition — your money or your life — they had opted to take their chances with their lives.

“Being held at gunpoint, for some people, is not that scary,” said Brian Melford, 21, a Bronx youth activist and student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Around here, people think they’re strong. They just say, ‘I’m not going to give it up.’”

Criminologists have for decades studied the responses of victims to violent crime. Robberies in particular became a topic of scholarly research in the 1980s and 1990s, as random street crime spread through urban areas, with those studies mostly confirming the obvious: If you resist a robber, you are more likely to get hurt or, possibly, killed.

But with decade-long declines in crime, some scholars have noted a change in the nature of robberies. A 2009 study of national victim surveys taken since 1993 found that not only were robberies becoming less frequent over time, they were also becoming more violent, in part because of what the authors describe as “victim hardening.”

Precautions and perception

“Softer victims take precautions,” said Rajiv Sethi, a Barnard College economist and one of the study’s authors. In addition, he said, many people who may have become robbers in the past may instead have gotten jobs as urban economies improved, leaving more hardened criminals to encounter more hardened victims on the streets of certain neighborhoods.

“You get more resistance in high-crime areas than low-crime areas,” he said. “People who would not resist have left the areas. Those who stay can’t afford to leave or to give up the little property that they have in their possession.”

The general perception of bad guys may have changed as well. Decades ago, many harbored an understandable fear that a gun-wielding assailant, fueled by drugs or desperation, would shoot at the smallest provocation. But a spreading sense of safety in many areas of the city, fostered by the falling murder rate, may lead some to doubt that a gunman these days will pull the trigger.

“It does sound plausible that when you have less of a climate of fear, you have more resistance,” said Sethi, though he cautioned that research has not been conducted in this area.