Joe Johnson keeps a shotgun near the cash register in the liquor store he manages in Southeast Washington. He says he has to protect himself against robbers because few police patrol that area -- "and then only in the daytime."
Across town in Northeast, Morton Lessans, owner of an electrical supply store, is not sure a gun is a good idea. "So he [the robber] knows you have a gun. So what? He walks in with a gun pointed to your face and you're going to go for your gun?"
These differing views are part on a continuing controversy over gun use among owners of small-volume, neighborhood stores, especially in high-crime areas. The issue came to a dramatic peak last month when Charlene Lyons, a bystander in a fish-market holdup in Northeast Washington, was accidentally wounded by a customer who had grabbed the market owners' pistol and shot at two robbers. Neither of the robbers was hit in the incident just outside the Brookland Seafood store, at 3736 10th St.
Doctors at Washington Hospital Center report that Lyons, 27, a Xerox Corp. employe, is now doing well. But in the wake of her shooting, merchants at the shopping plaza where Lyons was shot and at mom-and-pop stores in other areas of the city expressed differing views that the wisdom of keeping a gun tucked away by the family cash register.
None of more than a dozen store owners interviewed by The Washington Post believed the customer in the fish-market holdup was right to pursue the robbers with the owner's gun, but few blamed the owner for having the gun in the first place.
Mike Krieger, the owner of Brookland Seafood market where the shooting occurred, said he started keeping a gun after he was robbed at gunpoint a month ago. As for the Lyons shooting, police say the customer knew where Krieger kept his weapon hidden. Whatever the customer's intentions, Krieger said, he should not have grabbed the gun. "He should not have run after them with that gun," Krieger said. "I would never have done that."
D.C. Deputy Police Chief Alfonso Gibson agrees. It was an "irresponsible act, and it is one of the dangers of people firing guns who have not been trained," he said. Both the Police Department and the Greater Washington Board of Trade, citing the added risks involved, are officially opposed to keeping firearms in stores.
No one knows how many store owners keep guns in the city, but police and business leaders alike believe a majority do not.
Of 13 store owners and managers interviewed by The Post, eight said they do not keep firearms in their places of business, three said they do and two would not comment. Of the eight without guns, however, four said they either had kept firearms in the past or planned to in the future. All 13, whether they keep guns or not, said they believe store owners have an absolute right to keep them.
The managers of four stores in the small shopping plaza where Krieger's fish market is located said they do not keep guns. Like some owners in other parts of the city, they believe a gun is of little use during a robbery and substantially increases chances of being shot by robbers.
Other owners said having a gun may very well make the robber quicker to shoot. An auto service station owner in Northeast, who asked not to be named, said, "I don't want to take a chance. They're desperate.They would shoot you with a twink of the eye."
Robbery squad Lt. James Waybright agrees. "Most robbers act mean to try to scare you, so you'll do what they say, so you won't be able to recognize them or won't identify them later one. But unless they are really doped out, they are scared themselves. And it's against human nature to shoot somebody. The vast majority of shootings, then, occur when the store owner makes a sudden move, for his gun or whatever."
D.C. police robbery squad Sgt. Bob Sharkey agrees that a gun in the store is not a guaranteed deterrent. "Fifty percent of all holdup men are either on drugs or they are robbing because they need drugs," he said. "They are desperate. They will hit any place."
Police say the best deterrents are full-time security guards, but most small-volume store owners cannot afford them.
Leonard Kolodny, manager of the Board of Trade's retail bureau, says that the bureau's security seminars advise merchants against using weapons to thwart robberies.
Some owners say they have resorted to guns because their neighborhoods lack adequate police protection.
Calvin Poston, manager of a kitchen appliances store near Krieger's fish market, said he does not now have a gun, "but the way things are going, I'm thinking of bringing one into the store. . . . That's the only way to stop them. The police can't do anything. . . . There've been times when I don't see them for weeks and weeks."
A few owners also blame what they see as an overly lenient justice system. S. L. Coleman, who runs a jewelry store in Northwest, said he shot one of two would-be robbers in a holdup attempt two months ago. "They caught him, patched him up and let him go, and he did the same thing in Virginia," Coleman said.
But the hardest feelings come from those owners whose relatives have been shot and killed in holdups or who themselves have come close to being shot.
Coleman, who lost an aunt several years ago in a Northwest jewelry store shooting, says, "I'm going to get as many of them [robbers] as I can. I don't care if I get a thousand years for it.
Both Coleman and Daniel Flanagan, whose uncle was shot and killed more than two years ago at Flanagan's liquor store in Southwest Washington, say neither of their relatives had reached for a gun nor made any other sudden move to provoke the robbers.
"Whether you have a gun or not, it makes no difference," Flanagan said. "They'll shoot you if they want to."