There is need for a comprehensive review of laws that deal with the use of weapons, whether for personal gain or other purposes.
We seldom come to grips with the philosophical questions that underlie the illegal use of weapons. Instead, we deal with each crime as if it were a unique aberration.
When Safeway stores were being held up by the dozen, the company, the police, and the union that represents store employees worked out better security arrangements. Their approach was practical, not philosophical. When the hijacking of airlines was in the news, we tightened airport security but paid scant heed to the broader offense against every hapless victim who happened to be aboard at the moment.
Left unresolved is the question: If the incident ends without physical harm to a victim, what is the magnitude of the offense?
Dealing with a question of this kind is somewhat akin to fixing a leaky roof. There is never a good time to do it. One cannot work on a slippery roof while the rains are falling; and when the sun comes out again, there is no great urgency about making repairs.
When there is no notorious instance of gun use in the news, we have no great enthusiasm for launching ourselves into a profound philosophical discussion of the subject. And when there has been a recent incident that focuses attention on the problem, one is reluctant to bring it up at all. While court cases are pending, care must be taken not to prejudice them by intemperate public pronouncements.
Readers will, I am sure, be tempted to send me letters that say, "The man who picks up a gun to force others to do his bidding doesn't care about the civil rights of his victims. Why should we care about a criminal's rights?"
We should care because no defendant is a criminal until he has been so judged in a fair trial. Prior to such a finding, any diminuation of the rights of the accused diminishes the rights of every one of us.
If our system of jurisprudence malfunctions occasionally, it is our fault, not the fault of a defendant who happens to have angered the community. If public attitudes have failed to keep our system abreast of the times, the leaky roof is ours, not the defendant's. It is up to us to repair it.
It seems to me that there is need to rethink this entire subject of a man with a deadly weapon who says, in effect, "Do as I say or suffer the clearly implied consequences."
We must consider the many variations on this theme. In one instance, a gunman walks into a Mom-and-Pop grocery store and says "Hand it over, Pop, and no funny business." He leaves with $17, but does no physical harm to anyone. In another, he leaves with the $17 after shooting Pop because Pop is old and didn't obey quickly enough. In still another variation, the gunman takes $17,000 from a bank, but harms nobody. Or he takes $17,000 after shooting somebody. Or after taking a teller hostage. Or after taking a pregnant female teller hostage.
Does it make a difference whether he took a male hostage or a pregnant female? Should the law take that into account? Would it influence your judgment if you sat on the jury? When the gunman walked in, he didn't know whether his hostage would be male or female, or whether anybody would be hurt. The outcome depended on pure chance. Why should it have any effect on the punishment?
Does it make a difference whether people were or weren't hut by a holdup man who brandishes a weapon? Or is it sufficiently damning that one person pulled a gun on another and, in so doing, implied that he was prepared to kill unless his orders were carried out?
New crime patterns underscore the need for a review of community attitudes and defenses. The next time the rain stops, we ought to have a look at that leaky roof. Otherwise the day will come when some thug will get his hands on a nuclear weapon and say, "Hand it over, world - and no funny bussines." Then what will we do?