Factors relevant to weapon choice by violent offenders

Criminology Research Council grant ; (5/88)

The final report of this research, entitled and published by the Crime Research Centre. A total of 123 convicted violent offenders currently serving sentences in Western Australian prisons answered questionnaires relating to their decision whether or not to use weapons in carrying out their offences and why one weapon was chosen in preference to another. The responses were, where necessary, supplemented by interview. Participation was voluntary. Respondents had all committed the focal offence within the previous three years.

Gun-users were a sub-sample of particular interest, the researchers having hypothesised that their decision-making processes would be distinctive. The bulk of this sub-sample (15/18) were robbers. In this context, the most cogent research findings related to gun-robbers. They were as follows:

First, those armed robbers whose preferred weapons in the particular crime-event were guns predominantly chose them because of the operational advantages (crime-scene and victim management) which they believed guns conferred. Next, gun-robbers tend to pay a great deal of prior attention to the risks of getting caught, and believe that use of guns in the crime-event will reduce these risks. However, they also believe that if they are caught the sentence they will receive will be greater, reflecting the fact that they did in fact use a gun rather than some less dangerous weapon. Despite this expectation, they nevertheless decide to use a gun and claim that they would still do so in future robberies. This is so even though they believe in retrospect that they actually did receive a greater sentence on account of their gun-use in the focal offence.

These findings identify a 'deterrence hiatus'. According to standard deterrence theory, these most calculating of violent offenders should be the most deterrable -- but seem to be the least. The contrast with knife-robbers, for example, who positively decide not to use guns because of the sentencing implications is marked. How does this hiatus arise?

It is suggested that two factors are highly significant: ambivalence in the law itself and in judicial pronouncements as to whether, and to what extent, gun-use really does lead to a greater sentence; and high levels of drug use by gun-robbers. As to the first, the research argues strongly for the creation of a mandatory minimum additional sentence for the gun-use component of armed robbery, such penalty not to be reducible by parole. Canadian and United States research data support this argument. The suggested period is one year's imprisonment for the first such offence.

The research also addresses the question of socialisation to the use of firearms. The data strongly suggest that the source and circumstances of early exposure to guns may be tangible factors in the decision of a violent offender to use a gun rather than some other weapon in subsequent offending. In particular, it is notable that persons who were first exposed to and educated in gun-use by authority figures were significantly less likely to use guns as weapons than those influenced by peer-group members. Moreover, persons who were brought up in gun-owning households where the primary motive for ownership was protection were also significantly more likely to regard gun-use in crime as appropriate and acceptable conduct. The socialisation of such persons tends to be continuously reinforced by their moving in a sub-culture where gun-use is relatively normal, both in crime and generally.

However, there was one quite outstanding exception to the general findings as to socialisation. This related to tribal and semi-tribal Aborigines. Despite their equal exposure to gun-use in non-criminal contexts, this group was significantly different in its pattern of gun-use in crime. Culturally, guns were seen as hunting and work tools; as one prisoner graphically said, 'Guns are for shooting tucker, not people'. In other words, strong acculturation against criminal use of firearms will hold firm even in the face of their widespread availability. The gun control debate does not merely revolve around availability, therefore, but also around attitudes to self and to society. This finding seems to have implications for the licensing of gun owners generally, implications which deserve to be explored further.

The research project and findings are best seen as a contribution to the growing body of Australian research in this area and also as one which could gain strength and cogency from replication either in relation to some future Western Australian sample or another Australian sample at a different time and place.