On Pharmacists and Roadside Justice

I’ve seen a few discussions of this story of a licensed, clearly competent pharmacist who shoots and kills a would-be armed robber. I understand that what he did was legal and—to many people—justified. Applying the death penalty at the roadside as punishment for threats is not the society that we want to live in. The guy is not a hero. He was reckless and put others in danger needlessly. He was absurdly lucky. Nobody who has studied how to respond to an armed robber would endorse this course of action, even if they broadly support gun rights.
As a society we have contemplated armed robbery. Our criminal code contains what we believe is the right and just punishment for it. Our code does not include death as punishment for this crime. I think that’s important. I am a big believer in justice.

We don’t usually characterise a pharmacist who kills a would-be robber as “dispensing roadside justice.”  However, to me, that is exactly what has happened. Our justice system, which is based on evidence and argument, is sidestepped when citizens adjudicate and punish at their individual discretion.

The business’s cash and merchandise are typically insured against this kind of crime. What would be the impact of just letting the robber have them? It’s a totally run-of-the-mill crime. The police solve crimes of this nature all the time and very well. The robber is no criminal mastermind and this isn’t an Oceans Eleven casino heist. Let him have the money and whatever he wants, he’ll take off as quick as he came, and the police will catch him some time later.

Does Might Make Right?

I do not accept administering the death penalty summarily at the roadside as the right response to attempted armed robbery. That is not justice, that is not democracy. “Might makes right” is not the motto of a society built on laws. That is anarchy.

To be glad that pharmacists take the law into their own hands is to believe that the police and law enforcement are ineffective or insufficient. Do we believe that we can’t let criminals get away with a robbery, because then justice will not be done? Do we believe that crude mob justice right here, right now achieves the right result?

Or perhaps roadside justice is an indictment of the formal justice system. Do we believe that, even if he is caught, the penalty for armed robbery is too lenient? Or that perhaps he will “get off” on a “technicality”? Do we prefer “rough and ready” justice dispensed at the pharmacy over the “slowly but surely” justice administered by police and the criminal justice system?

Police Who Support Gun Rights Still Tell You Not to Be a Hero

Conventional wisdom among law enforcement professionals is to cooperate. Do not resist the robber, give him what he wants and be done with it. Police in Houston, Texas recommend “DO NOT RESIST” (all caps and bold emphasis is theirs). Texas law enforcement professionals have citizens’ best interests at heart and overall they support the legal right to own and bear arms. Why would they make that recommendation? It’s because by and large, over time, that behaviour yields the best outcome most of the time. Cooperating yields the best result for the health and safety of citizens.

Businesses and Insurance Companies Tell You Not to Be a Hero

Businesses and insurance companies look out for the welfare of their customers, employees, and the financial welfare of their businesses. Those that have a policy on dealing with robbery usually instruct employees not to take risks defending themselves and the business. Again, they have determined cooperating with a robber yields the best result in terms of the health and safety people and property and the financial wellbeing for the firm. We know these things because people have studied property crime for decades if not centuries.

Everyone who has stopped to study armed robbery, whether from a health and safety point of view or a bluntly financial point of view, discourages being a hero. It is the wrong choice more often than it is the right choice. We should not forget that fact in the face of one successful hero.

He is a Bad Example, Not a Hero

I do not think the pharmacist committed a crime, or that some punishment should happen to him. It is acceptable that he is not being prosecuted.

However, the result in this situation (that only the criminal was hurt) is the exception, not the rule. People should be reminded NOT to do what this pharmacist did. He should not be emulated. The odds were stacked against him in a hundred ways. There were substantially more bad possible outcomes than good ones. He was not alone. His decision put others at risk unnecessarily. It was the wrong decision, and those around him got lucky that nothing bad happened.

If the pharmacist followed the considered advice of professionals who thoroughly understand these situations (e.g., the police), the entire event could have (and probably would have) ended with nobody injured or dead at all. The criminal’s life is not forfeit because he attempted to commit a crime. That is not what we have written down in our code of justice. Regardless of how despicable you may think an armed robber, death is not the just punishment.