This incident occurred during the 1980s, a time of unprecedented high crime rates in New York City. By mid-decade, the city had a reported crime rate over 70% higher than the rest of the U.S. In 1984, there were 2 homicides, 18 violent crimes, and 65 property thefts reported per 10,000 people. On average, 38 crimes were reported in the subway system each day; the subway became a symbol of the city's inability to control crime. In an opinion poll of New York City residents taken the month after the shootings, more than half of those surveyed said crime was the worst thing about living in the city; about a quarter said they or a family member had been a victim of crime in the last year; and two-thirds said they would be willing to pay for private security for their building or block.
While transporting electronic equipment in 1981, Goetz was attacked in the Canal Street subway station by three youths who tried to steal the equipment and his sheepskin jacket. They smashed him into a plate-glass door and threw him to the ground, causing chest and knee injuries. Goetz assisted an off-duty officer in arresting one of them, but was angered when his attacker spent less time in the police station than he did, then was further angered when his attacker was charged only with criminal mischief, for ripping the jacket. Goetz applied for a permit to carry a handgun, on the basis of routinely carrying valuable equipment and large sums of cash. His application was denied for insufficient need, as are most such applications in New York City. Goetz bought a five-shot, alloy J-frame Smith and Wesson "Airweight" revolver with a shrouded hammer on his next trip to visit family in Florida. He began carrying it regularly and had brandished it twice to frighten away would-be robbers before using it to shoot the four men who confronted him on the subway.
At the time of the incident all four men had criminal records, with a total of fourteen criminal bench warrants, although only Cabey had been charged with a felony, armed robbery. All of them had reached the age of majority.