I just started a recent re-read of the Book of Mormon (separate from the nightly out-loud readings that my wife and I do) and noted (as usual) that Laban was given two chances to “do the right thing” with regards to the brass plates. I was also struck that Laban’s reaction the first two requests is disproportional to the request being made. Let’s look at this for a minute.
And we cast lots—who of us should go in unto the house of Laban. And it came to pass that the lot fell upon Laman; and Laman went in unto the house of Laban, and he talked with him as he sat in his house. And he desired of Laban the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, which contained the genealogy of my father. And behold, it came to pass that Laban was angry, and thrust him out from his presence; and he would not that he should have the records. Wherefore, he said unto him: Behold thou art a robber, and I will slay thee. (1 Nephi 3:11-13)
Let’s make a few reasonable assumptions. Laban most likely knew who Lehi was — because they were related, because of Lehi’s wealth, and because of Lehi’s preaching. Laban, therefore, would have at least some idea who Laman was (Lehi’s oldest son and therefore heir). If Laban had a clear and indisputable right to the plates, he simply could have said “No” and sent Laman on his way, or he could have demanded some form of payment. Instead, he threatens to have Laman killed — just for asking about the plates.
The second attempt, based on Nephi’s idea, doesn’t go well, either.
And it came to pass that we went down to the land of our inheritance, and we did gather together our gold, and our silver, and our precious things. And after we had gathered these things together, we went up again unto the house of Laban.
And it came to pass that we went in unto Laban, and desired him that he would give unto us the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, for which we would give unto him our gold, and our silver, and all our precious things. And it came to pass that when Laban saw our property, and that it was exceedingly great, he did lust after it, insomuch that he thrust us out, and sent his servants to slay us, that he might obtain our property. And it came to pass that we did flee before the servants of Laban, and we were obliged to leave behind our property, and it fell into the hands of Laban. And it came to pass that we fled into the wilderness, and the servants of Laban did not overtake us, and we hid ourselves in the cavity of a rock. (1 Nephi 3:24-28)
Again, Laban could have simply said “No” or he could have bargained for a greater payment than the sons of Lehi were offering (such as Lehi’s “land of inheritance”, which appears to be an estate somewhere outside of Jerusalem itself). Instead, he actively sends his servants to kill the sons of Lehi, while retaining the “gold, silver, and precious things” that the sons had brought.
In both cases, Laban does not act like a man who simply owns something precious (to him) and is unwilling to part with it; instead, he threatens murder the first time and clearly tries to carry it out the second time. (He may have tried to carry it out the first time as well, but that’s less clear from the text.) This suggests, at least, that Laban may have gained possession of the plates through unsavory means, and possibly that Lehi may have actually had a better claim to ownership (though we have no way of knowing that).
This also underscores that Laban had both a chance to do the right thing for the right reason and a chance to do the right thing for a less honorable reason. His violent reaction instead set up the circumstances by which he lost his own life.
One last note:
And after I had done this, I went forth unto the treasury of Laban. And as I went forth towards the treasury of Laban, behold, I saw the servant of Laban who had the keys of the treasury. And I commanded him in the voice of Laban, that he should go with me into the treasury. … And I also spake unto him that I should carry the engravings, which were upon the plates of brass, to my elder brethren, who were without the walls. (1 Nephi 3:20, 24)
Chances are that the “gold, silver, and precious things” of Lehi’s family that “fell into the hands of Laban” were in that same treasury as the brass plates. There is no indication that Nephi took a single item of that back, or anything else in Laban’s treasury, but only the brass plates. It’s unclear that Laman or Lemuel would have done the same thing; they were still longing after their “possessions” back in Jerusalem many years later (cf. 1 Nephi 17:21) and might well have felt the need to fill their pockets or a sack to get some of their own belonging back. But by not doing that, Nephi completed the transaction that he and his brothers had offered to Laban on the second visit and avoided becoming in fact the “robber” that Laban accused him and his brothers of being.