FEATURED IN TRAINING
When our department adopted in-service driver training, one comment by the instructor embedded itself with me. As cops, we consider ourselves professional drivers, and ascribe our higher-than-normal wreck rate to miles driven. In actuality, professional drivers such as truck and taxi drivers have much lower-than-normal rates of wrecks. Because our job is not to drive, but rather to observe plus handle "office" tasks, we wreck more often.
Looking back at my career, and observing other police incidents, it brings to mind firearms safety. Most agencies have patched walls, damaged desks, and sometimes blood-stained floors from "accidental" discharges. In recent years, agencies have paid serious damages to officers, civilians, and arrestees wounded by unintentional discharges. Worse, some officers have been prosecuted for a careless act with a tragic consequence.
The old maxim goes "familiarity breeds contempt." As professional gun toters, we should, and usually do, maintain our respect for the firearm, but become complacent in our handling of them. It is not that we become contemptuous of the power of a firearm, but rather that we become so familiar with them as companions we become sloppy in our handling.
First, review the basics of firearm safety. Col. Jeff Cooper, often called the gunner's guru, boiled them down to four succinct rules:
- All guns are always loaded.
Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.
- Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.
(For those who insist that this particular gun is unloaded, see Rule 1.)
- Keep your finger off the trigger till your sights are on the target.
This is the Golden Rule. Its violation is directly responsible for about 60% of inadvertent discharges.
- Identify your target, and what is behind it.
Never shoot at anything that you have not positively identified.
As I write this, I am preparing for SHOT (Shooting, Hunting Outdoor Trades) Show in Orlando. Over those four days, I will look down the barrel of many a firearm, at a trade show populated almost 100% by members of the gun culture. Complacency bred by familiarity. Indeed, for the sake of safety, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, sponsor of SHOT Show, has members of the Association of Firearms and Toolmarks Examiners examine every firearm on display to ensure there are no firing pins present, and to examine all ammunition to ensure there are no live rounds present at the show.
But we are professionals; we don't act so foolishly. But we can still be complacent. How often does a cop, preparing for shift, try to balance a briefcase full of forms and law books, a jump bag of spare equipment, a laptop, and a shotgun or patrol rifle (or both) and step out to set up a patrol car for the shift? Where are the barrels aimed as the officer heads out the halls to the ready line?
Some agencies "hot seat" not only cars but equipment. Many a roof has been peeled back when someone absently probed the trigger guard of a shotgun, finding out that the last occupant or perhaps an occupant several shifts earlier had stroked a round into the chamber, and never cleared it. Usually these are lucky incidents; a few hundred dollars damage to the patrol car, some hearing loss for a while, some embarrassment, and perhaps some disciplinary action from the agency.
When today's dinosaurs were young pups, the revolver was the almost universal cop gun. Often it was accompanied by a nightstick, perhaps a blackjack, and sometimes Mace (which usually worked on cops better than on suspects). More often than one would realize, pistol whipping became a substitute for use of a proper tool of lesser force.
So what comes of pistol whipping? First, invisible damage to the firearm minutely bent barrels that no longer shoot straight, and bent cranes resulting in cylinders that lock the action tight, not permitting it to be fired when called upon, and not able to be swung open. Secondly, but potentially tragically, this damage can result in unintentional discharges, possibly resulting in damage to the station and equipment, but sometimes finding a human target.
At my first agency, one officer was quick to pistol whip a fighter. He was proud of the six-inch Colt Python he carried. Colt Pythons were, and still are, a luxury model of revolver slick trigger pulls, smooth actions. One night while booking a drunk, the arrestee became belligerent. As he brought that barrel across the crown of the drunk's head, whether from bad technique and his finger slipping into the trigger guard or just from the slick surfaces of the trigger and hammer mechanism, a round of .357 Magnum discharged. As the sergeant charged into the booking area, he saw the drunk on the floor, a pool of blood forming at his head. Moments later he realized the blood was only from a laceration to the top of the head; however, the stack of 4 x 5 film holders destroyed by that jacketed hollow point and the deep gouge in the concrete wall remained as reminders of the hazard of pistol whipping.
Hopefully, no one out there tries to use their handgun as a compliance tool anymore. Semi-automatics are even more prone to damage from such abuse than the revolver, and unintentional discharges are just as possible from the pistol as from the revolver. Today the officer is equipped with a much wider and better selection of tools pepper spray, straight batons, expandable batons, TASERs that have been designed as less-lethal instruments for control of a suspect.
The tremendous rise of security holsters instills somewhat of a false sense of security. The security holster protects the handgun against the snatch an individual taking the firearm from the holster to use against its bearer. For this, the various designs do a very creditable job. However, they do not protect the firearm against any unintentional presentation, and the bearer must remain aware of this.
In the 1970s the Hoyt holster was the first widely accepted attempt at a snatch-proof holster, its design soon emulated by other manufacturers such as the Bianchi, with their Judge model. These holsters did an excellent job of protecting the handgun while still providing for a very fast presentation. However, they also had a shortcoming. Many of us would be running, jump down a few steps, and listen to our revolver slide out of the holster and along the ground. A fellow deputy, a neighbor, was in a wreck one night. As I arrived on the scene with his wife, he was most concerned with searching through the remains of the driver's compartment of his patrol car for his Model 66 revolver, which had been ejected from the holster by the violence of the wreck. Not only is a lost firearm a concern, but that firearm, sliding from the holster and clattering onto the sidewalk, could be discharged, its projectile traveling in any direction.
Today's holsters are more secure. However, some have experienced opposite problems an inability to draw from a defective holster. In answer, some officers have been known to disconnect the safety feature. Wrong approach. If it fails, send it back to the manufacturer for repair, where it will also be examined to determine how to improve the design. Don't take it upon yourself to be the repairman; you need neither the liability nor the potential hazards.
Indeed, we should look upon holsters as safety devices in other ways. The concept of the Mexican carry, thrusting a handgun into one's waistband, is an extremely unsafe action. I know of at least one punctuated butt after an officer thrust an unholstered firearm into his belt, not realizing it had been cocked, and the trigger being tripped.
Pocket carry is a common method of off duty and back-up carry. Use a holster. Perhaps, as has long been common in some agencies, a tailor installs a leather pocket in the pants. Otherwise, use an appropriate pocket holster for the handgun, and ensure the holster securely carries the gun in the specific pants. I wear an American Derringer in a Gould and Goodrich pocket holster; it fits great in Wrangler jeans, but gets lost in the expansive back pocket of 5.11 Tacticals. Conversely, my J-frame revolvers will never fit in jeans with my body, but ride secure and comfortable in 5.11s when carried in a DeSantis pocket holster.
Pocket wear also requires dedicating the pocket to the carry of nothing except the firearm. No change, keys, reloads, or other items should share the pocket, especially if the firearm is then carried unholstered as well. It is far too easy for items to lodge into the trigger guard and cause an unintentional discharge while drawing.
Handling incidents account for many unintentional discharges, and for many officer injuries. Review Jeff Cooper's rules again and put them into effect when handling any firearm. Before you ask a fellow officer to take custody of a firearm, unload it and leave it open. Before you take custody of a firearm, examine it to ensure it is unloaded completely. Recovering a handgun, or any firearm, on an incident, make it safe before continuing. With 22 years of primary experience as a crime scene investigator, I will tell you safety is more important than evidence. If you are unfamiliar with the firearm, summon a more experienced officer to help ensure its safety before continuing. Don't be embarrassed none of us are conversant with every firearm ever made (the Egyptian Hakim is as close to a puzzle as I have ever dealt with).
If a firearm must be collected in a loaded state, and possibly cocked state, and cannot be made safe before transport, consider the use of a loaded gun box. These are often found in crime scene units. They consist of a box, either handgun-sized or long gun sized, with steel plates in the ends. The bottom is built up slightly, with a piece of pegboard, then secured as a floor. When necessary, a loaded, even cocked, firearm is placed within the box, its muzzle close to the end. Pegs are then placed about the firearm in such a way to ensure it cannot shift during transport; obviously, no pegs are placed within the trigger guard, but a peg may be placed between a cocked hammer and the receiver.
Finally, consider tactical incidents. In the 1970s, when today's dinosaurs were rookies, there was no Tennessee v. Garner decision, felons were often apprehended with gunshots, and officers were rarely held accountable for any shots fired. Not so today. Not only must every shot be accounted for, its legal and moral necessity must be justified. Where unintentional discharges during an apprehension were once overlooked, today they result in investigations, disciplinary actions, or worse.
Where is the muzzle during a high risk incident? Is it covering a suspect? If not, is it in the ready position, about 45 degrees downward, aimed where a discharge will have the least hazard? How about other officers where are their firearms aimed? Many an incident has had officers shooting each other in the crossfire.
Be very wary of going "hands on" with a firearm in your hand. First, it exposes your firearm to snatch or disablement. Also, it is common for one hand to emulate the other as you make a fist with the left hand, your right hand follows, and there is a discharge. A bad shoot in today's political atmosphere guarantees a civil sanction, if not criminal action.
Remember also that, when one officer fires, often others do. This is especially true if the officer fires accidentally while losing balance and falling, and other officers perceive him as being shot. Now the suspect is shot, officers are confused as to what happened, agencies are looking for damage control, the public is demanding answers, and the media is in feeding frenzy.
Law enforcement officers are given greater freedom in the carry and use of firearms than any other member of society. Except for troops in a battle zone, our rules of engagement are looser than any military and definitely any civilian. We carry on the job and off the job. With this expansion of rights come responsibilities which must always be kept in the mind's forefront. Safety has many aspects; as professionals, entrusted with the routine carry and use of firearms, we must maintain a safe working environment.