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Randy Sutton

Randy Sutton is a 33-year law enforcement veteran, a trainer, and the national spokesman for The American Council on Public Safety. He served 10 years with the Princeton (N.J.) Police Department and 23 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, retiring at the rank of lieutenant. He is an author who has published multiple books on law enforcement.

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When In Doubt, Whip Out Your Pistol

You can draw your weapon on any call, just as long as you don’t point it at someone without cause.

August 04, 2010  |  by - Also by this author

Image via (OpenSkyMedia).

Perhaps you've been there, finding your sidearm in your hand when you needed it but not recalling that you drew it. Sooner or later, I imagine most of us have.

But whether it was on vehicle approaches, pedestrian stops, or door knocks, I made a habit of having my gun out if I felt there was any possibility of danger. It wasn't as though I was arbitrarily pointing it at everyone. Often, I held it down at my side, then re-holstered when I felt the situation was conducive for doing so.

Most of the time, the people I encountered never knew I had it out and I don't recall ever having been beefed about it. And on those occasions when I found cause to point it at someone, you can bet that I did. And I took comfort in the fact that I didn't have to draw it first.

Of course, maybe you're like Robert Redford's title character in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and you just love to move and draw. You remember the scene: A prospective employer wants to know if Sundance can shoot. So he has Sundace draw his gun and then he throws out a target and tells him to shoot it. Sundance misses by a mile. The prospective employer shakes his head in disappointment and say he can't hire Sundance because he'd get killed. Then Sundance asks "Can I move?" He spins, slaps leather, and blasts the target multiple times.

If you're that good at drawing and firing, more power to you.

But on those occasions where I encountered signs of non-compliance, I liked having the gun ready.

It wasn't that I didn't practice drawing from my holster. I did. But having the weapon already out of the holster meant there was one less gross motor skill for me to worry about.

While I have heard all manner of horror stories through the years of officers being hesitant to take out firearms because of possible beefs, policy violations, or having to write a memo for doing so, our judicial system has given law enforcement officers quite a bit of latitude when it comes to their doing so. Time and again, courts have ruled that "while police are not entitled to point their guns at citizens when there is no hint of danger, they are allowed to do so when there is a reason to feel danger."

That reason has to be articulable and objectively reasonable. Generally, this means that there has to be a valid sense of danger.

That sense of danger can be based upon the nature of the investigation (e.g., a shots fired call); the sensibilities of the individual detained (PAL known to be armed), or the number and disposition of people being detained (like, say a bunch of bikers who've just stabbed and shot each other in a Laughlin casino).

So long as you can articulate your concerns, you're apt to be covered.

It doesn't always go without a hitch. Innocent people can become victims of circumstance. Certainly, my sympathies go out to one poor couple here in Los Angeles County who were detained naked at gunpoint while investigators searched their home for suspects and evidence related to an identity theft case. Unfortunately, the only thing the two were guilty of was moving into a dwelling that had previously been occupied by those actually culpable for the crime, one of which was known to own a registered handgun (ergo, the presence of police firearms). Sometimes, things just don't play out as nicely as we would hope. At least the cops didn't storm into the wrong address.

Department policies and how officers are trained will often dictate whether or not a cop keeps his finger on the trigger when detaining someone at gunpoint. When I was detaining a possible felony vehicle at gunpoint based solely on color, make, and model of a popular ride, I was less apt to be caressing the trigger than if it was an obvious member of a gang known to be currently at war with some crosstown clique. While I place a high enough premium on my miserable life, the one thing I never wanted to do was to be responsible for taking the life of an innocent, and more than one cop has accidently shot some innocent he was detaining at gunpoint.

As with most things, common sense should dictate one's actions. We've all heard the conventional wisdom that it's better to be tried by 12 than carried by six; yet you still see instances where cops should have their sidearms out but don't.

Then there are those cops who have no business pointing guns at people but do (you dipshits that like to point guns at fellow cops all out of "good fun?" I'm looking at you...). Just reading some of the rulings in which officers were deemed guilty of unreasonable force or 4th Amendment violations can get any reasonable officer scratching his or her head:

  • There was a cop who held a gun to a nine-year-old and threatened to pull the trigger.
  • There was a cop who held a gun on a five-week-old infant. (Dude, what the f___?)
  • You can add your own.

And while we're on the matter of sidearms, I should say that I was obsessive in checking my sidearm, both to make sure it was loaded when I needed it to be and that it wasn't when it wasn't supposed to be.

To be candid, once I did find the damn thing unloaded in the field, and actually had to chamber a round on a call (not that I felt felt too self-conscious about it. After all, cocksure movie cops do that stuff all the time. Of course that's just because idiot directors like the sound of a round being racked as a prelude to an action scene.) Still, might I suggest you periodically press check your chamber to make sure it is loaded, even when you're sure it is.

If you're carrying a semi-, you might want to feel the base of your grip from time to time, too (I was surprised at to find that magazines would occasionally drop from the Beretta's while they were doing some little something, like getting in and out of cars).

I give you this advice because when it comes down to it, it's a helluva lot better to be ready to drop the hammer, than find that someone else has the drop on you and your gun is in your holster or in your hand and not ready to fire.

I'd love to hear comments from fellow officers. When do you draw your duty weapon? How often do you press check to make sure that one is in the chamber? Have you ever found your weapon empty on duty?


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