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Special Report: Backup Gun Policies--Gun Control

Despite the belief by veteran officers and trainers that backup guns are essential survival tools, some agencies still won’t let you carry them.

June 01, 2004  |  by - Also by this author


Few people can quantify what separates them from the "quick and the dead." But Officer Jason Pruitt of the South Congaree (S.C.) Police Department knows his number. It's 12.

Twelve miles is the distance between Pruitt's South Congaree jurisdiction and the nearby Columbia Police Department. But what makes the difference is not distance, it's philosophy.

Pruitt's department allows its officers to carry backup handguns. Officers of the Columbia PD are limited to only their issue sidearms. And the way Pruitt figures it, if he'd been working for the Columbia PD, an attack by a man he was transporting to jail late last summer would have killed him.

Last September, Pruitt was transporting Leavy Costello Rish to the Lexington County jail when Rish managed to Houdini his way out of his restraints, come through an opening in the partition between the front and back seat, and snatch Pruitt's .40 caliber Glock from his level 2 retention holster. Although shot in the finger, Pruitt managed to fight off the attack with one of his two backup guns and survive.

Some six months later, Pruitt peers into the bloodstained and bullet-scarred remains of his former rolling office and tells how the experience has made him an evangelist for changing the firearms policies of some police agencies. In between surgeries to restore some function to his mangled right middle finger and working his full-time duties on the small, but active, South Congaree force, Pruitt will speak with any officer anywhere about the need for backup guns.

"I want to help other officers change the idiotic policies at some of the police departments across the country," Pruitt says, closing the door to cut off the smell of death and carnage that pervades his soon-to-be-scrapped patrol car. "I cannot understand why a police department would not allow its officers to carry backup weapons. It's just stupid, and I'll tell any chief that. I don't care."

Pruitt has a big job to do. In a yearlong investigation, POLICE magazine has identified dozens of law enforcement agencies nationwide that forbid their officers from carrying more than one handgun on duty. This, despite the fact that numerous police trainers, veteran officers, and law enforcement firearms specialists say such policies are misguided and put officers and the people they serve at risk.

Reserve Chute

It's not hard to make a strong case for backup guns. The basic contention of backup gun proponents is that old saw that goes: If you absolutely have to have one of something to ensure your survival, then you better have two.

"I kind of look at my backup gun as a reserve parachute," says Officer Jeremy Cantrell of the St. Louis (Mo.) County Police Department. Cantrell's department allows its officers to pack a secondary weapon, and Cantrell does. "I would definitely feel much less comfortable without the security of that second weapon," he says.

Supplying a sky diver with a reserve chute is a matter of common sense, and police training expert and retired officer Ed Nowicki believes the same should be true for backup guns. "Anything you can do in a reasonable manner that can help keep officers safe and alive, then you should do it," he says.

Like reserve chutes, backup guns are last-ditch tools, but that doesn't diminish their importance. Anecdotal evidence shows that police officers find themselves in that proverbial last ditch at a rate of about once every two years.

The Pruitt case was last September. Two years earlier, in May 2001, Officer Steve Stanton of the San Diego PD was forced to kill a suspect with a backup gun when the suspect attacked him and tried to take away his duty weapon during a traffic stop. And in March 2000, Officer Kim Reising of the Baldwin Borough (Pa.) Police Department was attacked at a local convenience store by a man who wrested away her service weapon. She ended the attack by pulling a SIG Sauer .380 from her ankle holster and shooting her assailant.

Image is Everything

Chiefs that prohibit the carrying of backup guns argue that such incidents are rare and unusual. But it can also be argued that Pruitt, Stanton, and Reising would not be among the living if they had worked for such chiefs.

So in the face of such evidence and the advice of so many veteran street cops, why do some chiefs and other law enforcement administrators prohibit their officers from carrying a second concealed weapon?

Some chiefs have well-considered reasons that also pertain to officer safety. Others are trapped in the quicksand of "we've never done it that way." Some have inherited policies and never personally addressed them. And others are so concerned about police relations with the community that they are terrified that local media will publish an exposé about "Rambo" cops armed to the teeth or, worse, carrying "throwdown" guns that can be conveniently placed in the hands of suspects at the scenes of questionable police shootings.

Truthfully, police administration is a political job and permitting officers to carry backup guns requires political courage. After all, there are some officer safety issues that don't play very well in the media.

It doesn't take much imagination to picture the hue and cry that would develop if agencies began to take the advice of a veteran patrol officer who was interviewed for this article and who suggested that the best way to keep officers safe at traffic stops would be for American law enforcement to let officers carry submachine guns like the Italian and German traffic cops. Would such a measure make cops safer? Absolutely. Would it play in Pittsburgh? Probably not.

Image is everything in contemporary American policing. So much so that some agencies won't even discuss their documented firearms policies. Several major metropolitan police departments that permit second guns were asked to comment about their backup gun policies for this article and never responded, even after repeated requests. One of two conclusions can be inferred from their reluctance: Either they were too busy to talk about it or they chose not to comment.

But some police executives and administrators were willing to discuss their policies, yea or nay, on the issue of backup weapons. Even chiefs and administrators who set and/or perpetuate anti-backup gun policies were willing to defend their stands.

And while many officers would contend that they are wrong, the backup gun opponents' arguments are well considered, focusing on concerns about weapon retention, training costs, legal exposure, and the availability of other forms of backup that, to their way of thinking, obviate the need for officers to pack a second piece.

Holding On

One of the arguments that officers often cite for carrying concealed backup guns is the fear of losing a duty gun to an attacker. While officers have successfully used second guns to end attempts by bad guys to take their duty weapons, opponents of second guns contend that the presence of backup weapons on the person of an officer constitutes a danger to that officer and his or her colleagues.

"I'm against backup guns," says Maj. Gary Guilliams of the Botetourt County (Va.) Sheriff's Office. "If you're wrestling with somebody during an arrest, you're always trying to keep control of one gun. But if you have a backup, now you're trying to keep control of two."

Maj. Paul Dillon of the University of Maryland Department of Public Safety agrees. "A backup gun is just one more weapon involved in a fight. You do see cases where a second weapon was crucial in saving an officer's life, but I think you can find just as many cases where a second weapon was a hazard."

Chief Louis Fusaro of the Norwich (Conn.) Police Department says his agency's backup gun prohibition is in place to enhance officer safety. "We don't want our officers to have the difficulty of needing to control a second weapon in every situation they go into. Let's say you go to a domestic where there are no firearms involved. Well, that changes when you arrive. And if you have a backup gun, there are now two firearms involved."

Tags: Backup Guns, Duty Pistols, Immigration Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Concealed Carry


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