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Cover Story

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

Even backup gun proponents agree that weapon retention is a critical concern for all officers who carry secondary concealed weapons on duty. However, they counter that training, concealment, and proper holsters reduce this threat.

That last point's a bit controversial, however, because most concealable holsters do not offer the retention technology found in duty holsters. San Diego PD rangemaster Dave Douglas, who writes a column on holsters for American Handgunner magazine, readily admits that most of the holsters available for concealed carry of backup guns offer little in the way of retention. But he adds that retention holsters are not really necessary for safe carry of concealed handguns.

"The whole problem with the retention holster argument about backup guns is that the bad guy is not supposed to see your backup gun. It's supposed to be concealed. It's supposed to be a surprise," Douglas says.

Much of the concern over backup gun retention seems to stem from horror stories about ankle holsters. One police executive referred to ankle holsters as "rags" and Douglas says "they're better than nothing, but not by much."

Yet even officers who worry about the security of their backup guns in ankle holsters say they use ankle holsters. One officer who asked not to be identified comments, "The chances of my backup gun coming out of my ankle holster are slim, even in a scuffle. I've never had a problem with my holster coming off or my gun falling out of my holster."

Practice to Survive

Another issue with ankle holsters and other methods for carrying backup guns is that they don't make the gun very handy. "That's true," says Lt. George Walker of the Savannah-Chatham (Ga.) Metro Police Department. "Ankle holsters, in particular, aren't that great for accessing the weapon." However, Walker has a solution to the backup gun draw problem: training.


Drawing a backup gun, especially from an ankle holster, is not the easiest of moves. Defensive tactics trainers advise officers who carry backup weapons to practice drawing the weapon from the same place you carry it on duty.

And of course trainers agree. "When an agency authorizes someone to carry a backup gun, it must give them training with that gun," says John T. Meyer, president of the police training company Team One Network. "If it doesn't, then it's running into some serious issues."

Most of the agencies contacted for this article that permit officers to carry a second handgun have strict requirements that must be met before they can do so. Typically, to carry a backup weapon, an officer must either use an issued gun or one approved by the agency armorer and he or she must qualify annually or semi-annually, drawing and shooting from the weapon's intended holster and carry position.

Nowicki adds that qualification is great, but officers need to practice as much as possible with both their primary and secondary guns. In addition, he advises officers to be consistent with where they carry the backup gun on duty and on the range. "If you get under stress in a situation where a lot of things are happening all at once, you need to be able to go to that backup without having to pat yourself down and find it," he explains. "Think of it like shifting the gears on a car. If you drive a five-speed transmission, it's manual, but once you get acclimated to it, it becomes an 'automatic transmission' because you don't have to think about shifting gears. You just do it because you're trained."

Training, or more accurately, lack of training, is cited by some agencies as justification for prohibiting second guns. Skot Garrick, a spokesperson for the Columbia (S.C.) PD, says that one of the primary reasons why his department doesn't allow backup weapons is that it doesn't have the resources to outfit and train officers with backup weapons.

Nowicki, who is the founding executive director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), says he sympathizes with agencies that face budget constraints and that flinch at the cost of training officers with backup weapons.

However, his sympathy only goes so far. "Chiefs tell me, 'We don't have time and money for the training that we already do, and now we have to train them on backup guns, too.'" His response to such comments is short and succinct. "There's no such thing as a free lunch," says Nowicki.

We'll Get Sued

Legally "lunch" can get very expensive if an agency allows officers to carry backup weapons without the proper training and qualification. Shielding their agencies from such lawsuits is another argument against backup guns that is voiced by some police administrators. A typical statement came from University of Maryland Department of Public Safety administrator Dillon. "Our officers are authorized to carry only one firearm and it's the same gun on and off duty," he says. "We believe that policy decreases our liability."

But does limiting officers to one gun really provide some cover against litigation? Probably not.

Police liability attorney and former officer Mildred K. "Missy" O'Linn was amused by the question. "What makes them think they have more liability for second guns? Are their officers not carrying guns to start with?"

O'Linn, who is a partner at Manning & Marder, Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, explains that the question of liability in a police shooting hinges on whether it was a good shoot. "The liability for an officer having and using a weapon that causes trauma to another individual's body is all going to be about whether [the use of that weapon] was objectively reasonable in the first place. It isn't going to matter a hill of beans whether it's a gun I picked up off of a nearby table and used because it was immediately available or whether it was a weapon I pulled off my duty belt."

The real liability involving backup guns is for agencies that take a laissez-faire view of the subject. If your agency doesn't have a written policy spelling out that officers can use backup guns or it permits officers to carry backup guns without requiring them to qualify with the weapons, it could be asking for trouble.

"With regard to secondary handguns, I think departments should take an affirmative stance, either yea or nay, and policy should address it," says O'Linn. "I would also strongly recommend that they allow officers to carry second weapons. Then if any officer chooses to do so, he or she needs to qualify with that weapon and the department rangemaster must approve it."

We Don't Need It

An attentive reader will notice that two of the officers cited in the examples of backup guns being used as a last-ditch weapon are law enforcement officers who work in small towns. The lesson here is that you don't have to be working the worst neighborhoods of a major metropolis to find yourself in need of a second handgun.

But that's a lesson that many smalltown chiefs have yet to learn. When asked why they don't permit their officers to carry backup guns, they say, "We don't need them."

The basic conceit evidenced by such comments is that violent crime in the agency's jurisdiction is minimal and its cops haven't been in a gunfight since the Truman years. That may be true, and it may be something to be proud of, but the second lesson that all cops should heed from the Pruitt case in the tiny crossroads town of South Congaree, S.C., and the Reising case in the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin Borough, Pa., is that a cop can be attacked anywhere, anytime, and from any direction.

Some opponents of backup guns argue that their agencies provide sufficient additional firearms and backup officers so that officers don't need a second handgun.

Botetourt County, Va., covers approximately 547 square miles and is home to about 31,000 people. A force of 68 sworn deputies covers this territory in single-officer vehicles, which means that the nearest backup is as much as 10 minutes away. Since deputies can't carry backup guns, if they are away from their cars and come under attack, they could find themselves trying to clear serious pistol malfunctions (see "Murphy Never Sleeps" on page 38) while trying to make their way back to their cars to grab 12-gauge shotguns or AR-15s.

Guilliams argues that such a scenario is far-fetched. "I've been here 27 years, and I've never seen a case where a backup gun would have been an asset," he says. "I teach officer survival in the regional academy, and I don't know of any situation regionally where it would have been an asset."

Smaller jurisdictions say that officers don't need two guns on their person because other officers are near enough to effect rescue when the chips are falling. "We have a less than one-minute backup response time," says Norwich PD's Fusaro. "So in one respect we do have backup guns because of the quick backup provided by fellow officers."

One minute is a great response time for backup. However, it should be noted that the entire shootout in Pruitt's South Congaree PD patrol car lasted about three minutes, and he had two backup guns. If he had been armed only with his duty Glock, the attack might have ended much sooner, but not in Pruitt's favor.

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


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