Special Report: Backup Gun Policies--Gun Control

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.

David Griffith 2017 Headshot

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."


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.

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.


Winds of Change

There are basically two reasons why an agency will choose to alter its firearms policy to allow its officers to carry backup guns: Something terrible happens to one or more of its officers because they didn't have backup weapons or a new chief comes in and changes the agency's firearms philosophy.

Administrators of the San Antonio Police Department are now in the final stages of changing the department's firearms policy to allow backup pistols. They also claim the soon-to-be-effected policy change has nothing to do with the Jamie Lichtenwalter incident. But judge for yourself.

Last January San Antonio's finest was called to a Denny's restaurant to break up an altercation between Lichtenwalter, a parolee and strip-club bouncer, and his dancer girlfriend and another man. Detectives David Evans and John Bocko responded to the call, and they pretty much thought everything was resolved peacefully, when Lichtenwalter punched Bocko so hard that it broke the detective's jaw, grabbed Bocko's Glock, and started firing.

Lichtenwalter emptied Bocko's Glock, seriously wounding both Bocko and Davis, then lifted Davis' sidearm and continued shooting. Two other officers, Michael Muniz and Nathan Murray, responded as backup and exchanged shots with Lichtenwalter. The gunman was killed in a pitched battle with Muniz who was shot four times and received a Medal of Valor for saving three fellow officers from certain death.

Some San Antonio officers believe that the incident wouldn't have been quite so tragic if department policy would have allowed Bocko to carry a backup gun. And they may have a point.

In an e-mail interview published in the San Antonio Express-News Bocko wrote, "I remember Jamie following me around and just blasting away at me. I pleaded with him, 'Don't kill me, I have kids. That didn't even faze him, and seconds later he finally hit me in the upper back." Witness accounts say that after Bocko was shot in the back Lichtenwalter kicked him and pistol-whipped him with his own Glock.

Backup gun proponents say the Lichtenwalter incident illustrates the reason why officers should have the option of carrying a second handgun on duty. If Bocko had been allowed to carry a second gun, he might have been able to end the Lichtenwalter rampage before three other cops were wounded.

And while the Lichtenwalter incident is not the official reason that San Antonio is changing its backup gun policy, it definitely played a part. A department spokesperson says the policy was changed at the request of officers. It's not much of a reach to believe that those requests became louder and more frequent after four brother officers ended up in the hospital after a rampaging ex-convict shot them with the duty weapons of not one, but two, San Antonio PD detectives.

Tragedies like the Lichtenwalter attack can provide the impetus for policy change in an agency, but a much more common way that policy changes is with a change of leadership. A new chief can come into an agency, especially a small agency, review the policy, and decide "that ain't right."

Which is exactly what happened earlier this year when Chief Ross Licota assumed command of the Lighthouse Point (Fla.) Police Department in northeast Broward County. Licota, who came to his position from the nearby Delrey Beach Police Department, was surprised to discover that his 32 sworn officers were not allowed to carry backup guns, and he set out to change that.

"I think in police work it's appropriate for an officer to be able to carry a backup weapon for safety reasons," says Licota. "It was my opinion that it needed to be changed." Licota, who had carried a backup gun when he was a young street cop, believes a second gun is a key survival tool for officers. "All officers need to have every advantage possible," he says. "The availability of a secondary firearm is something that certainly makes sense to me, and I think it's appropriate for the profession."

Open Ears

Backup gun advocates like Licota don't have to be sold on the concept. But even some chiefs who are opposed to their officers carrying secondary handguns say they are willing to listen to requests from officers who want to do so.

Of course rank-and-file officers may be reluctant to approach their commanders with such requests for fear of being reprimanded or otherwise punished. This is something that each officer will have to assess before speaking up. But some chiefs interviewed for this article say they are open to well-researched discussions of the issue.

And if you need someone to speak to your chief about the benefits of backup weapons, you can call for help. There's a fellow officer in South Congaree, S.C., who's grateful that he will have the chance to watch his children grow up, and he'd be glad to speak with your chief about how his backup guns made that possible.

Murphy Never Sleeps

Why should you carry a backup gun? Because of the law. Murphy's Law.
Murphy never sleeps and his law goes double for someone who is depending on a machine, in this case a semi-automatic handgun, for his or her survival.

Machines break; machines malfunction, and machines as small as handguns can be misplaced or even taken from their owners.

Armorers say that police service weapons rarely break in the field. It happens but not that often.

Malfunctions, however, are another story. Level One and Level Two jams, otherwise known as lockbacks and stovepipes, can probably be cleared in a gunfight, if you have cover and time. A Level Three malfunction is a double feed. This jam happens when the spent casing fails to eject from the chamber but the magazine attempts to feed a new round on top of it. A double feed is a royal pain on the range. In a gunfight, it leaves you with two options for survival: run away (and hope they don't shoot you in the back) or draw your backup gun.

Finally, there's a Level Four malfunction, basically a broken gun. A Level Four malfunction cannot be cleared without disassembling the weapon, and you're not going to do that in a fight.

In a gunfight you have an immediate need for two things: cover and a working gun. And you can be deprived of a working gun by malfunction or by losing it.

The most likely way to lose a gun is to have some prison-pumped gorilla take it away from you. Defensive tactics instructors say the best way to handle this attack is to focus solely on keeping your gun. However, if that gorilla actually gains control of your weapon, your backup gun may be your only hope.

Establishing a Backup Gun Policy

Some agencies set their backup gun policies through verbal command of the chief or other high-ranking officers.

This is really not a good idea. Whether officers can carry secondary handguns, like all other firearms and use-of-force issues, should be established in the departmental policy manual. Having a written policy will help you defend yourself against nuisance lawsuits.

Understand, a written policy won't prevent you from being sued if one of your agency's officers has to use a backup pistol to drop the hammer on a bad guy. But if you can prove the officer carried the weapon in accordance with policy, that the officer has qualified with or otherwise proven competency with the weapon, and, most critically, that the use of deadly force was reasonable, then you probably won't be buying a local member of the Bar Association a new Benz.

Michael McLaurin, a planner who has written or rewritten more than 10 policy manuals for police agencies, says the first step is to get out of the mindset that we've never had a written policy and we don't need one, because you do need one.

"One of the things we do when we work with an agency to write a policy manual is that we capture all of the unwritten policies that describe how the agency operates," explains McLaurin, who works for the Centralina Council of Governments, a Charlotte, N.C.-based regional planning agency. "Typically when we do policies, backup weapons are written in as part of the equipment that officers are allowed to carry. Then the policy spells out the criteria for carrying backup weapons."

Criteria for carrying backup guns varies from agency to agency, but the following are some good basic elements that should be included in any comprehensive backup gun policy:

  • Type or caliber of backup gun to be carried.
  • Registration of the serial numbers on the backup weapon with the de- partment to safeguard officers from being accused of carrying "throw- down" guns.
  • Frequency with which the officer must qualify with the weapon. Some agencies require quarterly qualification with duty weapons, and annual or semi-annual qualification with backup guns.
  • Approval of the gun by the department armorer or rangemaster.

No Backup on the Border

If any law enforcement officer in the United States needs a backup gun, it's a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Working huge, isolated areas of the Southwest in one-officer cars, Border Patrol agents are often way out of reach of backup from other agents and even from local law enforcement.

And the job is very dangerous. Border Patrol agents have found themselves in firefights with gun runners, narco traffickers, and illegal alien smugglers. They carry rifles and shotguns in their cars, but no backup handguns.

How the Border Patrol lost its backup handguns is a cautionary tale for agencies that allow their officers to carry secondary weapons but haven't set the policy down on paper. For as long as veteran agents can remember, the Border Patrol had no policy on backup guns. It was left up to individual agents. Then in the '90s, Border Patrol firearms policy was established by Clinton administration bureaucrats who set the policy that agents could carry only one handgun.

Now that the Border Patrol has been incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security, the agency's commanders are working to change the policy. Assistant Chief of the Border Patrol HarryJames Ruffel says that ranking agents are working on a use-of-force and firearms policy that will permit secondary handguns.

However, federal agencies change their policies at glacial speed, and even Ruffel won't hazard a guess as to when the policy will change.

But Border Patrol officials are listening to requests from the agents, and Ruffel is pushing for change. "We would certainly like to have that option available to any agent who has the foresight to carry a backup weapon."

Ruffel says he is optimistic that the policy change will be approved. "There must be some government support for the idea because the current ongoing Department of Homeland Security pistol procurement very specifically includes a subcompact weapon," he says.

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