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What cops need to consider about armed citizens

The presence of a gun does not always indicate a threat


Authorities respond after reports of shots fired at the Riverchase Galleria in Hoover on Thursday, Nov. 22, 2018. A man was shot and killed by police after a fight at the mall ahead of Black Friday shopping resulted in gunfire that injured several.

Photo/ABC 33/40 via AP

Armed citizens and police officers are natural allies, and teammates in the fight against crime. There is no segment of the community more supportive of law enforcement than their fellow citizens who are lawfully armed.

So why are they accidentally killed by police with such distressing frequency?

In recent years, we’ve seen a number of tragic mistakes made by police officers who shot and killed lawfully armed citizens in error, including a homeowner in Aurora, Colorado, a security guard in Chicago, Illinois, and a Thanksgiving eve shopping mall patron in Hoover, Alabama, among others.

In each of these situations, the officers believed they were using force to stop someone who had endangered innocent life, but they were sadly mistaken. The officers were thrust into a dynamic and dangerous situation where they had to act quickly based on imperfect and incomplete information, and each of them made a fatal error that cost a life.

We still don’t understand the details of how these particular events unfolded, so it’s inappropriate to comment directly on the circumstances or assign blame. There were probably mistakes made by all parties – both armed citizens and police – which led to the unhappy endings of these stories, and this is not the place to hash that out.

Tactical considerations

Instead, I’d like to suggest some things for police to consider in order to avoid a tragic repeat of these events:

You’re outnumbered. There was a time when carrying a firearm in urban America was virtually the exclusive domain of cops and crooks, but those days are long gone. In the early 1980s, state legislatures began to correct the imbalance with laws that made it easier for law-abiding citizens to obtain permits or licenses to carry concealed firearms in public, and in recent decades, the trend accelerated to the point that almost every state in the union provides a method for average citizens to exercise their Second Amendment rights. In more than a dozen states, lawfully armed citizens don’t even require a permit to carry a firearm, today. Unless you live in one of the repressive states, there are many more armed citizens out on the streets than armed law enforcement officers – you are the minority.

Evaluate your culture. In some geographic regions, and in some departments, the local police culture hasn’t caught up with the reality of a lawfully armed public. Officers in these agencies are still trained to think that the only people who have guns, besides cops, are criminals. This just isn’t true, of course. Even in the most restrictive areas, there are still citizens who are lawfully permitted to carry firearms in public, and that number is growing daily. Not only are more permits being issued, but reciprocity laws between states have expanded the number of non-residents who can carry across state lines. Additionally, improvements in federal laws like the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act (LEOSA) have increased the chance of running into an active or retired officer who is armed, but not in a police uniform. If your department’s culture encourages you to think that a non-uniformed person with a gun is probably a criminal, that’s a problem that needs to be fixed immediately.

Physiological effects. Your training and experience have taught you that officers can experience a range of physiological effects during stress, to include temporal distortion, tunnel vision and auditory exclusion. Armed citizens are no different, and they may experience these symptoms more severely than officers if they lack experience dealing with life-threatening stress. As a result, armed citizens may not hear your commands to “drop the gun,” or may not even see you at all, if they’re suffering from auditory exclusion or tunnel vision. You have to understand that, and account for it in your response to the perceived threat. A failure to drop a weapon doesn’t necessarily indicate hostile resistance to your commands, so look for other signs to confirm criminal intent before you decide to engage.

On the flip side, be aware of your own physiological response to stress, and understand that you may not hear verbal warnings from the crowd that the suspect is actually a “good guy,” and you may not see the witnesses waving you off, or pointing in the direction of the real criminal. Use techniques like tactical breathing to lower your own stress level and gain control of your faculties, so you can receive aural and visual inputs to help with your decision-making process.

Use good tactics. Use cover, concealment and other good tactics – like issuing commands from behind cover, triangulating with the help of other officers, or making an approach from a direction that gives you an advantage – to help increase the amount of time you have to identify the intentions of the armed person, gain his attention and compliance, and make good decisions. Pulling the trigger is an irrevocable decision, so don’t put yourself in a position where you have to make this choice quickly if you can control the tempo of the contact and slow things down with good tactics.

Communication is key. While en route to a call, ask the dispatcher to get clarifying information about the suspect and his actions, and ask if there are any armed “good guys” on scene. Ask the same questions of the people you encounter upon arrival, and LISTEN to the answers. In several of the incidents listed above, there’s evidence that dispatchers and police officers were notified that there was an armed citizen on scene, but didn’t understand or process the information. Witnesses and family members may provide you critical information that will help you to avoid a bad shoot, but you have to concentrate on what they’re saying to actually receive the transmission. Once again, tactical breathing and other techniques may help you to control your own stress, and make you more receptive to these vital inputs.

It’s important for you to recognize that there may be many barriers to effective communication. Background noise like sirens, crying, or yelling may make it hard to hear, and an armed citizen who has just fired a gun – especially inside a closed environment – may be experiencing temporary hearing loss. Take these limitations into account and be careful to ensure that two-way communication has actually occurred – that the message has actually been received, and not just transmitted.

Evaluate the behavior. In stressful, dynamic situations, it can be difficult to tell who all the players are. Trying to sort out the victims from the attackers can be difficult in the confusion and chaos, especially if the would-be victim turns out to be armed and shoots in self-defense. The critical thing to remember is that the presence of a gun does not indicate a threat – the person with the gun is not necessarily a criminal! It’s up to you to evaluate the behavior of the armed person and determine if they are acting criminally or just using force in the defense of innocent life.

This judgment will be very difficult to make unless you have some information and the time to evaluate it, so once again, it is imperative you use good tactics and good communication to maximize both. If a person is executing innocent people before your eyes, the decision is easy to make, but it’s a lot tougher when you roll up on a scene where somebody is holding another person at gunpoint – is he a friend or a foe? You won’t know until you gather more information. You can’t always control the clock in emergency situations, but when you can, it’s essential to slow things down to enable more informed decisions.

Read the crowd. If you roll up on a scene where there’s an armed person surrounded by a crowd of onlookers, that’s a good indicator the person with the gun is not a threat to innocents. If they thought he was a threat, they would probably be showing some kind of fear and running away from him, instead of staying nearby. Are they cowering from him, or watching him with fearless curiosity? If you see a group on the move that includes an armed person, ask yourself, are they running with him, or away from him? Try to see how people are reacting to the person with the gun and use that information as part of your threat assessment.

Look for the signs. There are often critical elements of information that may help you differentiate a “good guy with a gun” from an armed criminal. Armed citizens often carry their guns in holsters, for example, while criminals almost never do. Therefore, the presence of a holster, a true gun belt, or a magazine pouch on the hip makes it more likely you’re dealing with an armed citizen than a thug. Similarly, armed citizens typically carry guns that are appropriate for the circumstances and in good repair – you’re unlikely to see them with sawed-off barrels, grips held on by tape or rubber bands, or novelty firearms (like a TEC-9) that are unsuitable for concealed carry.

Additionally, many armed citizens have received training that will result in behaviors that are consistent with “professional” gun handling. Criminal suspects rarely hold their guns in “low ready” or “Sul,” hold their trigger fingers off the trigger for safety, or use “textbook” shooting techniques like Weaver or Isosceles. Not every armed citizen will handle his weapon like a SWAT officer – just as not every thug will shoot with his gun held sideways – but the ones who do should give you pause, and make you delay just a little bit longer to verify whether they’re friend or foe before you press the trigger.

Lastly, although we cannot judge a book by its cover, appearances do make a difference. The man in the bathrobe is much more likely to be a homeowner defending his castle than a burglar breaking into it, yes? Perhaps he deserves a moment of hesitation to collect more information before you do something that you cannot undo.

Talk to an expert. If you police an area where encounters with law-abiding armed citizens are infrequent, consult a fellow officer with more experience in this area. Fish and game wardens, rural sheriff’s deputies and state police that patrol rural areas frequently deal with lawfully armed citizens in the course of their duties. Talk to them about the tactics they use and the things that they say to safely manage these contacts. Those guys who patrol the dirt roads have things they can teach you – learn from them!

Not easy

A police officer’s job is never easy, and a situation where an officer responds to an emergency and encounters an armed citizen can be especially difficult to resolve. Nobody is perfect – in or out of uniform – and everyone is prone to making mistakes when making quick judgments with incomplete information in moments of extreme stress.

However, a police officer is always responsible for their actions and must have a reasonable belief that it’s necessary to use lethal force against an individual before they do so. Developing a proper mindset and using good tactics and communication skills will help an officer make a better use-of-force decision, and help to prevent a tragic, mistaken-identity shooting.

Law-abiding, armed citizens are your friends. Watch out for them, and be safe out there.

Mike Wood is the son of a 30-year California Highway Patrolman and the author of “Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis,” the highly-acclaimed study of the 1970 California Highway Patrol gunfight in Newhall, California. Mike is an Honor Graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, a graduate of the US Army Airborne School, and a retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with over 26 years of service. He’s a National Rifle Association (NRA) Law Enforcement Division-certified firearms instructor, senior editor at, and has been a featured guest on the Excellence In Training Academy and American Warrior Society podcasts, as well as several radio and television programs. He’s grateful for the opportunity to serve and learn from the men and women of law enforcement.

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