Should Off-Duty Cops Always Carry a Gun?

By: - August 10, 2019

The debate about law enforcement officers (LEOs) carrying firearms even while off duty takes on renewed significance with any mass casualty attack. Some officers never leave the house unarmed. Others never carry while off duty. I think the most prudent is somewhere in between but much closer to never leaving the house without a firearm.

Capt. Shane S. McSheehy, at Calibre Press, recently addressed this issue. I’d like to expand on it. When considering writing about off-duty carry, I read Capt. McSheehy’s article, which mirrored and validated my seed-thought for this piece when he wrote, “It’s better to have it and not need it, then need it and not have it.” That is so true.

I’ve often gone through mental scenarios where a violent, life-threatening incident unfolds before me. I instinctively reach for my gun. It’s not there. That sinking feeling is construction material for nightmares, especially if I had friends or loved ones with me.

McSheehy offers this unequivocal advisory: “All law enforcement officers must make a solid commitment to carry their life-saving firearm, on or off-duty.”

The officers who choose not to carry often cite placing their families in danger as their reason. Sometimes cops, especially newer officers, feel that if armed when off duty, they must take police action even if it doesn’t involve life or death or significant injury. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Carrying at all times is an insurance policy. For non-violent crimes and mutual combat fights, be a good witness. That’s prudent. But if that rare event occurs where a mass shooter pulls out a firearm or starts driving a vehicle into the crowd you’re standing in, you haven’t placed innocents in harm’s way; you may be in a position to save innocent lives.

When I first studied martial arts as a kid, my sensei taught us a tenet which intersects with having and not needing: it’s better to be prepared than paranoid. At my agency, earlier in my career, our policy mandated (with practical exceptions) officers be armed while in the city limits. This makes sense, as it obviously increases public safety.

Later in my career, with the anti-gun winds increasing, the city decided to make this mandate optional. A mistake in my opinion, but they never cared much about an officer’s opinion. What do we know?

The argument for consistent off-duty carry is a solid one. When you become an LEO, you take on extra responsibility for your community. As most people have heard, an off-duty cop can be forced on-duty by circumstances at any moment. And being able to protect yourself and your loved ones is a given.

While on the job I kept a mental Rolodex of scenarios (actually, I still do). I’d go through “what ifs” in my head, so if things suddenly went sideways, my brain wouldn’t be unprepared. I think being mentally (and physically) unprepared is what causes a temporary stress-induced paralysis—trapped between fight or flight. A field training officer (FTO) for six years, more than one student officer demonstrated this phenomenon for me. If you haven’t trained your mind, you have no “page” to turn to so that you can react effectively.

But today’s anti-gun society doesn’t make preparedness easy. More and more, leftists are working to restrict where law-abiding gun owners can carry their weapons—even cops. I was stunned, as an on-duty police officer, the first time I went to testify in federal court. The U.S. Marshals told me they had to disarm everyone, including cops—even took my pepper spray, asp (collapsible baton), and radio.

My understanding is disarming everyone except federal law enforcement may be at the discretion of the specific federal judge. If some U.S. government officials feel they must disarm non-federal law enforcement, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, how much hope do we have that guns and cops won’t continue to be unfairly demonized? Back in the 1990s, we had a person running for city council who advocated for cops leaving their guns at work when they went off-duty. There are some politicians today who would love to see this happen.

About this negative atmosphere, Capt. McSheehy wrote, “The proposed mitigation strategy discussions for these weekly mass shooting events are convoluted by political agendas, special interest groups, extreme activists, and a climate where LEOs nationwide are being demonized.”

Aside from sworn LEOs being armed at all times (with practical exceptions), non-LEO “good guys with guns” should also consider carrying whenever possible. Retired LEOs and military are obvious people who should think about being armed. But also, many civilians are well-qualified to carry firearms and to respond properly should an active shooter incident occur.

In fact, many civilians have used their guns to stop active shooters. One relatively recent case was a Texas man, Stephen Willeford. In November 2017, he heard gunshots coming from a nearby church. He grabbed his AR-15 and ran toward the gunfire. He shot the gunman twice, causing the murderer to turn the gun on himself rather than shooting more people.

In an interview with Stephen Crowder, Willeford, a former NRA instructor, made it clear what made the difference in his ability to respond to a heavily armed shooter. Anyone who’s decided for everyone else that “no one needs an AR-15″ should consider Mr. Willeford’s words.

“If I had run out of the house with a pistol and faced a bulletproof vest and Kevlar and helmets, it might have been futile.” He added, “I ran out with an AR-15 and that’s what he was shooting the place up with.” Some people believe they can neatly mentally package every violent scenario a person could possibly face and then decide for others what weapons are appropriate. This is foolish, especially since most anti-gun activists don’t know the first thing about guns and using them.

Like a modern 19th century community militia, 21st century Americans must be a de facto community militia ready to respond to violent crimes, including active shooters. Just like the people of Lexington and Concord responded to sudden danger in their communities, Americans today, like Stephen Willeford, must be ready to stop evil.

It’s interesting, perhaps even ironic, that in those colonial-era battles from where the shot heard round the world was fired, their community militias were responding to the British (the government) soldiers coming to confiscate the colonists’ guns and ammo. Why did they do that? Well, it wasn’t to keep the people safe. It was for control—just like today.

With people like Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) and the growing anti-gun leftist chorus now openly calling for firearms confiscation, what the British government was doing to the colonists at Lexington Green and at the Old North Bridge in Concord is something we should view as a cautionary tale. The Second Amendment sets us apart from other nations on earth and for good reason.

We’re not about to allow a tyrannical government to abridge our natural rights ever again. And our firearms, the ones we have a right to keep and bear, are not only our means for recreation, hunting, and self-defense against criminals and foreign powers (in the unlikely event of an invasion) but also our last line of defense against our own government turned tyrannical.

Off-duty cops and good guys with guns have saved people and will continue to do so only if we continue to enjoy the blessings of liberty. We can’t sacrifice our hard-won freedom for some illusion of safety. Trite? Maybe. But, these days in this hail of leftist attacks on gun rights, we can’t say it enough.