Real world impact of open-carry on peace officer’s
Senate Bill 17 by Sen. Estes would remove the requirement that Texas Concealed Handgun Licensees keep their self-defense handguns concealed. The Bill was considered in a public hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee on February 12, 2015, along with SB11, the so-called campus-carry Bill. Some of the testimony given was given by police officers and sheriffs as well as well as a representative of the Sheriffs Association of Texas. This article will focus on SB17 (open—carry) and its impact on Texas peace officers.
As was expected, law enforcement professionals who testified were asked pointed questions about the impact open-carry would have on Texas peace officers. While few testifying on open-carry (SB17) expressed outright opposition, it was clear by their statements that two others were clearly opposed. Austin Police Dept. Chief Art. Acevedo and Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia come quickly to mind. Some like the Sheriffs Association of Texas strongly supported both bills. Other officers did not oppose or support open-carry, but they did express two primary concerns; i.e. 1) how law enforcement officers would determine if a person has a license to carry a handgun; and 2) the risk of someone “snatching” a licensee’s pistol from their holster.
Although this issue generates a great deal of emotional discussion among open-carry supporters, it is a legitimate concern for law enforcement professionals. It is a situation where two groups of good people with differing viewpoints and missions are going to be encountering one another every day throughout Texas, if open-carry passes. Open-carry supporters understandably do not want to be stopped and interviewed by a police officer or deputy sheriff simply because they are carrying a handgun openly, an act that would be perfectly legal if SB17 passes. On the other side of the coin, law enforcement officers are going to be dispatched in response to man-with-a-gun calls and it will be their duty to investigate. Other officers will see people carrying handguns openly entering stores, shops and public parks and a lot of citizens will demand that they verify that the person is carrying the gun legally. How shall the legitimate interest of both groups be balanced? Unfortunately, there is no bright line answer.
Open-Carrier to Police: Don’t Profile Me! When one speaks of profiling by law enforcement, the topic of discussion is almost always racial profiling. However, some of the more outspoken open-carry supporters are already equating racial profiling with profiling a person based solely on the fact that they are openly carrying a handgun. The argument is that it is insulting to be considered a threat when they are not doing anything illegal. The concept is much like the allegation that a person is stopped on traffic “for driving while black.”
When all of the emotion and heated rhetoric is stripped away, this position is not unreasonable for law-abiding Texans. Law enforcement officers must adjust to the new normal if open-carry passes. They must put aside any personal preferences about how to carry a self-defense handgun and do what they do every on shift, evaluate every situation based upon the specific people involved and the surrounding circumstances.
Police to Open-Carrier: I Have a Sworn Duty to Protect! Like it or not, there will be man-with-a-gun calls going to law enforcement agencies from concerned citizens and business owners. It is unreasonable to expect that police and sheriff’s departments will ignore these calls as a matter of standard operating procedures for their departments. All it will take is for a department or individual officer or deputy to ignore such a call or report only to have that man-with-a-gun murder someone, and the open-carry issue will explode in the media. In such circumstances reporters love to ask “why didn’t you do something!”
Whatever the answer, it is not likely to satisfy the public who expect law enforcement officers to always make the right decision. If an officer stops an individual solely for carrying a handgun openly, he is labeled a bully with a badge for harassing a law-abiding citizen. If he walks past that same person and the open-carrier later kills someone or commits an armed robbery, then the officer is denounced as incompetent, uncaring or both. The officer will find himself on the horns of a dilemma.
It is likely that the number of man-with-a-gun calls will diminish as people become more accustomed to seeing law-abiding Texans carrying handguns openly, but that will take time. Meanwhile, law-abiding gun owners and law enforcement officers, people who are natural born allies, must find a way to make open-carry work as well as concealed-carry has for almost twenty years.
A Senate Committee Member opposed to open-carry suggested that CHL holders carrying handguns openly be required to wear some type of insignia such as a label pin worn by Senators and Representatives. Other suggestions are to have some type of identification worn on the belt close to the handgun.
Any type of identification or insignia requirement will not be a workable solution to the “good guy v. bad guy” quandary facing law enforcement. Badges absolutely are not options! This would lead to no end of complaints about impersonating a peace officer, “COP want-to-be,” etc. Badges are out.
Non-badge insignia such as label pin are too easily counterfeited, so they would not be a reliable source of information for the public or law enforcement. Wearing one’s Concealed Handgun License on their belt or around their neck as is often done with employee identification would come closer to being reliable, but this too is undesirable. By Texas law, all information DPS has concerning a licensee is confidential, so it would be against public policy to require a CHL holder to wear their license for everyone to see their name, address and other information.
Bottom Line: Wearing any type of identification, insignia or badge is not a viable option.
Statutory provision: Some states have statutory provisions holding that the mere presence of an openly-carried handgun alone is not justification for law enforcement officers to stop and interview a citizen. At first blush, this sounds like a tremendous limitation on the ability of a law enforcement officer to do his or her job. In practice, it is not.
The concept is much like Tex. Penal Code §9.31(b)(1) that states force in self-defense is not lawful “in response to verbal provocation alone.” However, when you add something to the mix in addition to verbal provocation, self-defense is then lawful. So it would be with an officer observing someone carrying a handgun openly under circumstances that would lead a reasonable officer to suspect that criminal activity has occurred, is occurring, or will occur. So if the answer to the question “why did you stop John Doe” is “because he was wearing a gun,” then the stop would be unjustified. If the answer is “because he was wearing a gun and he appeared to be casing the convenience store,” then the stop would be justified.
Leave the decision to stop to the officer’s discretion: Reading this section is going to make some of the more ardent open-carry supporters hyperventilate, but this is realistically what is going to happen regardless of the law’s wording. The testimony given by McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara during the public hearing on SB11 (campus-carry) touched on the issue of identifying likely criminals. He said what every experienced law enforcement officer knows, experienced COPs can just tell when someone is up to no good. No, it is not a 100% guarantee, but it certainly comes close.
Yes, there will be some officers who are jerks and they are going to hassle anyone carrying a handgun openly, just as some open-carry supporters love to make videos of them harassing officers doing their jobs. Thankfully, the numbers in both groups are very small.
Bottom Line: When people openly-carrying a handgun act responsibly and respectfully, we have every reason to believe law enforcement officers will do likewise. Those in the Senate and high profile law enforcement positions who do not want to see open-carry pass are simply throwing everything they can against the wall hoping something will stick.
This is a topic that requires open-carry supporters and law enforcement officers to step into the other’s shoes in order to rationally discuss the issue. Some open-carry supporters seem to be taking the position that having one’s handgun snatched from its holster is merely a red herring being used by officers opposed to open-carry. This is not the case, not by any means.
Law enforcement officers live with the knowledge that many officers have been killed with their own guns over the years, as well as the knowledge that it could happen to them on any shift. This threat is very real and the consequences of having a violent attacker snatch one’s self-defense handgun is the same for a mom with three kids as it as for an officer. The vast majority of law enforcement officers in Texas support a citizen’s right to carry self-defense handguns. When they speak of the dangers of a criminal obtaining your handgun, it is a heartfelt warning, not an attempt to obtain a political objective. The question is not “is gun snatching an issue,” the question is “how do we deal with the issue?”
While gun “snatching” is an issue for both law enforcement officers and citizens carrying a handgun openly, the level of the threat is markedly different. The nature of an officer’s job and duties requires them to interact with violent criminals, many of whom consider the murdering of an officer to be a badge of honor. Many years ago a study was conducted that generated rather startling conclusions concerning the murder of law enforcement officers. It was learned that more violent criminals not only took pride in murdering officers, they were especially pleased when they were able to disarm the officer and kill him or her with their own gun.
It appears that most occurrences of an officer’s gun being snatched involve an officer interviewing a subject or trying to arrest the person. A quick search did not reveal a situation where someone simply walked up behind an officer and attempted to snatch their handgun. There is little doubt this has occurred, but such incidences are likely very rare.
Open-carry supporters point to other states that have allowed open-carry for years as evidence that it is a non-issue for citizens. This is quite possibly true, but the small number of people actually carrying openly in those states render this anecdotal information of questionable value. This is especially true since the number of people carrying openly appears to vary widely between urban and rural areas.
Should retention holsters be required, and if so, what level of retention? A retention holster is one that requires that some retention device or feature be overcome before the handgun can be drawn from the holster. Level 2 holsters typically just have a retention strap, while Level 3 or 4 holsters require more manipulation before the gun can be drawn.
Retention holsters are slower to draw from, especially for people who have certain physical limitations such as arthritis and for women in general. The greater the retention level, the slower it is to draw the pistol. Police officers have been killed while trying to draw from a retention holster and citizens would not be immune to just such a scenario.
Risk/Benefit Analysis. Like most things in life, deciding whether to incorporate a legal requirement for retention holsters requires an honest risk/benefit analysis for the Legislature. Absent a legal requirement, whether to wear a retention holster also requires a citizen to conduct their own risk/benefit analysis. When dealing with self-defense handguns in holsters, however, this is a two way street. There are risks and benefits to both retention and non-retention holsters.
It appears that the risk to citizens, or even an off-duty law enforcement officers in plain clothes, of their handgun being snatched is relatively low compared to a uniformed officer on duty. It also appears that the risk of a handgun being snatched is much greater during a violent confrontation than merely standing in line to order a hamburger. (This writer could find only one incident where a citizen’s handgun was taken from them when there was no prior threat or confrontation.) Couple this with the fact that, unlike law enforcement officers, citizens are not required to intervene in violent encounters and it appears that the real world risk of gun snatching is minimal.
Conversely, the risk of an armed citizen not being able to draw their self-defense handgun quickly enough to defend against a deadly attack is much greater with a retention holster. Ironically, retention holsters for civilians could actually increase the likelihood that an attacker would gain possession of the citizen’s handgun in a violent confrontation.
“Good guy” identification and weapon retention are legitimate issues for officers and civilians alike. Two groups of people try to use these issues to drive a wedge between armed citizens and law enforcement personnel. Anti-gun, high ranking, politically motivated law enforcement officials contend that dealing with these issues would be too difficult and too costly such that open-carry (and campus-carry for that matter) should not pass. Some few open-carry supporters contend that law enforcement officers cannot be trusted with discretion concerning “good guy” identification and that claims of weapon retention issues are an attempt to prevent passage of open-carry. Both extremes are wrong and are merely promoting their own political agendas. Law enforcement officers and Concealed Handgun Licensees have gotten along great for almost twenty years and there is every reason to believe they will work well together, if open-carry passes.