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Handling Police and Armed Citizen Encounters

By Duncan Mackie // 10/01/2011

Some states require CCW holders to notify police they are armed on contact with them. Many more states do not have such a requirement, but is it a good idea anyway?

It’s great to live in a country free enough to allow law-abiding citizens to carry concealed pistols for personal protection.

I’ve lived in places, both here and abroad, that don’t do that, and I can tell you from personal experience that what we have for concealed carry is better! However, there are times when being legally armed can raise some interesting questions, such as when we interact with police.

Many people go a lifetime in the United States and never do more than encounter police, literally, in passing. For many more, their only encounter with police is a traffic stop or accident, with or without a ticket. While we all worry about being victims of crime, it is still relatively rare, statistically speaking, for the average law-abiding citizen to be a crime victim and encounter police in an investigatory capacity. Since CCW holders are among the most law-abiding of citizens, the most likely police interaction for them is the traffic stop.

Some states require CCW holders to notify police they are armed on contact with them. Many more states do not have such a requirement, but is it a good idea anyway? The answer may vary depending on whom you ask, but regardless of what state I’m in I err on the side of caution and tell law enforcement officers (LEOs) that I am carrying. My reason is simple: I have yet to meet the cop who likes surprises. I prefer to tell them I’m carrying, rather than have them find out on their own.

Thinking back to my own time in blue, I encountered people who had CCWs and I appreciated their telling me they were armed. I did not appreciate the few times I had to find out about it on my own! Besides, most cops don’t know who we are when they encounter us in their official capacity as guardians of public order and safety. Anything I can do to demonstrate good faith is good for both me and the officer.

Cops are like us; they want to go home after work with their moving parts intact and no extra holes in them.

Consider the respective roles in interactions between police and armed civilians. That of the police is to enforce the law and maintain order among a citizenry that has a range of legal rights and privileges that police are obliged to respect and protect in the course of their duties. At the same time, police must protect their own safety and that of the public. For their part, legally-armed citizens are entitled to exercise their Second Amendment rights, and are also obliged to exercise those rights responsibly. The cop knows himself to be a good guy, but he does not necessarily know that those he encounters in the course of his duties are good guys.

Add a gun to the equation, and the cop’s danger radar goes to instant high alert. Police are bound by their duty to the public, and their duty to their own survival, to take precautions when encountering people with guns. All this taken together makes sensible courtesy and sober caution the order of the day when we find ourselves armed in the presence of police. It also means we should give some leeway to police when we encounter them while we are armed.

Depending on their agency’s policies, police may have less operational discretion in encounters with armed people than I did when I enforced the law. They also often operate in an environment that is more forgiving when officers use deadly force against what they reasonably perceive to be threats from armed citizens, even when those perceptions later turn out to be wrong (such as the Amadou Diallo incident in New York City, where Diallo was shot 41 times by NYC Police after they mistook his wallet for a weapon).

This means if police know you have a gun, and think you are a threat to them or others, you are more likely to be shot. We can argue all day about whether this is good or bad, but I submit it is a fact of life, and that both sides of the badge will be better off if the armed citizen errs on the side of caution and behaves prudently, politely, and respectfully when encountering police while armed.

Cops are like us; they want to go home after work with their moving parts intact and no extra holes in them. Cops also deal with the full spectrum of humanity for a living, often in adversarial and hazardous circumstances. While most of that humanity is honest and law-abiding, and the vast majority of police-citizen interactions benign, a small minority is sufficiently dangerous to have feloniously killed an average of 62 police officers nation-wide annually in the 14 years between 1996 and 2009, and to have injured on average 56,405 police officers in those same years (according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports). There’s a reason most cops, especially the good ones, are suspicious. They must bring that suspicion to bear in every interaction they have, and they must be especially careful when guns other than their own are present.

Handling police and armed citizen encounters

Every situation is different, but here’s what I do: First, I lower my tinted windows, and if it’s a night-time traffic stop, I turn on my interior lights. I tell any passengers to let me do the talking, to keep quiet, and to keep their hands in plain sight. My hands stay in full view on the steering wheel, and I make no sudden moves. I present my driver license and CCW to the officer when he approaches me. With my hands in plain sight, I tell the officer, calmly and politely, that I have a CCW, that I am carrying and where the pistol is, and I ask what they want me to do.

The last time I did this, the Nevada State Trooper returned my CCW saying he didn’t need it, and then went back to his car to write me a speeding ticket. He brought the ticket back to me, asked me to sign it, returned my driver license, and we both went on our way. He said not a word about my gun. Alternatively, you can take Massad Ayoobs’s advice of handing over your CCW with your driver license and let the officer take it from there, and answer any subsequent questions politely and honestly.

If it’s a non-traffic interaction, I politely and calmly tell the officer at the first opportunity that I have a CCW, that I have it on me and where on my body I have the pistol, and ask what he wants me to do. If the situation permits, I provide my driver license and CCW, as in a traffic stop. In any event, I answer questions politely and honestly; I do what the officer says, slowly and carefully; and I keep my hands in plain sight, without making any sudden moves.

Your experience may vary by jurisdiction and their policies (both written and unwritten) about citizens with guns, and by the attitudes of individual officers. Some LEOs may take possession of the gun until the contact is over, returning it at the end of the encounter. Some officers may prone you out, handcuffed, until the end of the contact or until they are satisfied you are not a threat. Some may react like the Nevada State Trooper I encountered, while still others may want to talk about guns and carry gear. The one constant is that both parties are armed, and like it or not, police will likely view you with suspicion and caution until they are satisfied that you are not a threat or that the threat is neutralized.

If you have used a gun in a defensive situation and police are arriving, make sure the gun is not in your hands.

I recall a traffic stop I made one summer night. I approached the vehicle cautiously, flashlight in my weak hand and my strong hand on the butt of my pistol, checking the car’s interior as I approached, and keeping my light on the driver’s hands while asking for his license and registration. My light followed his hands as he opened his glove box to retrieve his registration, and the light caught the butt of a pistol.

I shouted for him to “Freeze!!” while my service revolver came out of its holster and went up against his ear. I ordered him to slowly grasp the butt with thumb and forefinger and to very slowly bring it out of the glove box and give it to me ever so carefully! It was a tear-gas pistol. We had an interesting discussion about cops getting jumpy when they see guns, especially at night during a traffic stop. I also suggested he might consider alerting officers to its presence to keep from having revolvers stuck in his ear–or worse!

Police-citizen interactions are not a good time to debate the legal merits of concealed carry and police attitudes thereto. We armed citizens know we are good guys, but the cops don’t know that. Granted, some cops can be heavy-handed, even badge-heavy, but in my experience, many, if not most, are pro-gun and pro-concealed carry, and will be as nice to you as you and the situation will let them be. Still, some cops don’t like armed citizens, and some can misunderstand and misinterpret (or even ignore) laws regarding concealed carry.

Having been on both sides of the badge, my advice is to be polite, be cooperative, obey the officer’s order, and don’t argue with them. Even if you are in the right and the officer is in the wrong, arguing can be interpreted as being hostile and uncooperative at best, and as resisting police at worst. If you think the situation was handled wrongly, get the officer’s name and take it up with police management after the fact.

If you have used a gun in a defensive situation and police are arriving, make sure the gun is not in your hands. If you must stay pointed-in to maintain control of the bad guy(s), be still and obey police commands to drop the weapon. Don’t argue, just drop it immediately.

Five Stay-Alive Tips

The good guy syndrome

Cops see themselves as the good guys. They are sworn to protect, serve and arrest; they are trained and experienced; they have uniforms, badges, and guns. A legal presumption of good intent and proper action cloaks much of what they officially do. As legally-armed citizens, we know we are certified good guys, too, because we went through training and at least two criminal background checks to get our guns and carry permits. We can unconsciously bring that “good-guy” attitude into our interactions with police. I think we need to be careful with that. The following story will illustrate why.

In the summer of 2010, Eric Scott went shopping with his fiancée at the Costco in the Summerlin area of Las Vegas. He had a CCW and was armed while shopping in the store. Costco has a corporate no-guns policy, although this Costco was not posted to that effect. During the course of his shopping, an employee noticed he had a weapon.

Interacting with police while armed doesn’t need to cost you your life.

The employee alerted store management, who called police to report a man with a gun. Three officers responded and ordered the store evacuated so they could wait outside the store entrance for the man with the gun to come out. A store employee waited with them to point out the man in question. When Scott and his fiancée left the store, police ordered him to freeze.

Details about what happened next are murky, even after a lengthy and thorough police investigation. It does not help that the several store surveillance cameras were not working that day. Witnesses reported seeing and hearing different things. At least one witness reported hearing Scott say, “I am disarming.” Seeing him move his hands and thinking he was reaching for a gun, the three officers shot him dead. A coroner’s inquest found the shooting justified.

I live in the Summerlin area, and regularly shop at that Costco (it is still not posted for guns). I wasn’t there, but based on the press reports, I surmise Eric Scott fell tragic prey to the good-guy syndrome, in that he knew he was a good guy, and unconsciously assumed police would understand that he was acting safely and responsibly to defuse the situation by peacefully disarming. Instead, it cost him his life.

Interacting with police while armed doesn’t need to cost you your life. Keep your hands off your gun, be polite, keep your wits about you, use common sense, give police some leeway, and it should be a non-event for you and them.

Related: You draw your weapon in self-defense, what happens next…? Find out the 6 things you didn’t know would happen when the police arrive…