When they first pinned a badge on me in 1972, carrying a gun off duty was pretty much part of the law enforcement culture. Some departments mandated it, such as NYPD and the Providence, RI PD. Most others, including mine, strongly encouraged it.
Time passes. Things change. I keep hearing from law enforcement instructors that in some of their departments, as little as 10 percent of the sworn personnel go armed on their own time. Today, I can’t think of a single large law enforcement agency requiring its people to carry guns off duty.
Being unarmed off duty can have tragic consequences, though.
In November of 2018, a mass murderer opened fire in a country-themed bar in Thousand Oaks, CA. He racked up a two-digit death count. Able to predict where responding police officers would make entry, he ambushed them there, shooting one several times.
It turned out there were multiple off-duty policemen in the bar at the time. They could have stopped the murder almost immediately and they could have dropped the bad guy before he ambushed incoming officers.
But they didn’t. Because none of them were armed.
Most agencies forbid carrying a gun when under the influence of alcohol, which may mean even one drink. We all get this. But, where the law allows, wouldn’t it be wise to do what we already do when we’re going somewhere to consume alcohol? That is, just as we have a non-drinking Designated Driver, have a Designated Defender carrying a gun and not consuming alcohol? Perhaps even the same individual?
But none of that encompasses explaining departments where only a few of those authorized to carry do so. Department culture is a part of it. If the old heads all carry off duty, more of the younger ones will. But street police work is a younger person’s game, and law enforcement trends toward early retirement, leaving relatively fewer of those old cops still working and influencing the new ones.
Social trends create a complicated subtext, too. In recent years, anti-police rhetoric in the media and elsewhere has made police work less desirable. We’re simply not seeing as many qualified applicants as we used to. With a smaller candidate base from which to select, law enforcement has to take more people who see it as “just a job.” Many of those candidates weren’t gun people to start, don’t particularly like guns, and won’t carry one unless they have to. The anti-police mentality has also resulted in more anti-gun chiefs being appointed by politicians, and anti-gun chiefs don’t foster a “be ready at all times” attitude.
If carrying concealed when not performing law enforcement duties, cops have much in common with armed citizens in terms of carrying guns. First, there’s expense. My own police alma mater, I’m proud to say, has issued additional handguns for off-duty/backup use since 1993. Most agencies don’t, and particularly for young cops at entry level salaries, a concealed carry gun is expensive. One answer to this is simply a good concealment holster for the department-issue weapon. Back in the day, I got a lot of my cops into carrying their duty gun in a good IWB holster like the Bianchi #3, which is still a good option today for a full-size service auto. A Black Mamba IWB holster will carry a GLOCK 17-sized pistol with mounted light comfortably and discreetly beneath an untucked shirt.
There’s also the size and weight issue. It’s worth reminding folks that in my time as a rookie, we couldn’t dream of a 9mm auto the size of a .380, or a .380 the size of some .25 autos — but both exist today in abundance. With S&W Shields in 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP, GLOCK 43 9mms, and more, and with the tiny Ruger LCP .380, suddenly “It’s too heavy” or “It’s too hot to conceal something that big” simply aren’t viable excuses. For trained protectors to render themselves helpless to save themselves, their loved ones, and yes, the members of the public they have sworn an oath to protect and serve seems to me to be reckless, at best.
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