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July 21, 2008
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Richard Fairburn Law Enforcement Firearms
with Richard Fairburn

Why cops carry guns

“This is the law: The purpose of fighting is to win. There is no possible victory in defense. The sword is more important than the shield and skill is more important than either. The final weapon is the brain. All else is supplemental. — John Steinbeck


I suppose part of getting older is the eternal cycle of accusing the latest generation of being a bunch of wimps compared to their predecessors. Still, kids nowadays in the “X” or “Y” (or whatever they call themselves) generation are pretty different.

A few years ago, when I ran an academy firearms training unit, one of the range officers walked into my office and announced that Cadet “Smith” refuses to shoot a gun ... she wouldn’t even pick one up. “We’ve tried everything," he said, "even explaining she’ll be terminated from the program.  But she won’t touch the damn thing.”

So, Cadet Smith was ushered into my office. She was an obviously bright young lady, not much older than my daughter, but damn certain she wasn’t going to shoot a pistol. She thought that as a police officer, carrying a gun would be optional. Why goodness, gracious, she could never bring herself to harm another human being, so why would she want to carry a gun? Her goal, she explained, was to work with children or perhaps investigate internet crimes.

Putting aside my desire to ask several politically incorrect questions, I settled on conducting a polite little background examination. “What did you do before coming to the police academy?” I quizzed. She had been a social worker for Family Services. “OK,” I continued, “why do you want to be a Police Officer?” Her answer was simple and direct, “Cops make a lot more money ... but I will never fire a gun.”

At one point, the young lady made the argument that she should be able to choose whether or not to carry a gun. “After all,” she continued, “if I get myself killed for not carrying a gun, that’s my choice.”

WRONG ANSWER.

If we allowed the young lady to place herself in mortal danger by not being armed while on duty, other officers might need to risk their lives to save hers. By not carrying her fair share of the load, other officers could die. That is not a choice she is entitled to make.

True to her word, she never fired the gun. A short time later she resigned before being fired, returning I presume, to the world of social work. Surprisingly, we have encountered a similar mindset in other young trainees, all of whom eventually came around. We have seen variations of this in a handful of older officers when they are sent to Rapid Deployment training. The idea of charging into a school to hunt down an active shooter curdles the blood of a few experienced officers. Most officers embrace active shooter training and remember the “serve and protect” oath they swore, but a few claim they simply didn’t sign on to go into what they deem to be a “SWAT-only” environment.

The discovery of these misguided souls who manage to get past the screening process prompted me to develop a half-hour lecture for all new trainees I entitled “Gun-fighting 101.” If you train new recruits, you might find it handy for getting their attention.

1. We carry and train with firearms because police officers have a sworn obligation to save lives and sometimes deadly force is the only way to stop a terrible person from committing a terrible act. Our goal is to stop, and we would like to be able to stop them without the possibility of killing them, but we don’t have a Star Trek “phaser” to set on stun. Yeah, I know, we have an array of less lethal options for those cases where they are a viable alternative, but gunpowder and lead is the only certain way we have to stop the bad guys, for now.

2. The firearm is merely a tool we use to make the bad guy stop. A firearm is nothing more than a long-distance, chemically-powered cordless drill. They come with different size drill bits (I like .45 caliber, personally), but they all accomplish the same end. The cordless drill does its job by letting stuff run out the hole it creates. Generally, blood runs out. Sometimes the suspect’s life runs out, too. Sorry, but stopping sometimes requires killing, even deliberate killing with a head shot if that is our only option. Better him than me, or my partner, or an innocent victim. So, if you’re not mentally prepared to kill, you shouldn’t carry a gun. If you don’t carry a gun, you can’t be a law enforcement officer. Not being willing to kill doesn’t make you a bad person. Hell, you might be a better person than me. You’re just not cut out to be a cop — no shame in that. I suggest social worker, firefighter, or paramedic — noble public service professions, all.

3. Shooting a firearm is primarily a mental exercise. Some basic physical skills are also needed, but mastery requires the proper mindset. Part of that mindset is pre-deciding that you are capable of killing another human being under the proper legal and moral conditions. Get over the idea of the “Thou shalt not Kill” commandment. It was mistranslated in the King James version. The original language of the Commandment prohibited murder - an unjustified killing. Since before the days of King David, killing those who need killing is indeed God’s work. As Clint Smith of Thunder Ranch stated so eloquently on an episode of 60 Minutes II; “Some people just need to be shot!”

So, we need to strike a balance when new recruits are trained in deadly force. We need an officer who is willing to kill without hesitation, but would much prefer to never see that day come. There are some among us who WANT to kill someone; they live for the day. We need to screen them out, too. We must reach a delicate equilibrium between confidence in our ability to use deadly force, if we must - and those who WANT to or DREAD to use deadly force. It will never cease to amaze me that some individuals go through the entire law enforcement application process without giving a thought to the “dark side” of our profession. If law enforcement officers can’t wrap their mind around the concept of using deadly force, then they are not truly armed, even if they do carry a gun.

About the author

Dick Fairburn has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming, working patrol, investigations and administrative assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst and as the Section Chief of a major academy's Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident training program. He has a B.S. in Law Enforcement Administration from Western Illinois University and was the Valedictorian of his recruit class at the Illinois State Police Academy. He has published more than 100 feature articles and two books: Police Rifles and Building a Better Gunfighter.

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