Off-duty guns and Carry: Why, what and how to carry
Only you can make this risk assessment for yourself and determine the appropriate tradeoff in terms of having a weapon when you need it versus the inconvenience it entails
This article from 2007 was updated by PoliceOne Staff in December 2016.
By Ralph Mroz
For years, respected law enforcement trainers and training organizations have stressed the importance of carrying a firearm off duty. Let’s touch on some issues you should consider when deciding whether or not to carry off duty, as well as some firearms and carry options.
Add your own thoughts on off-duty carry in the comments section below.
To carry or not to carry
The general argument for carrying off duty is the need to be prepared to defend yourself against a violent attack–which as we know can strike anytime and anywhere. Some argue that attacks are fairly uncommon and the odds don’t warrant the inconvenience and possible discomfort of carrying a firearm. Following the philosophy of renown trainer John Farnam (an off-duty carry advocate): “Ninety percent of all self defense is not doing stupid things, not going to stupid places, and not hanging with stupid people.”
There’s a lot of wisdom in that statement.
Only you can make this risk assessment for yourself and determine the appropriate tradeoff in terms of having a weapon when you need it versus the inconvenience it entails. Remember, needing a gun is usually an all-or-nothing affair: if you need it, you really need it and nothing else will do. Let’s consider reasons you should carry a firearm while off duty.
First, you may believe that you can handle any off-duty situation you encounter, but what about your family? If you’re with them when something bad happens, your world suddenly becomes a lot more complicated. Lesser options such as running away, deescalating, or simply relying on your empty-hand skills may not be possible with your family present.
Even if your defensive capability is unchanged, the presence of family alters the risk assessment. If you’re alone, you may be willing to accept higher risks while not carrying a weapon, but are you willing to impose that same risk on your family?
Second, as a police officer, you are at greater risk than the average person. You have arrested, sent to jail, and/or generally made life miserable for any number of people. With that comes the certainty that a certain group of people, many with violent tendencies, hates you. Not everyone can say that, but you can count on it. Making the situation worse, these perps can — sometimes with little effort — find out where you live.
If you choose to carry off-duty, there are three constraints that should apply to your choice of gun.
1. Department policy. If your policy specifies that you can only carry a certain gun off duty, then there’s your answer. But since, by definition, you are not on the job while off duty, then such a policy provision is perhaps questionable, unless your department also requires that you be armed off-duty. This argument assumes you have a regular citizen’s pistol permit and are carrying on that authority while off duty. If your state has no such provisions, then you are carrying on the authority of your commission and naturally your policy applies. In any case, policy — like it or not — is still policy and you should adhere to it.
2. Caliber. The whole purpose of a defensive handgun is to stop a life-threatening attack. There is universal agreement on very few points in the firearms training community, but everyone agrees that firearms of less than .38 caliber (or 9mm, which equals .36 caliber) are not advisable. Regardless, any firearm of any caliber is better than no firearm at all.
3. Trigger pull. Chances are that most of your trigger time is on your duty gun. Therefore, under stress, your body and brain expect to feel the trigger weight and length of pull on that duty gun. Lighter trigger pulls can set you up for negligent discharges.
What to carry
If you decide to carry a gun off duty, in theory you can carry anything that’s legal. However, for practical purposes, there are really only four classes of guns that make sense: your duty gun, a smaller version of your duty gun, a small semiautomatic, or a small revolver.
1. Your duty gun. This choice has a lot going for it. You don’t have to buy another gun, you’re already very familiar with it, and it’s utterly court-defensible. Really, the only reason that you might not make this your choice is because you find it more convenient to carry a smaller gun.
2. A smaller version of your duty gun. There’s nothing wrong with this choice either. Most of the arguments above for your duty gun apply, and in fact all of them apply if your agency also issues the smaller gun — perhaps to smaller officers, detectives or administrative personnel. You will gain some concealability and convenience with the smaller gun, but it’s still a different gun! It feels different, points different and shoots different. Practice with it!
3. A small semiautomatic. If you prefer something other than a version of your duty gun, that’s fine — just keep the constraints listed above in mind. There are two manufacturers who pretty much dominate the small automatic category and who don’t offer full-size duty guns. Although Kel-Tec and Kahr Arms take different approaches, both make reliable and deservedly very popular small semis. Both are worthy of serious consideration.
The Kel-Tec P11 was the original subcompact size 9mm, introduced about a decade ago. This little 11-shot, polymer-framed pistol, 5.9-inches long, 4.3-inches high and 1-inch wide soon acquired a large following and has proven reliable. In 2007 Kel-Tec introduced the PF-9, a revised P-11. Holding eight 9mm rounds in a thinner (0.9-inches) P-11 size package, and including an accessory rail, the PF-9 shows great promise.
Kahr Arms makes a variety of small and very small pistols in 9mm, .40 and .45 caliber. In addition to a choice of calibers, Kahr offers a variety of finishes and a choice of polymer or steel frames. Kahr pistols have likewise acquired a large and loyal following, and are widely respected and reliable.
4. A small revolver. The little snub-nose revolver may still be the most popular back-up/off-duty gun going. They are small, lightweight and easily concealable. Also, their double-action triggers make them safe to carry in a pocket, and they accept a wide variety of ammunition. The Smith & Wesson J-frame series pretty much dominates this field, although Taurus revolvers are popular as well.
The J-frames consists of an ever-expanding line of revolvers, all built on the same small frame. They come in various constructions and weights, from all steel to all lightweight alloys. The lightest model is a mere 10 ounces or so (unloaded). Add a Crimson Trace LaserGrip, and the snubby’s effective range (and effectiveness under stress) increases dramatically.
How to carry
Off-body carry, such as in a briefcase, purse or backpack isn’t recommended. It’s too easy to get separated from the firearm, too slow to access, and too easy to forget and/or lose. With that, let’s assume you will carry your off-duty gun on your body. Here are several tried-and-true methods.
1. On the belt. The traditional strong-side hip belt holster is traditional for a reason: it’s the most secure, fastest and comfortable way to carry a gun. Of course you need a concealing garment with a gun worn this way, and weather or dress codes that make a concealing garment out-of-place are the main reasons professionals sometimes choose an alternate mode-of-carry. Note also that there is a trend among progressive trainers to carry the concealed gun in front of the hip in the appendix position. You’ll need an appropriate holster to do so, or one of the holster alternatives such as the Covert Carrier or the G.I. Stealth Concealment Holster from Ghost, Inc.
2. In a waist pack. These are made by a wide variety of manufacturers, generally with either a fast zipper or Velcro opening These are a pretty good choice when you can’t wear a concealing garment, with the disadvantage that they can be uncomfortable when you’re seated. If you’re going out to eat, particularly at a nice restaurant, they may not be the best choice.
Consider these two things:
1. get a pack in a non-tactical color because black screams gun,
2. make sure the gun you plan to carry fits in it properly. It takes a larger pack than you might think to carry even a small gun, spare ammunition, ID, and maybe a light.
3. Under the shirt. Under-the-shirt, cummerbund-like carriers with pockets for a gun, ammo and other devices, usually referred to as belly bands, are a good choice. These devices allow the carry of all but large guns. If you tuck in your shirt, you’ll need to prepare for quick access, generally by leaving a button open or replacing a button with Velcro closures.
4. In your pocket. Pocket carry has a great deal going for it. It’s easy, convenient and access is generally fast. You should not carry a naked gun in your pocket as there is too much chance that something will get inside the trigger guard and discharge the weapon. Always use a pocket holster. These range from expensive, custom-made models to inexpensive synthetic versions available in any gun shop.
They all serve the purpose, and your choice should be dictated by comfort, concealment, cost and how well they fit your gun and pocket. The only real drawback of pocket-carry is that access is difficult while seated.
5. Ankle holsters. These are not recommended for carrying your primary weapon, either on- or off-duty. These require you to bend over and remain stationary while drawing, which severely inhibits your ability to fight during real-world, close-in spontaneous attacks.
Carrying a gun off-duty is not an end in itself. It is part of a system of self-defense. As a part of that system, remember to also carry:
- Spare ammunition. You may need it. Don’t assume a gunfight will end quickly.
- A high-intensity light. Not only are these force multipliers, they have inherent self-defense capabilities. Also, they are useful as plain old lights! For example, while walking in a dark parking lot, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to see into all the dark places around you, and potential lurking assailants.
- A cell phone. Think about it. You’ve just had an encounter. Maybe you had to shoot someone, maybe you didn’t. Either way, you will want to call the local police immediately.
- Your police ID. For all the obvious reasons.
- Cuffs. If you shoot a perp, or simply hold him at gunpoint, you should be able to cuff him. This may or not be possible if you’re alone, but a set of flat plastic cuffs can usually be carried easily.
The decision on whether or not to carry off duty is yours. Choose wisely.
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