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Back-up guns: Asset or liability?

I retired from a department in upstate New York that frowned on back-up guns. Well, frowned on is too polite. Prohibited is more accurate. Try as we might, my Firearms/Force Training Unit members and I were never able to convince the powers-that-be that back-up guns, properly registered with the Chief’s Office and backed up with training and certification, were an essential piece of equipment for cops in our jurisdiction.

Without coming right out and saying it, my guess was that the brass just couldn’t get over the idea that back-ups guns somehow translate into drop-guns. Instead, the answer was “you’ve got semiautomatic pistols with plenty of ammunition. You’ve got the latest in chemical agents and you’ve got brand new batons. You wanted more training time for weapon retention skills. We gave it to you. You don’t need back-up guns.”

A written policy from the Ivory Tower followed shortly after one of my more vocal requests when a back-up gun saved the life of a cop in a neighboring state. That new policy stated in sum and substance: “Officers will carry only department issued weapons while on duty.” My guess is that the readers of the PoliceOne.com newsletter who work for agencies that do not authorize back-up guns may recognize those thoughts and comments all too well.

There are numerous examples out there in the force training annals that support the position that back-up guns have saved cops’ lives. Anybody interested in hearing about those incidents can contact me; I’ll give you details and departments.

So enough said on that subject. The facts are undisputed. Getting bosses who haven’t seen the mean streets in a decade or more to recognize that back-up guns are not synonymous with drop-guns may take a little more work; so that’s where this article is headed.

One of the hurdles that might have to be jumped on the way to getting back-up guns permitted is the paper trail that should be created that will eliminate the confusion between back-up guns and drop-guns. That paper trail will also serve to reassure the brass that the guns won’t be misused. In theory, the documentation that should accompany back-up guns is really no different than what is now done when an agency adds a new tool to their tactical tool box of force options, whether it’s TASERs, patrol rifles or bean-bag shotguns.

The following is a short list that, in my humble opinion, should aid any agency in adopting a second (or back-up) gun policy.

First, a policy draft for back-up guns should include the fact that personally-owned back-up (or second) guns are, in fact, authorized. This should cover any liability issues that might arise from a shooting where a back-up gun is used. Several agencies I’ve consulted with have actually included a list of approved back-up guns (by make, model, function and caliber) in their policy manuals. Most list either compact models or mini-versions of the agency’s duty weapon and a few limit them to DA-SA (or DA-only) weapons.

Second, based on the type of duty gun carried by the agency, the back-up piece should be of the same caliber and it should be magazine compatible. In other words, the officer’s extra mags for his duty pistol should also work in the back-up gun, and of course, only department-issued duty ammo should be allowed.

Third, document, document, document. Training and qualification with the back-up gun should be no different than that which is standard for the primary duty gun. If an officer trains and qualifies three or four times a year with his or her duty gun, they should run through a similar (albeit a modified) course of fire with their back-up gun. This training should include a string of 12-15 rounds fired from the back-up gun with the duty gun’s magazine inserted. Hi-capacity extended mags that stick an inch or two out of the compact version or mini-gun are going to fit and feel a little different when held in the shooter’s hands; and familiarization is important. And don’t forget the draw. This back-up gun course of fire should begin with the gun being drawn from the hidden holster, be it an ankle holster, hide-away (vest) pocket or inside-the-belt job.

Next, the make, model and serial number of the officer’s back-up gun (even though it is a personally-owned weapon) must be recorded in both the Range Office and the officer’s official department personnel folder just like every other piece of equipment that officer has been issued. When a new back-up gun is purchased, the records need to be updated to reflect that new gun.

Number five; and this may ruffle a few feathers; the policy should state that back-up guns are subject to supervisory inspection at any time (including a function check) just like it was a department-issued firearm. Yeah, I know it is personal property, but the privilege of being allowed to carry a personally-owned back-up (or second) gun comes with a few compromises. Agency oversight is essential.

Lastly, if you have purchasing authority and work for a large agency that buys duty guns in bulk rather a department that requires each officer to purchase his or her own firearm, it may not be a bad idea to issue each officer his or her own back-up gun along with their duty gun. In other words, each officer, when they come on “the Job” and begin the academy, is issued a primary and a secondary firearm, identical in every aspect except for size.

The back-up weapon is the same make and caliber as the duty gun, and is issued with either an ankle holster or vest holster, depending on the officer’s individual preference. That also would eliminate the choice on the part of the officer to carry a back-up or not. Since it is department-issued equipment, it has to be carried at all times while on duty.

One advantage to this concept is that this issued back-up gun would also serve as the officer’s off-duty weapon; an obvious cost saving for the officer because now there’s no need to buy an off-duty gun. Of course, if they disagree with the caliber and want to carry large while off-duty, the agency may have to make some adjustments for that fact.

Now, let’s get back to the back-up gundrop-gun question. If for some reason, you’re worried about working with a partner who might be pre-disposed to use a traceable, registered, department-approved back-up gun as a drop-gun, then your agency has a much deeper problem that goes beyond the issue of back-up guns. My guess is that there probably hasn’t been a lot of time spent on the hiring and selection process in your agency.

Should you find yourself partnered up with a cop who doesn’t know the difference between a back-up gun and a drop-gun, you’ll have to handle it like any other corruption issue. And if you’re one of those rare cops who’s into “salting” suspects with drop-guns or throw-down knives, then this article isn’t going to mean anything to you.

About the author

Dave Grossi is a retired police lieutenant from upstate New York now residing in southwest Florida. A long-time firearms/force trainer and consultant – including more than a decade as a Street Survival Seminar instructor -- he frequently testifies for officers as an expert witness in use of force lawsuits. He welcomes your comments and can be reached at grossidave@aol.com .

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