Sgt Patrick Hayes writes:
YouTube is filled with videos of openly armed citizens interacting with the police. Some open carry advocates make the videos to capture a negative or unlawful police reaction to a legal practice. Some record an incidental interaction. The progress and outcome of these armed encounters usually depends on two key factors: geography and the officers’ attitude. In some states (e.g. Arizona) the police are comfortable with the practice. In other states (e.g. Rhode Island and Connecticut) open carry is so rare the police assume it’s illegal – or at least indicates an illegal activity. That’s the general picture. More specifically, though, bad things can happen . . .
There are two ways police come into an open carry situation. First, a police officer sees someone with a firearm. Second, an officer is dispatched to investigate “a person with a gun.” In Georgia, the person-with-a-gun calls usually come from citizens concerned about folks carrying rifles or shotguns in public (which requires no license in GA). Just like everywhere else, some of our citizens are either anti-gun, don’t understand gun laws, or scared by nature.
When a police officer is dispatched to a person with a gun call they have to investigate – even if it’s just to determine that the law is being followed. Usually, it is. But not always. As I’m sure you can understand, those of us charged with defending the thin blue line have to assume that a person-with-a-gun situation is at least potentially dangerous – for us, onlookers and the person possessing the gun. We have to be careful.
Ideally, a police officer encountering a fellow citizen openly carrying a firearm should be wary AND friendly AND respectful. The officer should recognize that the open carrier may be nervous; fearful of arrest or intimidation. The officer should not raise his or her voice or act in a physically aggressive manner. The officer’s word choice shouldn’t be combative or authoritarian. He or she should spend more time listening than talking.
As with any profession, there are good cops and bad cops, pro-gun and anti-gun police, law enforcement officials raised/trained to respect gun rights and those raised/trained to fear them. Anti-gun cops are a nightmare for open carry advocates or practitioners. These are cops looking for an excuse to arrest, intimidate or at least hassle citizens exercising their Second Amendment rights.
So how should you react when the police approach you when you’re openly carrying a firearm (in accordance with the law)?
First, PLEASE stop looking to create encounters where you can “out” a fascist cop. Intentionally provoking police officers is a dangerous game. If you do it to me, no problem. I’m happy to discuss your legal rights, I know how to talk and make sure you’re practicing gun safety at the same time and I love to talk about guns. If you do it to some cop who thinks he’s God, you can easily find yourself in a negative feedback loop. Which can lead to a ride downtown. Or worse.
Cooperate as much as you can. Do not under any circumstances unholster, unsling or touch you weapon in front of the officer unless he or she asks you to do so. If they do move slowly. You don’t have to bow and scrape to the officer, but do not escalate a confrontation by becoming aggressive.
If the officer is negative, obnoxious, ill-informed, generally unprofessional or acting illegally you can deal with that later, when it is safe to do so. If the officer is ignorant of the law, ask for a supervisor. Breathe easy and relax as much as you can; police pick-up on signs of stress (e.g. rapid breathing and body language) and can misinterpret your discomfort as aggression.
Take your time. Armed citizens who constantly demand “may I go now?” and “are you detaining me?” are forcing officers out of their comfort zone. You are perfectly within your rights to do so. Police are public servants after all. But they’re also people who have a job to do. A job that requires slavish attention to procedure where a mistake can derail their career. Also in the back of their mind: “what if I let a killer walk?”
Citizens approach me all the time, armed, to ask about a gun law they are not clear on, or ply me with gun or ammunition questions. As I said, I can talk guns all day. And I love it when an anti-gunner sees a cop and an armed citizen “talking shop” in public. But just as we can’t count on an armed citizen being harmless you can’t count on the police being polite and friendly. There’s no other way to say this: the open carrier’s best insurance against the worst case “bad cop” scenario is to keep your powder dry, in every sense.
Sgt Patrick Hayes is a 10 year Army veteran and a 20 year police veteran. He is a strong supporter of the right to Keep and Bear Arms and has actively been involved in gun rights issues for more than 20 years.