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The Unholstered Handgun

Published in the January 2006 Issue of Law & Order Magazine

by Thomas Aveni

A gradual but continuous erosion of the discretionary latitude afforded to law enforcement professionals has taken place. One such discretionary issue, never seriously scrutinized in years past, is the latitude officers have been given in determining when to unholster their handgun.

Officers learn, from their earliest days of training and experience, to assess the potential risk associated with a call for service (CFS) in conjunction with the situational nature of that call. Often the very nature of the CFS will influence an officer’s decision to unholster his handgun soon after arrival to the dispatched location. The vast majority of times this occurs, it is objectively reasonable.

If, for instance, an officer is responding to an armed robbery in progress, it would be unreasonable to expect an officer to wait until a threat becomes manifest before unholstering his handgun. You can apply this perspective to any number of higher risk calls for service that an officer might confront in a tour of duty.

Of course, many calls for service don’t fully parlay to the officer the extent of risk that he might face. A reported domestic disturbance complaint might not offer preliminary indications pertinent to whether a party or parties of that incident are exhibiting signs of aggravated aggression or whether and to what extent they happen to the armed. Under such circumstances we would expect to see an officer assess the totality of circumstances present to determine whether unholstering his handgun is warranted at that time, or as events unfold.

Often, an officer will unholster his handgun when a threat of aggravated aggression seems imminent. And, it should be noted here, that perception of an imminent threat might be to a third-party rather than to the officer himself. Distance from a perceived threat is relevant but elastic in nature. If, for instance, the officer confronts a violent or irrational subject at a distance of 50 feet, armed with a knife, it would be prudent for that officer to have his handgun unholstered.

The worst possible scenario an officer might confront is where there was no outward sign of impending danger and the officer must react to aggravated aggression without warning. When the officer is confronted with immediate danger, there may not be an adequate amount of time or distance to unholster the handgun and respond with deadly force quickly and decisively enough to assure self-preservation. While such scenarios don’t reflect the statistical norm, they do occur with enough regularity to be of considerable concern.

Tactical Advantages

One the primary advantages cited for having one’s handgun unholstered is the drastic reduction of time needed to respond to a lethal threat. Previous studies have suggested that an officer can react with an unholstered handgun 66 to 75% faster than he could respond with a holstered handgun. The difference is obviously more pronounced with Level-Three type security holsters, but the response range for a holstered handgun is generally 1.5 to 2.0 seconds.

An officer can typically respond to an imminent threat from a “ready” handgun in roughly 0.5 seconds. Given the close proximity of most lethal confrontations, and given the fact that most officers can fire four rounds in one second, the difference in reaction times generated from holstered and unholstered handguns have substantive survival implications.

Additionally, we tend to see officers apply shots fired with more precision when given additional time to react (i.e., with an unholstered handgun). The reasons for this are often simple enough. Officers tend to establish a more tenuous grip on their handguns when responding in haste and this issue tends to be exacerbated by the process of unholstering the weapon, especially from a security holster.

In addition, many officers will exhibit grossly exaggerated motions (jerking, swaying, shoulder dipping, etc) when forced to fire quickly from the holster. We could reasonably expect such counterproductive traits to be become exaggerated under stress. So, in the final analysis, we could reasonably expect a meaningful difference in shot placement between officers responding to lethal threats with holstered and unholstered handguns.

There is another critical advantage derived from having one’s handgun unholstered. Many instructors will readily tell you how what they’ve seen in training mirrors is what we see on the street: that an unholstered handgun conveys a readiness and willingness to use deadly force that often elicits subject compliance without shots being fired.

Conversely, a holstered handgun may encourage (as it seems to with regularity in force-on-force training) an adversary to take his chances that he’ll be able to act against the officer before he can react.

Tactical Disadvantages

When does the unholstered handgun become a tactical liability? In simple terms: when the gun isn’t needed, and when having both hands free is critical. Over the years that I’ve been digesting police shooting narratives, I couldn’t begin to enumerate the number of times I’ve found instances in which officers have inadvertently shot someone they were trying to subdue while having their handguns unholstered.

Another infrequent but troublesome behavioral quirk we continue to see is the use of the unholstered handgun as an impact weapon. I’ve recently screened cases for attorneys that have involved either “pistol whipping” (where the gun ultimately went off, killing the subject struck with the handgun) or forcible vehicle extraction (where an officer used his handgun to break the side driver’s window of a vehicle that had been involved in a pursuit, only to have the handgun discharge and kill the driver).

Murphy’s Law certainly applies to the chaotic world in which police routinely unholster their handguns. If it can happen, it probably will. That brings up another related and critical issue: handgun retention.

Over the last 15 years, with mass adoption of retention holsters, we’ve seen the numbers of officers slain with their own handguns diminish from roughly one in five officers killed annually, to fewer than one in ten officers slain. True, officers may be more aware of handgun retention as an issue than they were 20 years ago, but we haven’t seen any substantive increase in handgun retention training in that span, so the bulk of the credit likely belongs with retention holsters.

Having conceded that, one also has to concede that such a benefit is only derived from having a handgun properly holstered in a retention holster. There will be situations where we may have plenty of inducement to reholster our handguns hastily, when the situation warrants doing so. Consequently, it’s not unusual to see a handgun retention incident arise where an officer had his gun initially unholstered, and then reholstered in such haste that one or more snaps were not secured - negating the full value of a Level Three holster when a struggle ensued.

While extolling the perceived benefit of possible compliance-inducement that an unholstered handgun might provide, we should look at contrary arguments. There will be times when an unholstered handgun might provoke irrational or emotionally agitated subjects into behavior associated with an escalated risk of confrontation.

Certainly, there may be times when having your handgun drawn is objectively reasonable, and where keeping it inconspicuous is desirable. If you sense a need to have the weapon drawn in such circumstances, consider using visual obstructions (doors, trees, chairs, etc.) to veil or obscure the status of the handgun.

The so-called “boot-leg” position (weapon is drawn, but kept obscured behind the strong-side leg) is a viable alternative in some cases, though it may not obscure the handgun well enough to keep it from becoming provocative.

Officers carrying handguns in an off-duty or plainclothes capacity have an additional concern: that their unholstered handgun may leave them vulnerable to “friendly fire,” either from uniformed officers, or perhaps by citizens who are more frequently carrying legally concealed handguns of their own these days. When in plain clothes, assume nothing.

Your short hair and clean-shaven look may not help identify you as an officer as it may have 20 years ago. Let the world know who you are when the gun comes out, and exhibit your police ID as expeditiously as possible. Otherwise, consider alternatives to presenting your handgun, such as situational extrication!

Operational Considerations

There have been a number of noticeable firearms training trends in recent years that have been attributable to a “trickle-down” of SWAT tactics to beat cops. As one might have predicted, there have been both positive and negative outcomes associated with that process.

One such possible “negative” is that of applying the “muzzle dominance” concept to street applications. The term “muzzle dominance” is believed to have originated in the hostage-rescue realm, whereby hostage rescue teams assault a plane, bus, or train not knowing who and where the hostage-takers are, as they are likely intermingled with hostages.

The muzzle dominance tactic therefore arose out of necessity, as team members would storm narrow pathways between a sea of humanity, ascertaining as they go, who is compliant with their authoritative commands and muzzle disposition, and who isn’t. Where this tactic has its place, it is above challenge.

However, most beat cops haven’t been trained to that level of competency for storming anything formidable, let alone where hostages might be involved. So, to beat cops we must continue to implore: “never point your muzzle at anything you aren’t willing to destroy.” Consequently, the “Third-Eye Technique,” which often entails the handgun muzzle sweeping everything in the officer’s search pathway, is NOT a technique that should be universally taught to beat cops.

Training Considerations

For reasons all too obvious, and yet seldom addressed, officers must learn to reholster their handguns without looking, and without using their support hand. We generally need to keep our vision focused on people or areas of concern, and we often need our support hand free to fend off attacks or maintain physical control of noncompliant subjects.

Retention holsters are a proven, officer survival device, but we must ensure that officers are trained to a level of subconscious competency with them, and that we have met manufacturer’s recommendations for their break-in. Until these two issues have been addressed, we are likely to see labored handgun presentation and a resultant detriment in accurate, time-compressed shot placement.

The divide between having justification for having a handgun unholstered and having justification to have the weapon pointed at people is significant. Accordingly, muzzle and trigger-finger discipline are absolute training prerequisites if we are to enjoy continued discretionary latitude in when we are permitted to unholster our handguns.

Policy Considerations

While many agencies are defining or categorizing an unholstered handgun as a reportable “use of force,” this approach is both extreme and unnecessary. If agencies wish to document the frequency in which officers use their handguns to “cover-down” on subjects, the distinction between unholstering and covering-down should be clearly made.

Cover-down documentation could be used very constructively, as it would typically illustrate how frequently police challenge suspects, and how infrequently they actually use deadly force. As is usually the case, restrictive policy is not a reasonable or effective substitute for purpose-driven training.

Occupational safety concern establishes many operational imperatives. Allowing officers the discretionary latitude to unholster their handguns situationally needn’t be perceived as an operational liability. If officers have been properly trained and regulated through thoughtful policy parameters, continued discretionary latitude regarding when to unholster handguns should be of diminished concern.

Thomas Aveni, M.S. is a staff researcher and consultant with the Police Policy Studies Council. He can be contacted at tom@theppsc.org.