Co-Authored by Douglas Mitchell
If you’re reading this article, you’re almost certainly one of the many decent people who’ve decided to live lawfully armed. You probably understand that the firearm itself is only a small part of that concept, and that knowledge and training are critical to truly protecting yourself and your loved ones. To do so as effectively as possible, you must thoroughly understand the legal considerations and complications that can accompany going about armed, specifically those surrounding interactions with law enforcement officers.
This will provide a sound foundation for your educational efforts, but it’s only a starting point. As a realistic matter, it must be general, because CCM readers live in all 50 states (and even outside of them) and all of those states and commonwealths are different legal and social environments. Although limited to interactions occurring while operating a vehicle, many of the principles can be applied in other settings.
The Officer Is in Charge
There’s an old adage that says, “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable,” and the wisdom of this observation couldn’t be more applicable than in the context of a peace officer stopping an individual who is operating an automobile while legally armed. Depending upon the actions of those engaged, the outcome could be catastrophic or inconsequential.
The best way to avert tragedy is by making sure to always act within a pattern of avoidance. Obviously, following the traffic laws and maintaining the vehicles you operate are key elements in generally avoiding law enforcement contacts, but since you’re (probably) normal, the statistics support the premise that one will occur sooner or later. Such a stop will inherently include what law enforcement calls a “special circumstance”… namely the fact that the officer is not the only one with a sidearm.
Like it or not, we all live in a time when fear might predominate our personal and professional lives. Some of this fear is rationally based; some of it is based on folklore and ignorance.
Most of us can recall how nervous we were when we first got pulled over by the police, and some can even recall the bizarre things they said or did.
Peace officers have come to perceive themselves to be more vulnerable not only because there are plenty of individuals who will attack them simply by virtue of who they are but also because of the disinformation being disseminated by pressure groups and recklessly repeated in many media outlets. This can potentially increase your risks, but, fortunately, you and your behavior are the most significant factors in protecting yourself against a negative perception among law enforcement personnel.
Most of us can recall how nervous we were when we first got pulled over by the police, and some can even recall the bizarre things they said or did. Nothing about that is unusual, and such statements are typical responses to the stress of the situation. But now the conditions have become much more complicated, in part because you’ve decided to go about lawfully armed. The dynamics and everything at stake for all parties mandate that we must all make a serious investment in prevention.
Understand that the law is clear that the officer is in charge: “The risk of harm to both the police and the occupants is minimized if the officers routinely exercise unquestioned command of the situation.”1 Subsequent cases have reinforced this rule and applied it to many settings. They tell you what to do, how to do it and, most importantly, when to do it. They decide when and where to stop you, and they get to control every step of the interaction.
Both authors of this piece have stopped many people and pointed guns at them, both in and out of vehicles. No one got hurt, because those people did exactly what they were told to do (or not do). In short, you don’t have any lawful discretion as far as your conduct goes. If you do not agree with what happens, your possible remedies are in the agency’s complaint process and the court system, period.
The Officer Doesn’t Know You
You must also understand that, at its core, law enforcement is full of interactions with people who are not like you and whose very nature is hard for decent people to accept.
Law enforcement officers, along with some other professions, see a lot of behavior foreign to decent people, ranging from odd to truly insane, from unpleasant to truly vile. This impacts their worldview, and they must be willing to believe that everyone with whom they have contact is capable of acting in violent, unpredictable ways.
Law enforcement officers do not have the luxury of believing that just because they work in a “nice area” or because you are well-dressed and polite, you’re incapable of acting in an anti-social manner. You know that you are among the most wonderful, law-abiding citizens, but the officer probably does not. If you act in a manner consistent with being a threat, no matter how innocently you do it, you will be treated as such until you are under complete control.
We have a few suggestions that might help reduce the risks to both you and the officer:
1) If you do not prepare prior to an interaction with law enforcement, you’re way behind.
You might or might not know why you are being stopped. You might have decided to speed, disregarded a stop sign, had some form of defective equipment or perhaps you or your vehicle might be perceived by an officer as related to a criminal act. Regardless of the cause, the effect is the “enforcement encounter,” which is a fancy term for you interacting with an on-the-clock cop, deputy or trooper. Statistically speaking, it isn’t a matter of “if” but rather “when” you’ll find yourself in such a situation.
2) You must be the one thinking preventively.
The officer’s mindset or expectations might be impacted by conditions you did not create and about which you know nothing, but you are now the focus of the action. You must do everything you can to minimize even the appearance of a threat. Make sure that your carry method is a holstered sidearm, carried on your body. Don’t have anything that is not critical in the same area as your registration and proof of insurance. Keep the material organized, and under no circumstance should you have a firearm in that area. (Think “glove box” if you haven’t already.) Doing so is certain to create a very unpleasant experience for all. If possible, carrying your ID should be done in a manner such that it is no closer to your sidearm than absolutely necessary. Go out of your way to make sure any family members who might travel in the car with you understand and live by those same rules.
Trust us: The officer was watching you for far longer than you probably realized.
3) Like everything else in life, communication is critical.
What you do communicates much more than what you say, and that non-verbal conversation begins long before the verbal one. Trust us: The officer was watching you for far longer than you probably realized. The event will include more than his individual perceptions; it will also include those of his partner if he has one, other officers or even other agencies, depending on the nature of the interaction.
4) Keep in mind that the officer might know more than you think if he follows proper protocol and has already given dispatch your license plate number.
The information he gets back before he initiates the stop should include your address, driver’s license information and other provisional information, perhaps even your status as a concealed carry licensee. Other protocols might make you very uncomfortable, but they are necessary for maximized officer safety. He will almost certainly talk to you from a position that is well behind you, so that it is harder for you to see (and thus attack) him. Don’t take offense; he should do everything correctly every time he interacts with anyone.
5) People see what they expect to see, so, once again, think preventatively.
The officer might not have observed or analyzed accurately, so remove all doubt and ask before doing anything. Assume nothing and keep safety your top priority — both yours and the officer’s. Keep your hands on the steering wheel until you are told to retrieve your registration, insurance or anything else.
6) When the time feels right, consider informing the officer that you are lawfully armed.
We understand that doing so might generate responses you don’t like, but, as training and officer socialization improve, the conflicts should decrease. Some states mandate informing an officer you are carrying, and, as such, the burden will be on you to understand and follow that law if it exists. Consider how you phrase the information. “I’m lawfully carrying,” conveys a very different mental image than, “I’ve got a gun.” This isn’t a game; there are no winners, only potential losers.
7) Understand that a traffic stop is legally considered a “Terry” encounter, and just as with any other “Terry” stop, the officer has the unquestioned right to disarm you.
Terry v. Ohio is a 1968 Supreme Court ruling that allows a law enforcement officer to search you if he can articulate a reasonable suspicion that you are committing, have committed or are about to commit a crime. The case law on the issue is almost completely uniform across the country; there are only two cases in which a different conclusion has been reached, and both are being appealed. Regardless of your opinion on the matter, whether it is a wise idea for an officer to handle a strange firearm is up to him.
Don’t do foolish things like open your door or try to get out of the car unless you’re told to.
8) Now more than ever, do what the officer says when he tells you to.
Just as importantly, advise him of your intended actions in advance and await his permission. As detailed above, you do not have a vote in the matter, and the law and good sense necessitate this. Don’t do foolish things like open your door or try to get out of the car unless you’re told to, or the response you will create is going to be, at best, very unpleasant.
9) When an officer asks to see certain documents, tell him where they are and ask how and when he’d desire you to produce them.
It might seem odd or robotic to do so, but it’s a rational fit for the occasion. Remember tactics might vary from agency to agency, shift to shift and officer to officer, so expect the unexpected. Atop that, bear in mind that the officer who’s speaking to you might have a backup officer, and that backup officer might be an additional barrier to effective communication. If you feel you are under pressure, understand it’s a feeling shared by all involved.
Safely on Your Way
We both share the same goal: your protection. Help us serve you more safely and securely. An ounce of prevention is just another way you can support those who’ve sworn to serve and protect, and it goes a long way in making our interactions smoother and safer.
(1) Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692, 702-703 (1981).