On Guns and Safety

The Realities of Shoot-Outs

I am a former New Jersey State Police officer. As a Jersey trooper I served on the “TEAMS” Unit for 4 years.  My unit carried out high security details and operations – including Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) – in 11 northern counties of New Jersey.  This territory included rural areas such as in Sussex, Warren, and Hunterdon Counties, and urban areas outside of New York, such as in Essex, Hudson, and Bergen Counties.  My experience included working with the Secret Service to protect President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H. Bush when they visited New Jersey.  It also included conducting special operations to address violent crime in Newark, and raids across northern New Jersey to arrest suspects involved in narcotics, gambling, and organized crime.  I was also a firearms instructor for the New Jersey State Police.

Besides the standard 9mm semi-automatic handgun carried by troopers, I was proficient with a twelve-gauge shotgun, a scoped .30-06 rifle, and a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle.  As a member of the TEAMS unit I carried an AR-15 in the trunk of my police car at all times.  In my hands, the weapon was deadly from as far as 200 yards.  I trained with the weapon often.  I had first used its military counterpart – the M-16 – as a U.S. Marine when I was a teenager.  I could reload the weapon and change its magazine without thinking or looking, in a few seconds.

Scott Fina

The AR-15 has almost no kick when you fire it, so it is relatively easy to stay on target when taking multiple shots.  Yet the rounds of the weapon are incredibly powerful.  They can enter a human body at an extremity like the arm or leg—and exit at the chest or back.  The AR-15 is a perfect, personal weapon of human mass destruction – and that was its original military purpose.  It has also become the weapon of choice of deranged shooters in schools, shopping centers, and movie theatres.

More recently I worked as an administrator in teacher-preparation programs at two universities, where I directed the student teaching programs, and managed graduate programs for in-service teachers – including the preparation of school administrators.  I spent substantial time in schools.  These included many urban schools in some of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods of the U.S. (in north and west Philadelphia), and many suburban schools in some of the wealthiest and safest neighborhoods of the U.S. (in Montgomery and Bucks Counties in Pennsylvania).

My understanding of law enforcement and schooling has been enriched by the completion of a Ph.D. in political science.  I know guns; I know security; I know schools; and I know the Constitution.  I also know that the proliferation of firearms makes our country less safe and our children more vulnerable – no matter where one lives or goes to school.

When I first started working for the New Jersey State Police, troopers carried six-round revolvers.  Although semi-automatic weapons were already common in the U.S., arming police officers with such deadly weapons seemed threatening and un-American. It was also perceived as dangerous, since the multiple rounds from high powered weapons could more easily harm innocent bystanders.

Then, too many cops were gunned down with magazine-fed, semi-automatic firearms while they struggled to reload their revolvers (two rounds at a time).   Analyses of police shootings were released at the time that revolutionized the firearms selection and training of law enforcement officers.

I first trained with my police firearm by shooting at targets from distances as great as 50 yards – sometimes while holding the gun with one hand and with a generous amount of time allotted to take careful aim. You did well in these qualifying tests by taking your time, relaxing, and concentrating on the target. The problem was that most cops that died in shootings were killed within 15 feet of their opponent in gun battles that lasted a few seconds.

According to most recent FBI Uniform Crime Report, of the 63 law enforcement officers that died from shootings in 2011, 21 were slain from within five feet of their killers.  Most gun battles involving cops are over within a few, immensely stressful seconds.  Most often, cops have no time to think or concentrate during gun battles.   They react instinctively in the manner in which they have been trained.  Cops that survive gun fights can struggle to remember exactly what happened during the few moments of the incident; some can’t even recall pulling the trigger.

Because of these realties, police officers began to be trained by firing their weapons from close distances under short time limits and with imposed stressful conditions. Firearms training was also conducted more frequently to inculcate habitual responses (including emotional restraint) that would maximize police survival and the protection of innocent bystanders.  For example, panic can lead a police officer to shoot when doing so is unjustified.  It can also cause a police officer to grip a firearm incorrectly or pull at the weapon when discharging it—firing it well short or aside of the target.  Only by continued and intense practice does one learn to instinctively shoot when justified, and to gently pull a trigger without jerking a firearm when firing under duress.

Cops are now also trained to recognize their firearms not only as protective instruments—but also liabilities.  The presence of a gun – no matter who is carrying it and how it is carried – brings a certain degree of danger to every situation.  Again referring to the Uniform Crime Report, three of the 63 law enforcements officers that were shot to death in 2011 were killed with their own weapons.

The U.S. is experiencing a virtual plague of deaths by firearms.  The most recent National Vital Statistics Report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has these sobering statistics: 31,513 Americans died from gun shots in 2010, of which 19,308 were by suicide and 11,015 were by homicide.  Gun wounds are now among the top ten causes of death in the U.S. and are expected to exceed traffic fatalities by 2015.  Numerous studies, including international comparisons, indicate an unquestionable, positive correlation between the prevalence of guns in a society and its death rate by shootings.  Of course this would be the case; disease spreads when its causes (germs or guns) are present in greater numbers.

These days many claim that increased gun ownership by good folks, and especially model citizens like teachers, will make our society safer from criminal and deranged citizens using guns.  These voices misunderstand the realities of gun shootings and grossly overstate the capabilities of regular citizens who do not benefit from the intense and frequent training of law enforcement officers.  I assure you that few teachers are up to the task, with so much to worry about and do in getting kids to learn in increasingly crowded classrooms.

Many argue that effective screening of potential gun purchasers will make ownership of semi-automatic and other firearms safe in our country.  These voices grossly overstate the administrative capabilities of government, and understate what many otherwise well-behaving and mentally healthy citizens are capable of doing to others or themselves when they are under prolonged stress or emotional duress.  Everyone one of us has a snapping point that can make us behave irrationally.  Ask any cop who has experience responding to domestic disputes or counselor who works at a support hotline.

Many contend that the Second Amendment of the Constitution protects an unfettered right to bear firearms – and cite the 2008 Supreme Court ruling (District of Columbia v. Heller) that struck down a ban on handguns in Washington.  These voices – including five of the jurists on the Supreme Court – undervalue the contextual circumstances that gave rise to the Second Amendment.  Our young country had recently experienced the warrantless confiscation of guns by the British army.  At the time of the passage of the Second Amendment in 1791, there were no real municipal police departments to protect the citizenry and only a minimalist, standing army in the U.S.  Our national defense depended upon the ability to rapidly call up citizen soldiers in state militias. Moreover, a higher proportion of Americans in the 18th Century depended upon guns for hunting game they needed for consumption, while rapid fire, semi-automatic firearms weren’t even conceived of.

In effect, those who propagate increased ownership and carrying of guns, as a remedy to fatalities from shootings, do so with unfounded support for their claims, especially when it comes to our regular citizenry and public places like schools, theaters, and shopping centers.  By accepting such a proliferation of firearms, we Americans value the errant conception of gun ownership as a personal measure of security over the lives of our fellow citizens.  In doing so, we especially hold certain cohorts of our population –like cops, teachers and children – as expendable.


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