Last week, I discussed the purpose of the traffic stop in policing and how law enforcement determines detaining or arresting those suspected of criminal malfeasance. For some, the age-old question of “How do I handle an encounter with law enforcement when armed?” probably arose. It’s a reasonable, but complex, question I hope to provide some insight into.
Before delving into this topic, I should clarify this is not legal advice. I’m not an attorney nor can I cover the intricacies of all 50 states’ laws. If you want a fantastic resource for state-by-state firearm laws, I suggest visiting handgunlaw.us. I’ve used this resource numerous times to prepare myself for visiting states where I’m unfamiliar with their state laws on concealed carry. This resource provides information on where, how, and when you can carry in addition to state reciprocity and other weapons laws. So, without further ado, what should you consider when encountering law enforcement while armed?
I work in an area where I frequently encounter armed individuals. Virtually everyone I meet has a pocket knife on them while many others carry a firearm since I reside in a Constitutional Carry state. The prospect of encountering an armed individual is a common theme in the job. However, the issue for law enforcement is whether that individual is armed and dangerous. With ambushes against law enforcement at or near an all-time high and officers shot in the line of duty up 57% since 2020, the prospect of the next call “going south” is a valid concern for law enforcement. Law enforcement is trained to use caution when contacting armed individuals with the goal to prevent violence from occurring. Unfortunately, policing is a human institution and there are examples of tragic failures on behalf of law enforcement. Those contacts are the exception to the rule as less than a fraction of a percent of the 65 million or more law enforcement contacts annually result in any form of physical force or violence. I wish I could provide numbers like that for the general population. If so, policing wouldn’t be in the demand it is today.
Traffic Stops for the Armed Citizen
The first scenario for encountering the armed citizen, and most common, is the traffic stop. I’ve read some absolutely asinine suggestions from fly-by-night trainers. Take the gun out, unload it, and put it on the dash was a recommendation I once heard. Please, don’t. Brandishing or handling a firearm in the presence of law enforcement is a good way to put oneself, at best, as the recipient of a gun pointed at them or, at worst, an obituary with their name on it. State law varies and it’s upon the legal gun owner to know their state’s laws. Ignorance is not an excuse when bearing the responsibilities associated with carrying a firearm. Some states have a mandatory “duty to notify” statute. Duty to notify statutes require a concealed carrier to notify law enforcement upon contact with them that they are armed and to produce their permit upon request. Most concealed carry courses cover this information for the respective state. For those Constitutional Carry states, while not required to take a course, I would strongly suggest taking one. It’s better to be an educated and informed armed citizen than an ignorant one.
When you see the red and blues in your rearview mirror, turn your flashers on and find a safe location to stop. The flashers offer a signal to the officer you recognize they’re behind you and are attempting to find a location to stop. A significant danger for the violator and law enforcement are other motorists. Safely pull to the right of the road and find a location where your vehicle and the officer’s cruiser are not a traffic hazard to other motorists or yourself. I’ve had my fair share of violators stop on a blind corner, pull to the left side of the road, or just stop in the middle of the road because they thought they had to stop that very second. I normally refer those drivers to what they were taught in driver’s ed. Find a safe location and stop.
Once stopped, put your vehicle in park and turn it off. I strongly recommend having your license and concealed carry permit (or law enforcement credentials) readily accessible. I try to roll down some or all of my windows. It’s difficult to see through heavily tinted windows—regardless of the flashlight brightness. There are exceptions to this recommendation if you have a loose dog, mountain lion, spitting cobra, etc. inside the vehicle. I’d appreciate that not getting loose. If it’s 10° F outside, I wouldn’t expect you to roll every window down if your infant is in the back seat. At night, I like to turn on my interior lights for a better view inside the vehicle. I won’t dig around in the car for things and will keep my hands on the steering wheel in plain view.
Upon contact, the officer may go to the driver or passenger side. Some officers may remove the driver or other occupants from the vehicle to conduct the stop. It depends on how the officer is trained and how their agency conducts business. The United States Supreme Court ruled in several influential cases that all occupants of a motor vehicle are detained for the stop and can be compelled to exit the vehicle with no further need for justification on behalf of the officer (see Pennsylvania v. Mimms, Maryland v. Wilson, and Brendlin v. California for the court rulings).
Law enforcement will normally demand your license, insurance, and, if required in your state, vehicle registration. I normally hand over my license and immediately inform the officer I have my “off duty weapon” on my person. For non-law enforcement, consider using “concealed carry.” From there, follow the officer’s direction of how they want the stop to proceed. Every situation is as unique as the officer conducting the stop and the individual they’re contacting. Some officers may retrieve the firearm and separate you from it during the stop while others may advise you not to reach for it and move on with business as usual. The main rule to follow is to comply with the directions the officer gives you. If you don’t understand, ask for clarification so there is no misunderstanding.
A couple of years ago, I stopped a truck for expired tags driving through a neighborhood undergoing a rash of recent burglaries. The bed was loaded full of stuff. The driver courteously stopped in a well-lit gas station. As I walked up, the driver had a death grip on the steering wheel while the passenger had his hands covering hers on the wheel. It was an odd behavior that was quickly explained by the Smith and Wesson .500 Magnum sitting on the dash. The passenger, somewhat frazzled and embarrassed, asked me what to do. I told them to stay put and I retrieved the gun from the dash, unloaded it, and secured it in my car for the stop. It turned out they were in the process of moving and nothing criminal was occurring other than his taste in painful recoil. I gave them a warning and sent them on their way with the gun secured in their truck. Not all stops are as benign as this encounter with the armed citizen but they represent the vast majority.
Beyond the traffic stop, a common encounter with the armed citizen for law enforcement is during a “call for service”. Calls for service can be an alarm, reports of a disturbance, property crime, or other incidents that would lead someone to call 911.
I was sent to the residence of a vehicle owner one day to let him know we recovered his stolen car. Our dispatch couldn’t reach him by phone, so I was asked to go to his house. It was late at night when I pulled into his drive and knocked on his door. After several seconds, a figure appeared in the hallway behind the glass with a pistol leveled at the doorway. I ran back to my patrol car and turned my fixed red and blue lights on. The homeowner later opened the door, minus the hogleg, and apologized for the scare. I learned a valuable lesson that night and use those lights on alarm calls and the like regularly. Unfortunately, not every cop does that nor do the circumstances permit us to use our lights if we need to conduct a concealed or covert approach to an area.
Be a Responsible Armed Citizen
As an armed citizen, you bear different responsibilities from law enforcement. The police’s job is to seek out the bad guy and they have something the average citizen doesn’t—arrest powers with the function of apprehending criminals. Police also have a variety of tools on their Batman utility belts. Not all problems are legally solved with a gun. The armed citizen should use discretion if they are not equipped, trained, nor endowed with the equipment and legal protections of law enforcement. The most tragic mistake the armed citizen can do is attempt to intervene and engage suspected criminal activity when law enforcement has been called to respond and there is no imminent threat to life or limb.
It’s understandable to want to grab a flashlight and gun when the alarm goes off, a criminal breaks into your car, or you hear a bump at night. There are considerations and cautions during such incidents worthy of an entire book. For this discussion, consider the crime at hand. Are you going to shoot someone breaking into your car? What, besides a gun, do you have available to submit, control, and restrain a criminal? Ultimately, the courts have stated lethal force can’t be used for a property crime. Furthermore, if law enforcement is responding, do they know where you’ll be? Do they know you’re armed? Do they know you’re the homeowner and not the criminal? Do you know where the police will be coming from? How many? Are you equipped to positively identify your target? It’s sound legal standing, safer, and smarter to not confront criminals unless life and limb are in immediate jeopardy. This also minimizes the possibility of a mistaken identity or friendly fire incident due to the questions I posed above.
Tragic examples on behalf of the armed citizen and law enforcement have occurred as a result of missteps on both sides. In the last decade, law enforcement has taken tremendous strides to improve their training and response to calls for service to prevent future mistakes. As for the armed citizen, the breadth of information and training available to them to improve their knowledge, skills, and tactics is unprecedented. The demand is the same. We both bear the burden of making intelligent and responsible decisions as armed citizens and law enforcement professionals. Carry on accordingly.