Should Off-Duty Cops Have Guns?

After a city-council member was recently killed at New York City Hall, Mayor Michael Bloomberg questioned why James Davis, the murdered councilman, would want to carry a gun. Davis, a retired police officer, had a permit to carry a gun, but Mayor Bloomberg found it very troubling: “I don’t know why people carry guns. Guns kill people…”

Bloomberg’s new solution: Ban off-duty and former cops from being able to carry guns in city hall. Davis was blindsided by the attack and was unable to use his gun to protect himself. The attack was stopped by an on-duty police officer. Yet, it is hard to see why it is possible for New Yorkers to trust an on-duty officer but somehow minutes after he goes off-duty to no longer trust him.

It would seem that the ban has only one possible outcome: Criminals have less to worry about. In these “gun-free zones,” fewer people can act to defend themselves and others. Nor is there a significant benefit from only having uniformed officers. If these killers want to attack, they need only wait until the uniformed officer leaves the area or otherwise make sure that officer is the first person whom the killers attack.

Unfortunately, Mayor Bloomberg’s reaction is not unusual. Legislation to let off-duty and retired police carry guns with them when they travel across state lines is being held up in Congress by a threatened Senate Democratic filibuster. Sen. Ted Kennedy, (D., Mass.), who is leading the threatened filibuster, claims that the measure would “do great damage to the effort of state and local governments to protect their citizens from gun violence.” He argues the law would also “undermine the safety of law enforcement.”

Terrorist threats have greatly increased the demands that states and cities hire more police to help cover all the possible vulnerable targets. Yet police officers can’t carry their guns when they travel outside their states. Forty-four states let civilians to varying degrees carry concealed handguns, but somehow we can’t trust police to carry a gun when they travel to even these states. Some states don’t even let their own officers carry their guns off-duty.

Over 8,000 state and local police departments in the U.S. employed about 450,000 full-time sworn police officers in 2000. Adding retired officers who have served at least five years would add millions more. Many would not only carry their guns for free, but would actually feel more comfortable and safer being able to carry them.

The federal government advises us that we should be observant and report strange events to the police. But there is not always time to call 911 and wait for the cavalry to arrive. This legislation helps provide police who are well trained and who may already be there at the scene.

Take a couple of high-profile examples where off-duty or former police carrying guns have made a critical difference. An off-duty police officer, who was registering his daughter for classes, helped stopped a public-school shooting at Santana High School in Santee, California in 2001. Last year, two law students with law-enforcement backgrounds as deputy sheriffs in another state stopped the shooting at the Appalachian Law School in Virginia. When the attack started the students ran to their cars, got their guns, pointed their guns at the attacker, ordered him to drop his gun, and then tackled him and held him until police were able to arrive.

The public fear of guns is understandable, given the horrific events shown on TV. During 2001, national-news broadcasts on the three main TV networks carried about 187,000 words on gun-crime stories. One story briefly mentioned an off-duty police officer stopping a crime. Not one segment featured a civilian using a gun to stop a crime. Even the most observant are unlikely to realize that guns are used by even civilians to stop crime some two million times a year — over four times more frequently than guns are used to commit crime. Newspapers are not much better.

Not surprisingly some people react to crime by wanting to ban all guns, even those held by off-duty police. What is next? Banning guns carried by on-duty officers?