You are legally armed. You are stopped by a LEO (law enforcement officer) either in your car or on the street. Should you tell them that you are carrying a gun before they even ask? This essay analyzes the risks and advantages both ways. It recommends that you always cooperate, always answer truthfully, but never volunteer any information.
Sometimes You Have No Choice
Two jurisdictions in the United States outlaw armed citizens: IL and DC. There, the question of whether to notify is irrelevant. If you are in possession of a handgun in Illinois or in the District of Columbia you have already committed a crime.
Ten states demand that you notify: AK, AR, LA, MI, NC, NE, OH, OK, SC, TX. In those states also you have no choice. If you are subjected to a traffic stop or any other LEO questioning in one of those states, then you must immediately reveal that you are armed. In those states, as soon as you show your permit you are at the risky decision-point where “The LEO Must Decide if You are a Threat” (explained in a moment).
In the rest of the nation you may choose whether or not to inform the LEO that you are carrying a sidearm. If you choose to inform (and show your permit), then you deliberately place yourself into the risky decision-point where “The LEO Must Decide if You are a Threat”.
The Risky Decision-Point: The LEO Must Decide if You are a Threat
At this point, you are at the mercy of circumstances and of the police. They know that you are legally armed. The ball is now in their court. It is their move, and nothing that you say or do at that moment will influence the next step. From here on, there are two possible scenarios depending on LEO reaction:
- The LEO does not consider you a threat.
- The LEO considers you a threat.
In the first scenario, the officer shrugs, warns you to keep your hands visible, and proceeds with the traffic stop or the interrogation. The incident is over. There is no longer any issue pertinent to the armed citizen. Events proceed to your getting a ticket, getting a warning, or being allowed to continue on your way.
In the second scenario, where the LEO sees you as a threat, things can go downhill fast. He is obligated to neutralize the threat (you). In the best case he will disarm you. In the worst case he might simply shoot you on the spot.
On December 13th of 2007, the Detroit Free Press newspaper reported that the Detroit City Council had recently approved a $480,000 settlement payout to a survivor of a traffic stop conducted by a Detroit police officer. Apparently, Mr. Melvin Rivers, a 63 year old male CPL licensee was shot – twice in the stomach and once in the chest – when the officer noticed a handgun resting atop the empty front passenger seat. Reportedly, Mr. Rivers had informed the officer that he had a CPL and at no time reached for or moved toward his firearm.
In a slightly less disastrous scenario, the LEO might order you to slowly hand him your sidearm. His partner, on the other side of your car (who did not hear the command) then shoots you as you comply by drawing your gun (recall that you were already deemed a threat). Canton Ohio cop threatens to kill gun owner during traffic stop.
A better outcome would be for the officer to order you out of the vehicle with your hands up, cuff you, prone you, confiscate your gun, and arrest you on a bogus charge. Three legally armed Portland OR men awarded $175,000 for false arrest after traffic stop.
The best possible outcome, once you have been deemed a threat, would be for the LEO to unload your gun after cuffing you and then, after the stop is concluded, release you from the restraints and return your unloaded gun (and loose catridges) to you. But even this best possible outcome winds up with the LEO manipulating a stranger’s loaded firearm, a weapon with which the officer may not be trained or familiar. Even in this best, most well-intentioned scenario consequent to you being seen as a threat, the risk of negligent discharge skyrockets.
The important point of this analysis is that, once the police officer sees you as a threat, the likelihood of a horrific result, whether accidental or deliberate, increases dramatically. The probability may still be low in absolute terms, but when it comes to loaded guns, it is not the odds so much as it is the stakes. Anything that avoids the risky decision-point “The LEO Must Decide if You Are a Threat” is good. Anything that moves you into the risky decision-point “The LEO Must Decide if You Are a Threat” is bad.
What If You Do Not Inform?
What happens if you do not inform? Again, there are two possibilities:
- The officer might ask if there are any weapons in the car, or
- He might proceed with the traffic stop.
If he asks whether there are any weapons in the car, you must answer (and show your permit), thereby again placing yourself at the same risky decision-point where “The LEO Must Decide if You are a Threat”. You are then no better off (nor worse off) than if you had volunteered the information originally.
On the other hand, not volunteering the information before the LEO asks produces the chance that you might avoid the risky decision-point entirely (if he does not ask) and no downside (if he does ask). Hence, it is always better to wait until he asks.
If the Officer Searches for Weapons Without Asking
Even if he does not ask whether there are any weapons in the car, the LEO might still think that he has RAS (reasonable articulable suspicion) that you might be dangerous, might have violated a law, or might soon violate a law. If the LEO suspects any one of those three things, he may legally search you and your car for weapons without requesting your consent and against your will.
If he says that he has RAS (or just starts searching) then, again, you must show your permit and reveal the gun’s location. This of course places you once again at the very same risky decision-point where “The LEO Must Decide if You are a Threat”. As before, you are then no better off nor worse off than if he had asked and you had answered.
Once again, since your waiting produces the chance that you might avoid the decision-point (if he does not have RAS) and no downside (if he has RAS), then it is always best to wait until he indicates that he has RAS, either by his saying so or by his starting a search without your consent.
What if Your Not Volunteering Angers the LEO?
Some people disagree with the above strategy (never volunteer but always answer truthfully if asked). They argue that your volunteering (or not) can turn a “good cop” into a “bad cop” (or vice-versa). Let me explain for the purposes of this essay, what I mean by those over-simple (and a bit silly) terms.
Good Cop — Some police officers are comfortable knowing that citizens might be legally armed. They may actively support your Second Amendment right or, more likely, just shrug it off as a matter of indifference. For the purposes of this essay, call them “good cops”.
Bad Cop — Other officers, especially in Florida, are hostile to the idea of armed citizens. They routinely exercise their discretion by punishing armed citizens whenever and however they can. (The Florida Sheriffs’ Association has openly taken this stance.) For the purposes of this essay, call them “bad cops”.
This argument says that your volunteering unasked the fact that you are armed can soothe a bad cop into courtesy and persuade a good cop into giving you a warning rather than a ticket. Alternatively, it claims that your not informing until asked can enrage a good cop into harrassing you or a bad cop into unprofessional behavior.
Whether the above good-cop, bad-cop argument persuades you is a judgement call on your part. It does not persuade me for two reasons:
First, my research suggests that attitudes towards gun ownership (pro or con) are deeply rooted in the human psyche. My findings suggest that a police officer’s gut-level hostility or approval towards armed citizens may possibly be influenced by your lawful, truthful cooperation, but it is unlikely to be influenced by your volunteering information before being asked. Why would it be?
A good cop will focus on your permit and see it as evidence of a recent criminal background check. To him, your legal licensed gun is a mere distraction. He will be satisfied after examining your permit, regardless of your volunteering information before being asked.
A bad cop will focus on your gun and see it as a threat. To him, your permit will be irrelevant. He will neutralize the threat (you), regardless of your volunteering information before being asked.
The second reason that I discount the good-cop, bad-cop argument is that virually all lawyers within the justice system, prosecutors as well as defense attorneys, advise you to scrupulously follow the law and not to volunteer any information that you have not been asked about. Over the long pull, interactions between armed citizens and police can develop positively or badly. It is a matter of probabilities. And, over the long pull, the probabilities favor those who follow lawyers’ advice.
Dr. Sweet’s grandfatherly advice: Always cooperate, always answer truthfully, but never volunteer any information.
Next Time: Should You Draw Your Gun to Help a LEO?
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Frank W. Sweet is an NRA-certified firearms instructor who teaches the safe and effective use of handguns for self-defense. He was awarded an M.A. in Civil War Studies in military history from American Military University in 2001. He is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), Six Gems of Forgotten Civil War History (ISBN 9780939479023), and of numerous published historical essays. To receive a schedule of his firearms training courses, email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The information above should not be construed as legal advice.
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