Does Arming Police with Semi-Automatic Rifles Make a Community Safer?

The rifles can have their place as history reveals, but there can be a cost as well.

by Jim McKay / March 8, 2018

It’s been a long-running theme — police are being outgunned.

It dates to the 1830s or so when police weren’t armed and found themselves outgunned until they started carrying firearms in the 1850s and ‘60s.

A similar refrain can still be heard, especially after mass shootings where the perpetrator sports a semiautomatic rifle.

One of the best examples is the North Hollywood, Calif., bank robbery and shootout in February 1997. Two bank robbers entered a Bank of America with automatic weapons. The Los Angeles Police Department was soon on the scene to confront the two, but with standard sidearms and a few shotguns, was outgunned.

It wasn’t until SWAT arrived, commandeered an armored truck and eventually killed the suspects that order was restored. But in the interim, a dozen police officers and eight civilians were wounded, and the 2,000 rounds of ammunition fired by both sides did considerable damage to surrounding property and vehicles.

There was also the 1986 Miami shootout where two law enforcement officers were killed in an exchange with two suspects who used long guns to their advantage. Then there were the Columbine, Pulse nightclub and Vegas shootings.

“It’s a sign of the times,” said Decatur, Ala., Police Chief Nate Allen, whose force will add 20 AR-15s. Allen eventually wants all 137 of his patrol officers to have the weapons.

The debate about whether police forces should have rifles, like the AR-15, or even need them, may involve viable arguments on both sides.

Seth Stoughton, law professor at the University of South Carolina, was a police officer for five years before he was a professor. He carried a patrol rifle when he was a cop. He said he is not against police forces deploying these weapons if the deployment is well thought-out.

“It very much depends on need and on the implementation,” Stoughton said. “And this is the real kicker, it’s not just having it, it’s how a patrol rifle program is implemented that ultimately makes all the difference.”

Training, storage and handling of the weapons are of the utmost importance, and of course when and how the weapons will be used. Chief Allen said his force had the active shooter situation in mind when requesting the rifles.

Stoughton said some agencies train a few officers with the weapons so that if a situation does arise, a trained officer with a rifle is available but not every officer has access to one. There is the school of thought that arming every officer with a long gun is bad optics for the police, who could be accused of becoming an occupying army in residential neighborhoods.

There is also the cumbersome nature of a rifle with a 16-inch barrel as opposed to a sidearm or a shotgun with a short barrel. If an officer has a rifle slung on his shoulder, it would be difficult to engage a suspect in a fight if that’s what’s called for. And it makes it difficult to handcuff or search someone.

Allen said the weapons in his force will be in cars on a rifle mount.

The benefit is that the force will be able to deal with a highly dangerous situation when a perpetrator or perpetrators possess high-powered weaponry. The police won’t be bringing a pistol to a rifle fight. But Stoughton said there’s almost an inevitability of some mission creep — officers eventually engaging with a rifle in situations other than what they were originally called for.

“Officers will start to break out the rifles to do a house search or business search,” he said. “They’ll pull them out on felony or high-risk stops. There will be circumstances where officers will be deploying rifles that are not the circumstances that their agency has in mind right now.”

Using the weapons requires a lot of training and oversight and that can be costly. Knowing when and how to use them is critical.

Stoughton said the rifles are great for mid-distance or long distance. “But most police shootings are at fairly close range,” he said. “In a close-quarters situation, like a school or office mall, a shotgun may be more effective.”

It is true that there is a lot of weaponry available to citizens and that mass shootings and school shootings are on the increase. But there is a question of how useful a rifle would be in taking down an active shooter in some of these events.

Stoughton pointed out that the Vegas shooter was not brought down by a counter-sniper; it became a close-range situation when law enforcement kicked open the shooter’s hotel door.

“We all think about those examples, and if we focus on the threat or magnitude of threat, rifles can make a lot of sense,” Stoughton said. “But if we stop there, we’re also not doing a responsible risk assessment.”