Long guns on patrol

Officers find it takes more than a handgun, a badge and handcuffs to protect the public and themselves

     "Criminals are picking up more powerful weapons," Lindquist concurs. "What used to be a .22-caliber has moved to .357 Magnums, 40 calibers, 45s, and rifles. You see people using AK-47s, which are fairly easy to get and extremely cheap."

     This trend is sweeping across the country, agrees Chief Deputy Sheriff Dave Bellows of the Dakota County Sheriff's Office in Hastings, Minnesota. Dakota County, the third largest county in Minnesota, butts up to the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. The agency's 85 officers have carried rifles since 2000 to match increased firepower confiscated from criminals.

     The fact that these weapons are increasingly being turned on officers is also cause for concern, Bellows adds. A look at National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund statistics for 2007 confirms this. In 2007, 68 officers were shot and killed by suspects, compared to 54 in 2006. Forty-seven were killed with a handgun, 11 with a rifle, eight with a shotgun and two with unknown firearm types.

     "There is no way we can adequately defend society if we can't defend ourselves," Bellows warns.

Another tool in the toolbox

     The Farmington PD counts itself among the early pioneers of the journey to patrol rifles. This Minneapolis, Minnesota, suburb — population 22,000 — armed patrol officers with AR-15s about eight years ago. Besides a 9mm duty weapon, this agency also equips officers with 12-gauge shotguns, less-lethal shotguns, and TASERs.

     Lindquist refers to the agency's long guns as "another tool in the toolbox." He explains that handguns "don't suit every purpose" because they offer a restricted protective distance and shoot a limited number of rounds. The shotgun, he adds, covers greater distances and provides enhanced firepower, but it too has its limitations. If shooting a slug, the shotgun doesn't supply much more distance than a handgun, and shotgun pellets fan out a certain rate for every foot they travel. Beyond 20 yards, the pattern spreads to where it's uncontrollable but still lethal, and the pellets that are not on target could kill someone. "If you are trying to engage a specific target and don't have room for collateral damage you can't deploy the 12-gauge with buckshot," he states.

     On the other hand, he says a rifle fires a precisely aimed single projectile, limiting the liability created by shooting buckshot at longer ranges. In addition, officers can carry greater amounts of ammo than with a shotgun or a handgun.

     Another veteran in the patrol rifle movement is the San Luis Obispo County (California) Sheriff's Department, which equipped its officers with patrol rifles following the North Hollywood shootout. In the beginning, only supervisors in this 150-officer-strong department carried rifles, then field training officers received them, and finally, the department added enough to put one rifle in every squad car.

     San Luis Obispo's firearms instructor, John Marrs, agrees that the rifle fills a gap left by the other weapons officers carry. That being said, he warns agencies not to trade in their shotguns just yet, stating all of these weapons have a place in law enforcement. For instance, if it's necessary to shoot through automobile glass, the lightweight .223-caliber rifle bullet can't get the job done. When it strikes glass, the bullet will break apart and keep very little mass. In contrast, buckshot easily defeats window glass. A shotgun in close quarters produces a much greater wound and stops the fight immediately, and because it fires a pattern, the officer's aim doesn't have to be quite as precise to strike the intended target. But at distances greater than 20 yards, in a barricade situation, such as the one in Arcola, or when perpetrators don body armor, Marrs says a rifle fits the bill.

Paying the price

     With such a strong case for rifles, it would seem obvious that patrol officers would already have them. Not so. Many agencies received a wake-up call after Seung-Hui Cho's rampage at Virginia Tech and are now scrambling to add these weapons to their arsenal.

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