Do They Have A Gun?
You Must Consider Many Subtle Behaviors
By: Sgt. Tracy Barnhart
Understanding behavioral indicators of persons carrying legal and illegal firearms is an important tool for law enforcement. It is relevant to both officer safety and crime reduction. Officers interact with citizens on a routine basis, but not all citizens are a threat. The capacity to identify persons who may be a threat based on behavioral cues will allow officers to react to threats more appropriately, protect themselves, and provide a higher level of service to the public. Police officers must also legally articulate their rationale for stopping an individual whom they believe may be carrying a gun. The ability to articulate these behaviors from a legal standpoint will facilitate the adjudication and punishment of persons carrying illegal weapons.
Visual weapons screening is a valuable tool that helps officers with security concerns spot individuals who deserve closer observation and, when appropriate, a lawful physical search. One of the most important concepts of visual weapons screening is behavior clusters. For example, an individual who fails to swing his right arm may be armed and trying to avoid hitting their elbow on the weapon. But an individual who adjusts something under his clothing above the waistline, looks around very nervously and then walks away while not swinging his right arm when he spots an officer watching him is far more likely to be armed. The totality of circumstances will dictate the degree of likelihood of an individual being armed.
Learn to Recognize These Behaviors
Officers have learned to identify the specific indicators that a person may be armed. Below are a few of the most common. It should be noted, however, that the following signs do not always indicate the presence of a weapon:
1. Security Check: Gun violators in particular will typically touch and/or adjust the weapons concealed on their bodies numerous times during the day. This may be a gentle and difficult to observe bump with the elbow, wrist or hand. On rare occasions, it could be a distinct grasping of the weapon as they adjust it. Violators often make this gesture when getting out of a chair or a car or when walking up a flight of stairs or high curb. People carrying handguns tend to subconsciously telegraph the location of the weapon via their body language. They may reflexively palpate the gun to make sure the weapon is still safely in its holster, subtly re-position the weapon prior to sitting or standing, or shift their weight away from nearby bystanders to avoid accidental contact with or theft of the weapon.
2. Asymmetry: Another telltale sign is asymmetry in clothing. Guns are heavy and bulky, and thus will betray signs of their presence to anyone who’s paying attention. An outside-the-waistband holster may cause a visible midline bulge, while an ankle holster may cause a bulge or tightening of the fabric at the lower leg. A gun held in a jacket pocket will weigh down one side of the jacket unevenly.
3. Unnatural Gait: Gun violators may walk with an awkward gait. They may fail to bend their knees because they have rifles or shotguns in their pants. They may also walk uncomfortably because they have guns, knives or other weapons hidden in their boots or shoes causing discomfort. Again, the total circumstances will indicate the likelihood of a weapon being present. For example, an individual with a disability may also not bend the leg or walk with an unnatural gait, but he or she will likely not appear to be nervous. You will also not see the rigid line of a rifle running down the outer pants leg as the person walks or the periodic bulge from the butt of the gun above the waistband as it moves back and forth.
5. Jacket Sag: When you place a handgun in a jacket pocket, the coat typically hangs lower on the side where the weapon is located. In addition, you will often see the fabric pulled tight from the weight of the gun, and the weapon may swing as a violator walk. Often, the outline of the weapon may be observed in the pocket area. In some cases, the violator will attempt to hold or pin the weapon if it begins to swing or beat against their body. In cases where the violator becomes extremely nervous when approached by an officer, he or she may actually grasp the weapon to keep it from swinging or put a hand in the pocket. While this is often seen when people have items other than a weapon in their pocket, it is also an indicator that is very typical of the gun violator, particularly when observed with other behaviors described here.
6. Hunchback Stride: When trying to conceal a shotgun, rifle or submachine gun under a coat while walking, the butt of the weapon will often cause a noticeable bulge behind the armpit. Additionally, the jacket does not move naturally because it is supported by the outline of the weapon. Also, when someone wears a shoulder holster or straps on a sawed-off rifle, shotgun or submachine gun under his or her arm, a bulge in front of or behind the armpit will often be visible.
7. Bulges and the Outline of a Weapon: An alert officer can often spot the telltale printing bulge of the weapon or, in some instances, the distinct outline of a handgun, knife or brass knuckles in a violator's pocket. This may also sometimes be observed in a woman's purse, book bag or other hand carried item. In some instances, violators wrap a long gun in a blanket or long jacket. Also look for holster clips on the top of pants or shorts and belt clipping devices.
8. Visible Weapon: Clearly the most reliable of all the indicators is when the weapon can actually be seen. It is astounding how many times an armed intruder has entered a facility with a rifle or shotgun protruding from under his or her jacket without being observed by staff. In some cases, the butt of a handgun is visible because it is sticking out from the back or front pocket. A more common instance is the clip-on pocketknife that can be observed clipped to a front pocket or in the waistband.
9. Palming: Most often observed with the edged weapon violator but occasionally seen with gun violators, palming behaviors often indicate imminent risk to the observer. The knife violator may run the blade of the weapon up along the arm or behind the leg to conceal it from frontal view. Just before a target is attacked, a violator will also typically have his or her eyes fixed on the intended victim.
10. Negligence: Weapons are also frequently exposed due to temporary negligence, flashed or inadvertently dropped as a gunman reaches for his wallet. Dropped weapons are an all-too-common scenario at public urinals, where inexperienced perpetrators may thoughtlessly unzip their pants, thereby releasing the tension that was holding up the holster.
People carry firearms for many different reasons. Some people carry because they believe they are in some form of danger. Others may be carrying them because they have intent to use the weapon to inflict harm. Any person carrying a firearm, legally or illegally, does so for the purpose of protecting himself from a known threat or the possibility of a threat. Individuals illegally possessing firearms are likely to believe their environments to be more hostile; two major perceived threats are other criminals and law enforcement. Based on this belief, they will exhibit a greater enhanced awareness when compared to a person who carries legally.
Visual weapons screening has proven to be extremely effective, especially if the screener is properly trained. But as mentioned before, these techniques must be applied with common sense, in accordance with the laws of search and seizure for your situation and with a careful view of the overall context. Visual screening techniques are easy to learn, retain and apply as long as those who need to use them are alert and observant. Use these simple but powerful techniques to your best advantage. The life you save may be your very own.