Tuesday, September 18, 2012

10 Things to Know About Guns

Because of high-risk conditions, at times humanitarian organizations may elect to use armed guards to protect staff, offices, and facilities. This decision is not one to be taken lightly. Including a deadly force option in a security strategy presents its own set of risks for NGOs, and the costs and benefits must be carefully weighed.

I've found that the nature of humanitarian work often attracts people who have strong feelings against guns. I respect those opinions, but have seen cases where a lack of basic firearms knowledge actually increased risk; especially in situations where armed guards are employed. I strongly believe that any NGO staff member who has responsibility for overseeing armed guards, should have an understanding of a few essential firearms concepts and safety principles. This knowledge is especially important for security practitioners conducting assessments in locations where armed guards are used.

With that in mind, here are my top ten things to know about guns:

1. All firearms are always loaded - Because of their capacity to take a life or cause injury, firearms should always be handled with due respect and care. If whoever is handling a gun always considers it loaded, the chances of an accidental or negligent discharge decreases dramatically. Guards should never be casual with their firearms.
2. The muzzle of a firearm should never be pointed at anything a guard is not willing to destroy - Not being conscious of who or what a firearm is aimed at increases the risk of someone being killed or injured if the gun unintentionally discharges.
3. A guard should keep his finger off the trigger until ready to shoot - Trigger discipline is another critical safety practice. Most modern guns will only fire if the trigger is pressed; although, some older firearms may discharge if dropped on a hard surface. The finger should stay off the trigger until needed. (To hone your observation skills, see how many times you can spot the finger off the trigger rule being violated in action movies and TV shows.)
4. Guards must be sure of their target and what lies beyond it - If a guard uses his firearm, he must be certain of what or who he is shooting at, as well as what is in the general direction he is shooting. Depending on the firearm's caliber, bullets can travel thousands of meters/yards and still be lethal. They can also readily penetrate windows and walls, depending on the construction.
5. Firearms must be maintained to function reliably - While the presence of a gun alone may act as a deterrent, if your organization makes the decision to use armed guards, you are not fulfilling proper duty of care if firearms are in a condition that may render them unusable when needed. (Ammunition must also be in good condition.) Rust, corrosion, pitting, bent metal pieces, cracked stocks, and large amounts of grease are all clues a firearm has not been well maintained.
6. Past military, police, or militia experience does not necessarily mean firearms competence - Just because a guard served with the military, police, or a militia, don't automatically assume he knows how to properly and safely handle a gun. Observing numbers 1 through 5 above will tell you more about an armed guard's experience and professionalism than a cv or resume. Also, just because a security company provides guards to an embassy or other high-profile entity, doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get the same level of guards. Embassies and large corporations typically have higher standards for protective service details; plus employ internal staff who have experience with guards and firearms and can assess if standards are being met.
7. All guns are not the same - Guns come in a variety of types, shapes, and sizes. Generally speaking, rifles (a shoulder-held gun with a long barrel) and shotguns (also a long barrel, shoulder-held gun but designed to fire multiple projectiles from a single cartridge) have more power and are more lethal than pistols (a handgun that's ammunition is stored in a detachable magazine) and revolvers (a handgun that keeps ammunition in a cylinder that revolves as the gun is fired). Guns are not magic though. Unlike in the movies, attackers may continue to be a threat after being shot; even when powerful guns are used. Shot placement, where the bullet ends up, is more important than the firearm type in stopping an attacker. Mindset, tactics, and skill (in that order) are also always more important than equipment.
8. Shooting is a perishable skill - Some important questions to ask a guard service include: How often do guards train with their firearms? How many rounds are fired during training? Is there a qualification standard individuals must pass to serve in an armed guard role? (In some places, guards have to provide their own ammunition for both training and on-the-job use; as ammunition may be expensive, this can severely limit training and proficiency.)
9. Armed guard scenario training and planning is a must - Different scenarios should be discussed with guards to determine how they would react, such as what would they do if an angry mob appeared or someone with a gun entered the office? (Hollywood-influenced responses should be raise a warning flag.) From a management perspective, it's useful to role play incidents involving armed guards. For example, what are the legal, financial, and public relations consequences of a guard killing an innocent person during the course of his duties?
10. Using a firearm should always be considered a last resort, life-saving measure - This cannot be emphasized enough. Your organization and the guards/guard service must all understand and agree on this point. You don't want to learn a guard assumed justification in using deadly force to prevent property theft, after the fact. Ensure a force continuum is clearly established. That means clearly defining what levels of force may be used depending on the threat. As the threat level increases, the appropriate level of responding force should also increase.
If you keep this top ten list in mind when working with armed guards and services, you'll go a long way in mitigating some of the inherent risks associated with including firearms in your security strategy.

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