Arms race: What it takes for an officer to carry a high-powered rifle on duty

Police patrol officers are arming themselves with AR-15 rifles. So are civilians. So why is one required to get training, and the other isn't? Does it matter?

News 8 investigator Charlotte Huffman takes a look at what it takes for an officer to carry a high-powered rifle.

News 8 Investigates

Police departments across North Texas are arming patrol officers with AR-15 rifles in response to a wave of anti-police violence.

Sales of military style rifles are also up among civilians, dealers say, who use the rifles mostly for sport or self-defense.

Texas law for some time has allowed civilians to openly carry rifles in public.

What are the differences in legal requirements for cops to carry on duty, and civilians to buy and carry an AR-15?

There are many, News 8 Investigates found.

POLICE INTEREST UP

We surveyed some local police departments, and several say that after recent high profile violent incidents – including the July 7 murders of five police officers in Dallas – demand for heavier weapons by patrol officers has jumped.

“Our department has probably tripled the amount of rifle classes we've started putting on for our officers,” said Officer Todd Witherspoon, Grand Prairie police range master and firearms instructor.

Fort Worth, Dallas, Irving and Garland also report increased interest among officers for AR-15s.

“It's a scary time,” said Lt. Pedro Barineau, Garland police spokesman. “We prepare mentally when we put on this uniform [that] we can be a target to someone who just does not like police.”

The goal, police said, is to level the playing field.

“Keep ourselves safe, keep other people safe, to go home -- that's all of our priority, to go home at night,” Grand Prairie police Officer Tim Paulson said during a recent AR-15 training session.

But the process to get these high powered guns into police hands is difficult.

Military style rifles like AR-15s are not standard equipment. Officers often buy their own, or get a stipend to help pay for them. But once an officer has the weapon, they can’t carry it on duty until they complete at least 40 hours of state mandated training.

We visited Grand Prairie’s rifle school recently to see the training firsthand.

In the classroom, officers learn, among other things, how to load and clean the rifle. On the range, they learn precision shooting techniques to minimize bystander harm during an armed confrontation. They learn to deal with technical malfunctions.

Grand Prairie also requires that its officers get re-certified annually.

“It's a huge liability for officers to be carrying these rifles,” Witherspoon said. “So it's incumbent on us to make sure we're as spun up as we can.”

CIVILIAN REQUIREMENTS

So that’s the police. What does it take for civilians to buy and carry an AR-15?

State law mandates no training requirements.

The longest time commitment is probably the few minutes it takes to actually buy the gun. The rifles cost a few hundred dollars, and are available at almost any firearms shop. If it is bought in a store, a background check is performed.

“You'll fill out what's called a 4473 - it's basically the background form,” said Rusty May of Front Sight Firearms in McKinney. “Then your info will be checked through the FBI and they'll give us either a green light or red light, so to speak.”

But just because the law doesn’t require civilian training doesn’t mean some aren’t getting it anyway.

Take Bob Gross for example.

We found him honing his rifle skills at the Texas Defensive Shooting Academy’s range in Ferris, Tx.

“I've gotten to where I like it even more” than a pistol, he said. “In fact, I use it for protection around my house now.”

We also found a pair of former Marines going through some tactical scenarios at the same gun range. They recently returned from the front lines.

“There's a lot of bad people out there that want to hurt Americans, and we've seen them overseas and unfortunately they're back here right now,” Christopher Goodson said.

“Unfortunately, the police can't be everywhere all the time,” he said. “There's an army of guys like me and him ready to help out if some situation like that goes down. That's why we keep our edge sharp.”

Shooting isn’t a boy’s club. We found Nancy Johnston, a mother of two from Dallas, at the range with an AR-15.

“I love to shoot,” she said. “If you're going to own a weapon, you need to have that training and be responsible with it. It's not a toy.”

Most people who buy an AR-15 do so lawfully, with good intentions.

The unfortunate reality is that for the few who buy them for the wrong reasons, they’ll be on the streets faster than the officers trying to protect the public.

Also, none of the firearms experts we spoke to say there needs to be any statutory requirement for training for civilians. But, they were all unanimous in advising that everyone who owns, or is thinking of soon owning, an AR-15 or similar rifle, get trained on his or her own.

Email investigates@wfaa.com

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