I entered the lobby of the Bluffton Police Department at 8:15 sharp Saturday morning. The room buzzed with chatter from a crowd of law enforcement officers retired from agencies from around the country. Some were in their early 50s, others well into their 70s. Some still had the broad shoulders of former SWAT cops. Others could be mistaken for former schoolteachers or accountants and probably ended their careers as administrators or managers. But once I saw their eyes, I could tell the men and women in the room had been there—done that.
We passed through two locked doors and into the restricted area of the police station. There we had our photos taken for our new HR 218 cards. H.R. 218 (the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act of 2004) allows active and retired law enforcement officers to carry concealed firearms in all states, but it requires retired officers to qualify annually to the same standards as active police officers.
The 50 former cops filed into a classroom and spent the remainder of the morning receiving refresher training in the laws related to concealed carry and the use of deadly force, evolving threats, and range safety.
That afternoon, we regrouped at the range. I was one of the range safety officers and had qualified the previous week, so today it was my responsibility to ensure the shooters left the range with the same number of holes they arrived with—i.e. that no one accidentally shot themselves or someone else.
Throughout my career, I had spent many hundreds of hours on gun ranges. They’re dangerous places even for experienced police officers. One mistake can turn deadly. And shooting ranges are even more dangerous when many years had passed since most of the shooters regularly trained.
A Bluffton PD lieutenant ran the range and had the first line of shooters ready their weapons. Shooters slid loaded magazines into their pistols and released the slides, stripping off the top round and feeding it into their guns’ chambers.
My fellow range safety officers assisted the shooters as necessary and looked out for safety violations: no muzzles pointed anywhere but downrange, no fingers on the trigger until ready to fire, no loaded guns behind the firing line. Two of the old-timers shot revolvers, a few shot small pocket pistols, such as Ruger .380s, but most shot compact .40 caliber or 9mm handguns such as Glocks, more concealable versions of the duty weapons many carried on the streets of their respective jurisdictions.
The course of fire began with shooters drawing from their holsters and firing quick shots at three yards. Distance increased and shooters had to fire one-handed with both their right and left hands. More shots from the holster and some from the ready position, guns lowered while the shooter scans for a threat. Distance increased, and shooters had to fire five rounds, change magazines, and fire five more. The 50-round course concluded with five shots at the target 15 yards away.
Once those shooters finished, the safety officers ensured their handguns were empty and safe, scored their targets, and brought out the next line of shooters. To pass, 40 hits needed to be within the 8, 9, or 10 ring of the silhouette target, which represented the incapacitation zone of an aggressor’s upper torso. Some shooters barely passed, while most scored around 45 hits.
When I qualified earlier, I had two misses, both in the seven ring, and undoubtedly two of my left-handed shots. Although I understand the need to be able to shoot with my left hand, I know it’s unlikely my right hand will become disabled during a gunfight, so I didn’t get too worried about missing the x-ring.
The days of me being able to drill 50 out of 50 rounds into an area the size of my fist are gone. Shooting accurately gets more difficult every year. My hands aren’t as steady as they once were, and my eyes can’t change focus from the target to my front sight as quickly. Instead of a sharp sight picture, my sights are blurrier than when I first began carrying a gun for a living more than 40 years ago. But I’m a lot smarter than I was in those days. I know my limitations, and know when not to get involved.
As I drove home Saturday afternoon, I was filled with enormous respect for those retired law enforcement officers who showed up to qualify. Although they live in an extremely safe community in our corner of South Carolina, they know the potential exists for violent criminals to try to harm innocent people anytime and anywhere. I’m glad to know a group of armed retired cops with their years of training and experience and willing to step forth if necessary are in my midst.