For law-abiding gun owners, police and other law enforcement officers are generally a welcome sight. After all, when it comes to keeping ourselves safe from the vicious and predatory elements in society, we’re on the same side. Unfortunately, the police don’t have any way of establishing up-front whether you’re a good guy with a gun or a dangerous criminal. That’s why traffic stops can be a source of so much stress—and so many potential missteps—for both parties involved.
NRA Carry Guard is designed to make carrying a defensive firearm as safe and worry-free as possible. That’s why our training curriculum covers more than protecting yourself from attackers—you also need to ensure that your carry gun doesn’t become a liability in your interactions with law enforcement. To that end, this pictorial guide will help you to navigate every traffic stop in a safe, friendly and efficient manner.
For an expert perspective, we consulted with Glen Hoyer, director of the NRA Law Enforcement division. Hoyer is a veteran of the Lexington County Sheriff’s Office in South Carolina, with over 25 years of experience in patrol, K-9 operations, SWAT and firearms instruction.
When you first see the lights or hear the siren of a law enforcement vehicle, slow down slightly even if conditions do not permit you to immediately pull over. A casual wave can be an effective way to acknowledge the officer’s presence and signal your compliance. Your first step toward a positive interaction is not to give any suggestion that you are contemplating escape. As soon as it is safe to pull over (not just for you, but for the officer who has to approach your vehicle on foot), use your turn signal, pull onto the shoulder or into a parking spot and turn off your engine.
Even if you feel confident because you have nothing to hide, remember that you need to make an active effort to project a non-threatening and cooperative attitude. “Law enforcement officers are trained to always expect the unexpected, and expect the worst,” says Hoyer. “So when an officer is approaching a vehicle in a traffic stop, they’re assuming that there’s always a bad guy in the car who may want to harm them. That’s the thought that’s always in the back of their mind. It doesn’t mean they think everyone’s a criminal; they just have to approach it from the safety standpoint that you could be the bad guy.”
“If it is nighttime, I would recommend that you turn on your dome light as soon as you pull over,” says Hoyer. “This helps illuminate the inside of your car. A lot of people immediately want to start fishing for their driver’s license or their registration. It’s a good idea, if you have it quickly available, to get it out and lay it on the dashboard. But if you have to do a lot of moving around to get it, I would recommend you just wait until the officer gets to the car.” Whatever you do, make sure to avoid alarming the officer with any sudden movements.
Good planning can help you to avoid the awkwardness of having to search for the necessary documentation once the officer is already at your window. Try to keep your license close at hand whenever you are driving. As for your registration and insurance, clipping them to the sun visor in your vehicle is a handy way to access them quickly—and to keep your hands in plain view of the officer.
As soon as you can, roll down your window and prepare for the officer’s approach by putting your hands on the steering wheel with your palms up. This stance should go a long way toward putting the officer at ease, as it indicates not just your compliance but your familiarity with what the situation requires. Hoyer adds, “If you have passengers, you should ask them to keep their palms up—on the dashboard for your front seat passenger, and for those in the back seat on the seat or headrest in front of them.” The presence of passengers means that the officer has multiple potential threats to keep track of, which is likely to cause concern; do your best to ensure that everyone else in the vehicle is copying your good behavior.
Keep in mind that, for a variety of reasons including avoidance of passing vehicles, the officer may choose to approach from the passenger side. Do not be startled and make any sudden movements if he or she knocks on the passenger window; simply roll it down and return your hand to the steering wheel with palm up.
“Some states will require a concealed-carry holder to tell the officer immediately whether or not they’re a concealed-carry holder, and if they’re armed,” says Hoyer. Most other states require concealed carriers to disclose that they are carrying after being asked by an officer. The whole key is, don’t let anything be a surprise.” Reactions may differ depending upon the individual officer’s temperament and cultural factors of the region you are in—such as how frequently law enforcement stops drivers with lawful concealed firearms.
Hoyer offers a suggestion for how to word this initial exchange: “At the first opportunity, you should say, ‘Yes officer, I would like to let you know I’m a concealed-carry permit holder, and I am armed right now. What would you like me to do?’ And that phrase is key and constant in any conversation.”
No matter how you phrase the statement about your concealed firearm, your next words should always be, “What would you like me to do?” Comply with whatever the officer tells you, which may range from a simple admonishment to avoid reaching for your gun to a request to step out of the car and be patted down. Avoid making any assumptions about what to do next that could risk surprising the officer; don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions, especially as they pertain to where you put your hands.
If the officer leaves you in the vehicle for any length of time, continue to avoid sudden movements or the appearance of searching for something. Return your hands to the steering wheel, palms up, when he or she returns.
Driving is an important part of your everyday carry routine, so approach it with care and forethought. Anticipating the correct course of action on both a short-term and long-term basis is key to navigating the traffic stop successfully. “Plan ahead,” Hoyer sums up. “Think about what you’re going to tell the officer. Have your registration readily available so you don’t have to hunt for it. Know exactly where your driver’s license is.” Following these steps and presenting yourself positively to the officer should result in an encounter that is mutually respectful, efficient—even pleasant. You owe that to yourself and to the brave men and women of our law enforcement community.
In what can only be bad news for violent street predators everywhere, John Lott reports that nearly 900,000 new carry permits were issued to Americans over the last year.
On behalf of all of us at the NRA, thank you for being among the first to join NRA Carry Guard.