Private sector executive protection and firearms: It’s time to deal with the topics that no one wants to talk about

July 31, 2018 - By Christian West

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The topic of firearms in private sector executive protection is a complex one. Relevant legislation varies widely around the United States and worldwide, and there are plenty of preconceived notions about whether it’s a good idea or not. And just as talking about politics and religion is frowned upon in many other social contexts, discussions about the use of firearms in executive protection is a subject that many prefer to avoid. It ruffles too many feathers, egos, and cultural and political convictions. Folks are vehemently for or against, and they’re usually not interested in hearing any opposing views.

Nonetheless, it’s an important subject that deserves more careful attention from both our industry and our clients. For one thing, this use of weapons has obvious consequences that are potentially lethal; if executive details are to be armed, then this must be done properly. For another, we have to face the fact that demand for armed details is growing.

We’ve spent the last 15 years getting guns out of security. We just might spend the next many years bringing them back in.

Whereas armed executive protection agents were a rare sight in the private sector for years, the pendulum is now swinging the other way. Demand for armed details is now on the rise, not least in the United States. The level of perceived threats of terrorism, many mass shooting incidents, and the proliferation of open carry laws and practices all help to explain the increased demand. A shooting incident this year shoved the topic to the center of attention in Silicon Valley, which is known for a lot of things, but not a pro-gun culture.

Some are adamant about keeping guns away from executive protection. Others want to see more armed executive protection teams no matter what.

Unfortunately, the quality of the discussions on this topic has been poor. Knee-jerk reactions take the place of clear-eyed analyses, and folks with differing views do more talking than they do listening. So, with the risk of sticking our hand into a hornet’s nest, we’d like to take a closer look at the issue in this blog.

Laws regarding firearms and EP vary widely by country, but restrictive legislation is the rule. The United States is the exception to that rule.

Legislation regarding the arming of private sector security guards varies internationally, so it’s impossible to paint a general picture that applies worldwide.

In most developed economies, including almost everywhere throughout the OECD, the arming of private EP agents is simply not allowed. Here, discussions of how to ensure the quality of armed EP details in the private sector are irrelevant: it’s illegal and not anything we or any other self-respecting EP company would be involved in. This is also the case in many developing countries.

In some developing economies, on the other hand, and in a few developed economies, it is possible to employ armed EP agents in the private sector either directly or indirectly. This happens directly in the United States, where armed security is common in many contexts, including executive protection. And this happens indirectly in a number of other countries, where individuals who are allowed to carry weapons in public sector roles, such as military and law enforcement personnel, in some cases may also allowed to carry weapons while working jobs in the private sector. In such cases, our role as executive protection professionals may include managing these legally armed personnel.

CCW laws allow more people to carry weapons in the United States…

More than 16 million concealed weapon permits have been issued in the United States, where legislation regarding the carrying of a concealed weapon (CCW) has become increasingly permissive since the 1990s. Twenty-five years ago, most states maintained “no-issue” or “may-issue” policies. Now, only nine states still maintain “may-issue” policies, and none are “no-issue”.

California is one of the most restrictive “may-issue” states. In the Golden State, obtaining a CCW license is considered to be practically impossible for most people in certain counties, including many of those in and around San Francisco and Los Angeles. This situation significantly reduces the pool of qualified candidates for armed executive protection details in those areas.

In California and the rest of the United States, some executive protection companies, corporations, and individual families have attempted to solve the challenges of arming executive protection agents by hiring off-duty or retired law enforcement officers who are able to carry weapons legally. The Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act (LEOSA), a United States federal law enacted in 2004, allows active and retired law enforcement officers to carry concealed weapons anywhere in the United States, regardless of jurisdiction, preempting state and local laws with only a few exceptions, such as carrying a weapon into schools, government buildings, or private properties that prohibit weapons.

LEOSA-enabled CCW is not without its own legal and liability problems, and even police departments can have a hard time understanding the laws governing off-duty officers’ use of firearms. Where is the line between an officer’s duty to uphold the law in general and protect one person in particular? Are there any differences in rights and responsibilities relating to when the officer is on the clock? On the clock for whom? When is use of force appropriate in both circumstances?

We don’t pretend to have all the answers to these questions – that’s what courts and lawyers try to figure out. But we know the questions arise regularly, and their answers have significant financial and reputational impact for clients and providers.

…but do not guarantee the proper use of firearms in private protective security

While LEOSA ensures off-duty and retired law enforcement officers the right to carry weapons pretty much everywhere, the law does nothing to ensure that law enforcement officers know anything about executive protection or in any way meet other relevant standards.

Similarly, in states where legislation allows executive protection agents with no law enforcement experience to carry, regulations enforced by public authorities are far from adequate to ensure reasonable and professional use of firearms in the private protective sector. As we have pointed out in a previous blog, within the U.S. the 50 states regulate security licensing, including the licensing of armed security, in a hodgepodge of different ways. Some U.S. states require applicants to undergo dozens of hours of training in order to obtain a license to carry a weapon in a security job; others require none. None require anything near the amount of training that law enforcement officers and military personnel typically receive before they are allowed to use firearms.

From our point of view, armed executive protection agents need to master everything unarmed agents master and more. They have to have all the hard and soft skills that we have written about extensively. And they need to integrate new sets of hard and soft skills related to the use of firearms. This is about way more than shooting accurately and being able to carry legally.

Armed executive protection agents must also be careful not to consider themselves as active shooter responders. As we have pointed out in our blog, Integrating critical incident response teams with corporate security: 5 EP perspectives, qualifying to be part of a critical incident response team (CIRT) requires a very different skill set and training regimen. CIRTs are a high-criticality niche within the security services niche, not an extra thing-to-do for executive protection teams. They need to work together in a coordinated way, but EP agents do EP work, and CIRT agents do CIRT work.    

To mitigate the inherent risks of more firearms in EP, we need better training, more coordination, clearer thinking, and more dialogue

Executive protection is a service business, and service businesses must understand and respect the needs and wishes of their clients. We’ll challenge clients if we think they are asking for the wrong solutions, but we’re not in the business of saying no. That’s not the way to do business.

We believe it is entirely possible to establish effective executive protection programs without the use of firearms. We also believe that it is entirely possible to establish effective executive protection programs with the use of firearms.  We’ve done both many times. We’ll leave it to other “EP experts” to argue exclusively for one or the other. Ultimately, it is up to the client to decide.

It is reasonable to argue that the use of firearms in private sector executive protection will in some cases improve the security of the principal. It is just as reasonable to argue that the use of firearms in the private sector can create a new set of risks for both clients and providers, including:

  • Accidental or unintended shootings: Although good programs and people do everything they can to prevent them, accidents do happen. When accidents involve guns, really bad things can happen.
  • Legal and civil liabilities: We touched on some of the issues above as they relate to off-duty law enforcement officers. These and others also apply to agents without law enforcement backgrounds.
  • Reduced protective quality: Overreliance on the weapon can lead to underemphasizing the importance of who’s carrying it and how he or she is trained and managed. We’ve seen it happen in plenty of cases.

To mitigate these risks in the rising number of armed executive protection details, we need to deal effectively with at least three issues:

1. Better standards and training

The use of firearms in executive protection requires specific training. It’s not enough to be able to hit a target, answer a few questions, and pass the occasional background test. This training should always address the highest possible professional standards and be integrated specifically with executive protection training.

Are you in shape to sprint from one end of a corporate campus to the other if an active shooter incident requires it? Have you proven to yourself and others that you can distinguish between friend, foe, and innocent bystander in a super-stressed situation that involves weapons?  Do you know how to prioritize evacuation, coverage and neutralizing a hostile as quickly and as far from the principal as possible? Are you ready to comply with relevant legislation and protect yourself and your client from legal liabilities wherever the job takes you?

Yes? No? How do you know? How can the principal know?

Everyone in the industry needs to work for transparent standards against which we can develop effective training for armed agents, and also for unarmed agents collaborating with armed agents. What currently passes as firearms training at most executive protection schools is in no way sufficient.

If weapons are present, both armed and unarmed teams need extra medical training and equipment, as well as training and SOPs for evacuations, cover, concealment and more – both for the executive suite and beyond. And without getting too tactical in this blog, let’s remember that close protection is, well, close. In many situations we find ourselves in, we and the principal might be too close to or too far from an attacker to make use of firearms a suitable response.

Consider the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981 when John Hinckley, Jr. fired six times in 1.7 seconds, hitting Reagan and three others, including the gravely wounded James Brady, Reagan’s press secretary. Secret service agents responded as trained and effectively. In the immediate seconds after the shooting, there was no time to use firearms to protect the president.

The secret service fielded a sizeable team that responded like clockwork. As one agent pushed Reagan into the waiting limo to evacuate him, a second agent placed himself in the line of fire to protect the president from a clear shot. A labor official standing next to Hinckley was the first to begin neutralizing the shooter by hitting him in the head and pulling him to the ground; within seconds, a third secret service agent dove onto Hinckley to finish the job while a fourth pulled out an Uzi to cover the evacuation of the president and deter any potential further attack.

Corporate executive protection teams are rarely as large as the U.S. president’s. One or two agents working at close quarters and making split-second decisions between evacuation or coverage may not have time to also consider how to use firearms to stop a hostile. In a best-case scenario, our team will be staffed and fielded correctly for coverage that gives us layers of security with people that have all the training necessary to identify and interrupt threats as far from the principal as possible.

Rather than simply arming a close protection agent, it might be a better idea to add well-trained, armed agents with surveillance detection and behavior detection skills to the team.  This would leave the close protection personnel free to attend to the principal’s comfort and productivity and to focus on evacuation and coverage as their primary emergency action.

All of this is going to require better standards and training.

2. More coordination

Let’s consider just one risk scenario, an active shooter incident. This could happen at a corporate campus, a residence, or almost anywhere. Executive protection professionals may have fulfilled their primary objective and gotten the principal out of harm’s way quickly and efficiently. They may have stopped the perpetrators as far from the principal as possible and as quickly as possible.

Or, they might be in the process of all of the above when the local police arrive on the scene.

Our agents are probably ununiformed, according to agreed standards, as might be the bad guy, who’s operating on his or her own standards. How are the police supposed to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys? How are we supposed to make ourselves known as good guys to the police? Wave our guns?

Executive protection providers need more and better coordination with other security teams, the police, and other first responders. This coordination should include table-top and live training sessions, agreed SOPs for communication, and more.

3. Clearer thinking and more dialogue

Finally, let’s all agree to listen more and talk a little less. And let’s try to think about the boring important stuff in addition to the cool fun stuff. I know. It’s hard for me, too.

If you google “firearms and executive protection”, or something similar, you’ll find all kinds of information about guns, ammo, holsters and other gear. You’ll find plenty of schools and experts offering close-quarter commando training to whoever will pay for it. You’ll find news about “bodyguards” brandishing weapons and generally looking like idiots. But unless you do some serious digging, you won’t find much information on the meatier issues surrounding firearms and executive protection.

There are some real issues here that we in the industry, along with our clients, need to address in a better way. Anybody that knows me knows I love my gadgets and cool tools as much as the next guy. I’ve got weapon lockers for my weapon lockers. But I’ve also got a business, and clients, that require more nuanced approaches to questions regarding firearms and executive protection.

I hope this blog might kick off some discussion on this topic that go beyond the polarized positioning that we’ve seen too much of until now, and lead to clearer thinking and more dialogue.

Please ping me on social media with your thoughts!





Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

Christian West

Founder and CEO

Christian has been active in the executive protection industry since the late 1980s, when he worked for Danish musicians who relocated to Hollywood. Upon returning to Denmark, he founded his own EP company, which he quickly grew into Scandinavia’s largest, before it was acquired by Securitas.

Christian founded AS Solution in 2003, and again in 2009 followed his international clients to the US, where he is now based. An active member of ASIS and a leader in the corporate executive protection industry, Christian has personally planned and led high-profile engagements in over 76 countries for a wide variety of corporate and high net worth individual clients, including the international roadshow for the biggest IPO in history.