There was a time not long ago when it was almost unheard of to see a flashlight mounted on a police officer’s pistol. They were originally used by SWAT teams and other specialized units, but now it is common to see weapon-mounted lights, or WMLs, on duty guns across the country. In most agencies, it is hard to find an officer without a WML. There are many trainers who believe that there should be a WML on every defensive handgun, including Aaron Cowan of Sage Dynamics, who has stated that “weapon-mounted lights are mandatory.”
WMLs have a role to fill in law enforcement; however, as cops, we need to know what role that is. Any cop who has been on the job for more than a few years has seen other cops using WMLs for administrative tasks more often than they would care to recall. Why is this? The answer is training. It is either a lack of training or a lack of good training. We should all look at what tasks we are using our WML versus our handheld light for and why. We should then begin to train ourselves and others accordingly.
Why risk the possibility of shining a light on a threat you intended to shoot or, even worse, shooting something you intended to shine a light on?
As a law enforcement community, if we are being honest with each other, we love redundancy. Most of us have a light in our patrol car, a light mounted to our long gun and at least one other light on our duty belt or vest. Why wouldn’t we have a light mounted on our handgun? Well, the answer is that if you have not been properly trained with a WML on your handgun, you have no business carrying it. Any cop who has been on the job for more than a few months has seen someone performing a search with a WML. We do not wish to discuss tactics here because that would be enough material for a whole other article; however, searches with WMLs are safe, provided they are done properly.
When searching a building, the same basic firearms safety rules apply:
- Never point your muzzle at something you do not mind killing — we do not mind killing a floor or a brick wall.
- Be sure of your backstop (see #1). You may not mind killing some bifold closet doors, but you will have a hard time sleeping if you kill a scared 8-year-old girl hiding behind the closet doors.
- Keep your finger off the trigger and away from the trigger until you have identified a threat and intend to fire — this means “bent C” indexing. Seriously, if your finger does not touch the trigger, the gun will not fire.
- This rule is typically, “Treat all firearms as if they are loaded.” For our purposes, this rule is to simply be sure your firearm is loaded. At the start of your shift and each time your firearm is out of your full physical control, point it in a safe direction, drop your mag, make sure it is full, then do a quick chamber check. It does not take much time. It doesn’t have much to do with operating a WML, but if we are going to talk about not shooting things we do not intend to, it is good to be sure we can address a threat if we need to.
These four universal firearms safety rules are typically adhered to quite well by the law enforcement community. However, some officers break these rules or come dangerously close to it when they do not need to. Muzzle awareness is sometimes a difficult concept for newer officers to grasp, and being sure of your backstop can take some understanding of ballistics and the ammunition you are carrying. These infractions of the rules are easily observed by other officers and trainers and are resolved with a minimal amount of training and some experience. The safety violation that troubles us the most is when officers fail to keep their finger away from the trigger.
The Streamlight TLR series of lights and the SureFire X series of pistol lights both come with switches on the tailcap. They are the most utilized handgun WMLs in law enforcement. Both lights can be activated from either side of the pistol. The Streamlight can be pushed up or down. The SureFire lights can be flipped up, down or pushed forward. Although the SureFire light has the added option of the activation by forward push, the up and down activation requires much more pressure. The SureFire X300 costs at least twice as much as the Streamlight TLR-1.
Now that we have discussed the firearms safety rules and the methods of activation for commonly used WMLs, we hope you can see where the issue comes in. Some officers activate their WML with their trigger finger. It is both comfortable and ergonomic. It is also often trained. There are multiple concerns when activating a light in this manner in a real-world scenario. The first issue is that you are crossing your trigger when going from an indexed “bent C” position on the side of the frame to the switch on your light. If you were to experience a startle response, it is more likely than not that your hand will close, causing you to subconsciously place your finger on the trigger and press it. A second and equally serious issue is that you are assigning more than one job to your trigger finger. The trigger finger is the trigger finger for a reason. This is arguably the most important job when it comes to operating a firearm. This finger needs to sit on the bench until it is game time. It is well documented that human beings lose dexterity and fine motor skills when experiencing extreme stress. This loss of dexterity results in trained movements. Why risk the possibility of shining a light on a threat you intended to shoot or, even worse, shooting something you intended to shine a light on?
There is simply a better way. The WML should be activated with your support-hand thumb. This permits you to operate your handgun in a safer manner by keeping your trigger finger indexed in the “bent C” position on the frame of your handgun. It also simplifies things in the event a threat needs to be addressed. Your trigger finger only has one job, and it knows exactly what it needs to do — a simple, smooth, steady press straight to the rear of the firearm. We know we stated that we did not want to get into tactics, but we can already envision people reading this and thinking that they have small hands and will have to break their grip, or what about when they are operating their pistol with one hand? It is just this simple: turn the light on and leave it on. There are plenty of tactical gurus out there who say cute things like “paint your path” and all sorts of other catchy phrases. We came in marked cars with lights and sirens. We are wearing uniforms. If our guns are drawn, there is a reason for it, and it is serious. There is likely either an alarm going off, a person or people calling 9-1-1, or any other reason. We are there. If the bad guy(s) or gal(s) are there, they already know we are there. We literally have thousands of things we need to concern ourselves with. Why would we add flipping a damn light on and off to the list? If you need your light, turn it on and leave it on. If you go into a well-lit room, cool, you now have extra light. If you go into a pitch-black room, also cool, your light is already on.
The final thought on WMLs and a personal pet peeve of ours is the utilization of WMLs in an administrative situation. We already talked about all the lights we typically have at our disposal. If you need to look at a map, need to find something on the floor of your patrol car or the lights go out in the locker room and you cannot see the combination lock on your locker, please use your administrative light. We carry administrative lights for administrative tasks. If there is no legal justification for removing your firearm from your holster, do not utilize it. It is really that simple. If you cannot articulate why you need to draw your weapon, do not. Yes, it has a light on it. Yes, you probably paid a lot of money for it and it is really cool. But do not use it as a flashlight. It is simply an extension of your firearm with the designated purpose of providing a free support hand while assisting to identify threats, hazards and non-threats in a foreign environment. If you are not in need of doing any of the above, use your administrative light.