Rob Lawrence is chief operating officer of the Richmond Ambulance Authority in Virginia. Before coming to the U.S., he held the same position with the English county of Suffolk as part of the East of England Ambulance Service. He writes a regular “Letter from America” column for the UK publication Ambulance Life. This column, written before the 2012 presidential election, is reprinted with permission from Ambulance Life.
As the presidential debate has come to a conclusion, an EMS discussion is also spinning up on a very constitutional issue: the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the right to keep and bear arms…on the ambulance.
In the U.K., unlicensed ownership of a firearm, especially a handgun, can lead to arrest, prosecution and most probably jail time. Here in Virginia, you need a permit from the local authority to carry a concealed weapon, which requires you to take a course on basic weapon handling and safety skills. If you don’t have a permit, you “open carry,” which means you display your weapon where everyone can see it. It is not unusual to be walking around Walmart and see someone with a Browning 9mm in a holster on their hip.
In Virginia there is no limit to the number of guns you can own or purchase at any time. My local gun store displays Bushmaster .556 caliber assault rifles, 7.62 AK-47s and .357 Magnums on the shelves in the same way my old village corner shop in Blighty displays jars of bonbons and éclairs. It is a regular event for staff at all levels to come to work, leave their Sig in a locked glove compartment and get on with their shift, only to return and put it back on after.
The inherent right to bear arms on the truck has now circled back to EMS. Until a few weeks ago, the rule that bans medics from carrying guns on duty was contained, in the case of Virginia, in the state EMS regulations. Those regulations have now changed. The removal of the language prohibiting gun carriage, because it is unconstitutional, has detonated the whole armed-medic debate throughout the EMS world here in the U.S.
EMS websites, blogs and general media have fired both barrels of opinion into the debate with the purist view that it is the right of the citizen medic to “carry” for every conceivable reason, from “just because I can” to the desire to achieve higher levels of self-protection in tough situations. The counter view, which I share, is that medics should not be armed for a multitude of reasons, among them that the creation of an armed figure entering a scene to do good and save lives is counterintuitive and the savior could well become the next target.
Armed individuals may also develop a false sense of bravado that may place them even further in harm’s way in the patient’s home or close confines of the ambulance. While you are providing treatment, usually with both hands, the weapon is unprotected, and the free hands of the patient could strike, seize or grasp the medic’s own gun and use it against him, which to my English mind doesn’t seem like such a good idea.
Within the EMS culture of safety we have created here in Richmond, we work hand in glove with our police department, and they are ever-present on our calls to keep us safe. If necessary, the officer provides cover and has a distance between himself, his firearm and the patient, which reduces the risk of getting it taken. If the worst should happen, the police officer is trained in the use of his firearm in close-quarter situations—our employees are not.
One thing is for sure: Arms will remain attached to the body of the U.S. Constitution and won’t go away. The management of this issue at a local level will be interesting to watch.