Texas responders discuss carrying firearms on duty

House Bill 982 would allow firefighters and EMTs with handgun licenses to carry a gun

By Jon Wilcox
Victoria Advocate

VICTORIA, Texas — Unlike the firefighters and EMTs who often work alongside him, Richard Castillo, Victoria County fire marshal, is required to pack heat.

"I carry it because it's part of my job and what I am," he said.

Although Castillo's duties center on fires, his job of investigating blazes and their causes sometimes brings him in direct contact with criminals. That danger means he has to have peace officer certification and carry a gun.

House Bill 982, which was authored by State Rep. John Wray, R-Waxahachie, would allow first responders such as firefighters, volunteer firefighters and EMTs with handgun licenses to carry pistols on the job.

Castillo said he certainly sees the sense in responders' right to defend themselves - especially in rural areas, where law enforcement backup is not always readily available.

"You can't help them if you are not safe enough to do the work," he said.

But Castillo said he can also imagine difficulties with arming those whose duty it is to save lives. When carrying a gun, he must devote attention to keeping it holstered and out of potentially dangerous hands.

"You have to be constantly aware of what you have on just like every peace officer," the fire marshal said.

Should first responders be allowed to carry handguns on the job?

Pro: First responders should be able to protect themselves

For Lt. Marc Banda, a volunteer firefighter with the Victoria County Fire Department, the opportunity to carry a handgun is about safety.

"It gives you the peace of mind that you have a way to defend yourself in the event that a call turns sour," Banda said.

While he agrees law enforcement is available for backup for "99 percent" of emergency calls in Victoria County, the added insurance of a personal handgun means a lot.

In 2014, a Yorktown firefighter was stabbed while extinguishing an illegal rubbish fire set inside city limits. The man who set the fire and subsequently stabbed the firefighter claimed he was insane at the time. The firefighter suffered a 2-inch wound in his abdomen.

Situations such as the stabbing are examples of the unpredictability inherent to emergencies, Banda said. In fact, Banda said he was compelled to seek a handgun license to protect himself wherever he goes.

"You don't know who's out there. You don't know the situation you're going to be in the next five minutes," he said.

While he agrees firearms in untrained hands can be dangerous, Banda pointed to the training and testing required for handgun licenses. He said he first was required to pass a proficiency test before receiving his license.

He also uses a Level 2 handgun holster, which features a lock mechanism to keep the gun from being snatched or falling to the ground. But carrying is also about an individual's rights, said Daryl Smith, a certified Texas handgun license instructor and Victoria resident.

Firefighters and emergency medical technicians should not have to fear for their safety - even when on the job, he said.

"Everybody should have the right to have defend themselves," he said. "Self-preservation is a good thing."

Con: Other means taught to de-escalate tense scenes

Yoakum Mayor Anita Rodriguez says she sees little need for her town's first responders to carry a gun on the job.

"Our population is 5,800 people, and we have a very low crime rate in Yoakum," the mayor said.

With about 10 police officers on the town's force and sheriff's deputies from Lavaca and DeWitt counties ready to assist, Yoakum's first responders probably aren't in need of extra security, Rodriguez said.

"As far as I know, we have never had a problem," she said.

Mark Herchek, Yoakum fire chief, agrees.

"We really don't have the problems here," he said. "If I was running a fire department in a bigger city, maybe."

But if HB 982 is passed, Rodriguez would have few options in restricting her employees' ability to carry handguns.

"A political subdivision that employs or supervises a first responder may not prohibit a first responder who holds a license to carry a handgun," the bill reads.

The class mandatory for those who seek a license to carry is quite different than the training and testing that peace officers must pass, said Daryl Smith, a certified Texas handgun license instructor and Victoria resident.

Although the class teaches safety techniques such as de-escalating emotionally charged situations by reading and properly responding to an aggressor's body language, it is not much when compared to the rigors of peace officer training, he said.

The mandatory license to carry class provided by the Department of Public Safety and taught by Smith takes about four to six hours.

Police academies can take months for cadets to navigate, he said.

Copyright 2017 Victoria Advocate
All Rights Reserved

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