The armed EMT

EMS scenes are as safe as we can make them, but that’s not the same thing as being safe


“I’d rather be judged by twelve than carried by six.”

It’s a little piece of bluster often quoted in gun rights forums, catchy and eminently quotable, which I suppose is the point of such trite slogans. Rational and nuanced positions don’t fit on T-shirts or bumper stickers and aren’t easily made into memes.  

Real-life, though, is always messier. When the legal bills – even for a justified defensive shooting – start at $50,000 and go up from there, presuming you are no-billed by the grand jury and don’t face a civil suit from the family of the person you killed, being judged by 12 isn’t a very attractive proposition, either.

If you carry a firearm in an ambulance, you have to be cognizant of how your actions reflect two communities – the EMS community and the gun rights community.
If you carry a firearm in an ambulance, you have to be cognizant of how your actions reflect two communities – the EMS community and the gun rights community. (Photo/Getty Images)

A medic in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, is about to learn that painful lesson. According to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette:

“The paramedics told officers they were rendering aid in the back of the ambulance to a 20-year-old woman complaining of knee pain, when her boyfriend, Kevin Curl Jr., walked up to them ‘aggressively,’ police said.

Spriggs told police Curl refused to back up, and pushed him and asked what he was going to do about it, police said. Spriggs punched Curl, who then pulled out a gun and shot both paramedics approximately three times each in the chest, pelvic and abdomen areas, according to the news release.

Spriggs returned fire, striking Curl, police said. When officers arrived they found Curl dead on the kitchen floor of a residence at the address with at least one gunshot wound in his chest, police said.”

I’m not going to judge John Spriggs, Sr. or his partner, Joshua Godfrey. I wasn’t there.

On the surface, it looks like Spriggs lawfully defended the life of himself and his partner, and I hope that turns out to be the case and that an Arkansas grand jury refuses to indict if the case comes before one. I wish both medics a speedy recovery and a swift resolution to what must be nightmare material. But much of the context of the incident is lost in media reports, and we likely won’t know the whole story unless we sit on that grand jury or follow a trial if there is one.

What we know. What we don't know.

But that’s not going to stop people from opining and speculating, and there’s fuel there for both sides of the argument. Firearms rights advocates will say it proves their point, and gun control advocates will focus only on the bad optics of someone dying at the hand of a paramedic. Neither side is likely to be swayed by the truth.  

We don’t know if the encounter could have been de-escalated without gunplay. We don’t know if retreat was an option for either medic. We don’t know what “approached aggressively” really means.

What we do know, from the news story, is that Kevin Curl, Jr. pulled out a handgun and shot two paramedics multiple times, and one of the medics shot back, more accurately.

I suspect that someone who would shove the paramedics helping his girlfriend, and then shoot them, is no stranger to violence. Most people like that don’t respond well to de-escalation; they see it as a weakness. They only understand the language of violence, and Spriggs spoke it more eloquently on Dec. 17.

The nuance of on-duty carry

Back in 2012, when a number of states were considering laws to allow EMS to carry on-duty, I predicted what was to happen if Virginia passed such a law: a whole bunch of nothing. All that would happen is that EMS professionals who already have concealed handgun permits – already among the most law-abiding demographics in our society – would now be empowered to carry them in one more setting. I predicted that none of the dire “blood in the streets” predictions would come to pass.

Well, we just had our first widely reported EMS shooting, and it wasn’t an armed paramedic losing retention of his weapon in a scuffle, and it wasn’t some Ricky Rescue cop-wannabe shooting a combative hypoglycemic patient. It looks like a classic case of self-defense.

I can find no section in the Arkansas EMS statutes that addresses the carry of firearms on duty by EMS personnel. I don’t know if it is prohibited, but I can’t find any reference to it being expressly permitted by statute. I don’t know if it violates the policies of Emergency Ambulance Service, Inc., Spriggs’ employer. And to Spriggs today, it likely doesn’t matter. He lived and he won’t be carried by six any time soon.

Among firearms rights advocates, a great deal of discussion and debate is devoted to carrying a firearm in a non-permissive environment (NPE). And to be clear, I’m not talking about federally prohibited places like banks, schools or courtrooms. I’m talking about businesses or workplaces that forbid firearms where the worst outcome (aside from having to shoot someone) would be losing your job or being asked to leave if someone discovered you were armed.

For a few gun owners, it’s a simple philosophy: “I’d rather be judged by twelve than carried by six.” But for most of us, the calculus is a little more complex. We’re also cognizant of how an armed encounter in that setting would play in the press, and what harm it may do to the firearms rights movement. When you’re carrying a firearm in an ambulance, you have to be cognizant of how your actions reflect two communities – the EMS community and the gun rights community.

Most of us know that the best way to win a gunfight is to never get into one; we speak gently, retreat when we can, and you won’t catch us using the ATM at the corner of Crack Alley and Homicide Boulevard at 3 a.m. In EMS, we don’t have that option. We’re routinely called into neighborhoods and homes we’d avoid off-duty. Our scenes are as safe as we can make them, but that’s not the same thing as being safe. The EMS crew in Pine Bluff was likely on one of those “safe” scenes; otherwise, police would have been there.

Taking a life, even in self-defense, bears a huge emotional burden. Guilt, self-recrimination and PTSD are often the price a good person pays for being forced to commit a terrible act.

Let’s hope that Spriggs suffers little of these and that those of us contemplating carrying a firearm on the job never have to.

Read next: Rapid response: EMS needs to anticipate, prepare for violent attacks

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