Attacking Police to Steal Duty Weapons: A Gun-Control Conundrum

The Boston Marathon bombings committed by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev stunned an America that had largely dodged effective terrorist attacks since 2001. Days after the bombing, photos of the suspects were released to the public by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and their release kicked off an unsettling and dangerous secondary chain of events as the suspects attempted to escape the city.

These events started with the ambush murder of MIT campus police officer Sean Collier. CBS News speculates that the Tsarnaev brothers targeted Collier because they intended to murder him for his weapons:

The original question is they walked up to that car and appeared they shot the officer in the head unprovoked, that it was an assassination. But why? How did that fit into their plan? The operating theory now in the investigation is they were short one gun. The older brother had a gun. They wanted to get a gun for the younger brother and the fastest and most efficient way they could think of doing it was a surprise attack on a cop, to take his weapon and go. Officer Collier had a locking holster, it’s like a three-way lock. If you don’t know how to remove the gun, you’re not going to get it out. There was apparently an attempt to yank it and they couldn’t get it and left.

Retention holsters came about because of the significant number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty every year with their own firearms by suspects. The most recent such incident occurred on April 5 in Jackson, Mississippi.

Retention holsters are designed in such a way as to prevent a straight draw of a pistol. A locking mechanism (or mechanisms) in the holster grips the trigger guard and secures the weapon until the officer manipulates a device within the holster itself to release the pistol. In theory, the extra manipulation still enables a relatively quick draw for a trained officer, while greatly reducing the chance of a suspect pulling the gun if he does not understand how to release the locking mechanism.

In this instance, it appears Collier may have lacked situational awareness and never made any attempt to draw his pistol before he was assassinated. He lost his own life, but since the Tsarnaev brothers did not know how to disengage the holster's locking mechanism, the retention holster apparently denied the terrorists their prize even after Collier was killed.

Collier's killing serves to point out the the absurdity of restrictive gun laws. Massachusetts gun laws were already among the strictest in the nation, and yet they did nothing to prevent the brothers from obtaining the arms they were found with -- according to the New York Times, they had two pistols and an (almost certainly misidentified) M4 select-fire assault rifle.

Tamerlan's 2009 assault charge for striking his then-girlfriend meant he could not receive a firearm of any kind legally under federal laws. Dzhokhar's age, 19, meant that he could not qualify for handguns under federal law. Neither man could qualify for a Massachusetts pistol permit for these same reasons, and the state's ban on assault weapons -- signed by Governor Mitt Romney -- meant such rifles were not available for sale in the state without being heavily modified to comply with state restrictions.

Indeed, if the rifle is indeed correctly identified as an M4, it was almost certainly stolen from the military or police, as none have been manufactured for the civilian market since the Hughes Amendment became law in 1986.

Despite the state and federal laws, the suspects obtained firearms, and when they couldn't acquire as many as they thought they might need, they apparently attempted to acquire more firearms by killing an agent of state they knew would be armed in order to rob him of his weapon.

This a tactic of the guerrilla fighter as old as war itself -- the tactic was even encouraged by our own government for resistance groups in multiple wars. The FP-45 "Liberator" from World War Two and the CIA's Vietnam-era "Deer gun" were both crude single-shot assassination pistols designed for the explicit purpose of murdering police and soldiers in order to obtain their duty weapons.

And therein lies the problem: to completely remove arms from the reach of criminals and terrorists, we have to disarm the police as well as law-abiding citizens. How well do you think that will sell down at the station?