The room is dark, shielded from the harsh Texas summer, and smells of sweat. The new guy hunkers down on a plastic milk crate to steady the nerves of inexperience gripping his chest while he prays they do not paralyze him with panic. He glances over his right shoulder and catches sight of a figure amidst the shadows; clad in camouflage, a wounded soldier awaits a daring rescue. He whispers a silent prayer that the solider is not waiting on him, because 100 yards due west from his milk-crate perch, someone else’s life depends on his immediate action. A hostage, bound around the neck, needs the aim of his AR-15 carbine rifle to be true. A few inches in error, and she is gone.
He pulls up to the sniper stand and adjusts the sandbag support to sight-in his target. The crosshairs hover just between the suspect’s eyebrows as his head begins to tingle for want of oxygen. He releases a breath slowly, places his finger beside the cold trigger well, and flips off the safety with such vigor that he has to correct his aim. He contemplates a pep talk: “You can do this. You thrive on moments like this, where preparation meets expectation and good abounds victorious.” He pulls the trigger.
The rest of us do not hear the shot ring out, but the soft clinking of the discharged shell provides celebratory music—he nailed his target. A small round of applause pulls us out of the action-packed scenario we have imagined and lands us in the middle of something much more realistic: The 2nd Annual Prosecutor Shootout is underway—and the new guy can really shoot!
Getting comfortable around guns
The idea for our office shootout started two years ago when I was headed to a pre-trial witness meeting with several local officers on a felon in possession case. I felt prepared, having organized my trial notebook, brushed-up on germane cases, and created exhibits for court. But I lacked the skill to handle what was in the sealed evidence box the officers placed before me: a Kel Tec 9-mm pistol with an extended magazine. Then a second-year misdemeanor prosecutor, my experience with firearms was limited to the fifth grade when my brother enlisted a .22 caliber air rifle to scatter campground vermin. (Animal activists, be not afraid: His aim was terrible.)
As the arresting officer opened the evidence box, I stepped back, feeling as if I’d walked onto a movie set, and I waited for the officer to show me the weapon. Chuckling at my naiveté, he explained the weapon’s parts and illustrated its disarmed status, then walked me through forensic lessons regarding different weapons’ ejection procedures. My hearing concluded successfully, but I felt timid asking for this felon’s punishment while pinching the firearm between my fingers as if it had cooties. Something had to change.
Taking the first step toward gaining confidence with firearms, several young prosecutors in our office got together and organized a Concealed Handgun Licensing (CHL) class for law enforcement personnel only. Investigators Wayne Fitch and Lester Couch taught gun safety while another investigator (and seasoned firearms expert), John Hubbard, instructed us on the finesse of trigger-control. We went through a boot camp of sorts, as a team, and learned how to safely handle these deadly weapons. The class was successful in teaching the basics, but now our appetites were whetted, and we wanted more.
Few things encourage self-education and camaraderie with colleagues like a little friendly competition. Even fewer things spur a Texas prosecutor’s excitement like a quiet morning at the gun range. So when Bill Carlton and his team at 2A Freedom Shooting in Tarrant County approached our office with an idea that incorporated both, we decided to give it a shot (heh).
2A Freedom Shooting was established to provide law enforcement a space with versatile, challenging training engagements free from the safety concerns of a public range. The facility includes ranges from 15 to 100 yards and provides for reactive training, multiple target placement, and twilight engagements. The AR-500 steel used throughout the premises allows fire exchange from a pellet gun to fully automatic, military-grade weapons.
The First Prosecutor Shootout in 2012 was sparsely attended, with only eight competitors locked and loaded. Still, it provided a variety of weapons with an even greater variety of targets. A .22 rifle, 9-mm pistol, 12-gauge shotgun, and AR 15 carbine rifle were all used to hit spinning targets, tin cans bobbing in the wind, stationary steel targets, and skeet flying across the blue sky. An afternoon of laughter, fajitas, and shuffling around the thousands of shell casings left us exhausted but with a sense of accomplishment; we now felt comfortable, some proficient even, with numerous types of firearms.
The next year, buzz spread quickly through the office about the impending rematch in the Second Annual Prosecutor Shootout. Had competitors been practicing? Did anyone have the advantage of already knowing the maze of targets Bill Carlton was preparing for us? Would a new sharpshooter come out of the woodwork and surprise us all? Gossipy whispers wore on my confidence until the day finally arrived.
The competition pool had increased to 26, including our elected district attorney, Joe Shannon, but as the office had just welcomed several new hires to our ranks, unfamiliar faces had the veterans on edge. The range had been turned into somewhat of an obstacle course as we all strived for accuracy while besting each other’s time. During the second competition, certain targets would appear only if the shooter had successfully acquired the preceding target. Each successful shot increased the opportunity for a higher score, but with a limited number of rounds available for each target, the course was notably more difficult than the year before. Competing with the goal of accuracy was the need for speed as time was ultimately the tie-breaker. Also added this year were portions of the course that had to be navigated on foot, preferably at a run, to prepare shooters for real-world situations.
The scores were neck-and-neck as the new guy, Nathan Martin, took his position at the sniper stand. He raced through the events with his shots singing for points as the projectiles hit their metal targets. Up and out went the clay pigeons, just to moments later be decimated with buckshot (Nathan’s hunting skills proving beneficial). With all the twists and turns of the course, we lost sight of him as he made it to the final event until “ping, ping, ping”—and there went our shot at the championship. Blast!
First place bested second by only one shot. It may sound like a close competition, but in the real world, where each shot could mean the difference between life and death, Nathan is more than just the champion, he is the survivor. At the end of day, all participants walked away with a smile and a bit more confidence in handling firearms—and that is success all around. I’m holstering my weapon until the competition next year. Hope to see y’all there!