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Florida security officers can soon upgrade firepower

Thanks to a Pinellas officer, guards will be able to use semiautomatic handguns.
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer

Security officers can soon use semiautomatics like the 9mm pistol in Will Holcomb's right hand instead of revolvers like the one in his left.

May 27, 2005 - Security officer Will Holcomb has heard them all: keychain cop, flashlight cop, rent-a-cop. He's seen the cartoons of the old-timer in the gatehouse either watching TV or snoozing.

But the realities of his job, he says, are vastly different. While patrolling a subsidized housing complex in Clearwater, Holcomb has encountered men beating their wives, teens shooting heroin in stairwells, car thefts.

A few years ago when he was working at a shopping center in St. Petersburg, a teenager pulled a gun on him.

In times fraught with such risks, Holcomb, 45, wonders why he carries a dinosaur on his hip - a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver with a wood grip.

"There's nothing wrong with the revolver," he says. "Just like there's nothing wrong with a manual transmission. But I drive an automatic."

Now, after Holcomb's intensive lobbying effort, thousands of security officers in Florida, from the guards at supermarkets and jewelry stores to those at interstate rest stops, soon can trade in their revolvers for semiautomatic handguns.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a bill this spring supporting the move and Gov. Jeb Bush signed it into law on Thursday. It goes into effect July 1.

"Since armed security officers face the same threats as public law enforcement officers," Holcomb said, "shouldn't they be allowed modern weapons?"

Critics question whether better firepower is necessary. "The guns are just too fast-acting and in the hands of people who have minimal training," said state Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami Beach, who was one of only two lawmakers to oppose the bill. "It just didn't seem right to me."

Advocates say semiautomatics are more accurate because there is less recoil when a shot is fired and the grip is more ergonomic. The guns can also be reloaded much faster. Continuity is another cited justification. Many security officers enter the field from the military, where they are trained to use semiautomatics, such as a 9mm.

Revolvers, Holcomb said, are "a whole different skill set. Especially the reloading where you have to swing the cylinder out the revolver, eject the casings, put the new ones in, and swing the cylinder back into place and them come back up on target."

Florida has about 100,000 security officers - about twice as many as sworn law enforcement officers - and of those 17,139 are licensed to carry a weapon. Some already have semiautomatics, but they had to apply for a waiver with the state. Holcomb's proposal eliminates the need for waivers.

Any security officer with a Class G license, which allows them to carry a weapon, could use a semiautomatic provided their employer agrees and they go through 28 hours of training.

Though promoted as a way to modernize security outfits, backers also acknowledge the Barney Fife factor. "Modern firearms help raise the image of security officers and their pride in their equipment," read a news release put out by Holcomb trumpeting passage of the bill.

Doug Herbert, manager of Peak Security in Tampa, which employs 12 armed guards, said semiautomatics could be useful as a visual deterrent to criminals wanting to hold up, say, a liquor store or rob a jewelry shop. "If they see a revolver on a guy's hip, they think it's a joke," he said.

But Herbert foresees dangers with upgraded firepower. "If you get a guy who panics real easily, he's liable to empty a clip of 15 rounds rather than (the) six" a revolver holds.

Holcomb responds to criticism with a familiar refrain: "Guns are not evil. People are evil." He added: "I don't look at this as a gun issue. This is an officer safety issue. We already have guns; we're just going to a more modern weapon."

Holcomb, a father of three who lives in Largo, read the state statute 493 that governs security officers, and discovered simply changing a few words was all it took to provide for semiautomatics without a waiver.

So he decided to give it a go. "Half the people I talked to said you're never going to get it done." Holcomb estimates he spent $2,000 to mail and fax information to lawmakers and to host a Web site - He traveled twice to Tallahassee and testified before House committees. In all, he spent about 400 hours on the project.

State Rep. Priscilla Taylor, D-West Palm Beach, and state Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, eventually sponsored the bill.

"There were a lot of hoops to jump through," Holcomb said. "If you're not part of a large consumer group or lobbying organization, it's hard to get the ear of a senator or representative. I was at the right place at the right time."


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