An Open Letter From a Border Patrol Agent
Editor’s note: We at Ranger Up fully support the mission of our nation’s law enforcement officers, including that of our Border Patrol. This submission will remain anonymous as we respect the author’s right to privacy just as much as his right to free speech. This piece is unedited to capture his passion for our country as well as his safety. -Rob
By A Border Patrol Agent
How much is my life worth to you? To me, it is worth a great deal; but to my agency, the job in which I’ve signed up to protect my country in a law enforcement capacity, my life means nothing. And I mean nothing, because it wouldn’t cost them a dime to do something so simple that would afford me the ability to better protect my own life in the case of a violent altercation. Yet they refuse, they won’t even consider it, because to do so would go against the very grain of the U.S. Border Patrol. To do what I would suggest would be to take an action against the most powerful force in the entire agency, tradition, the way they’ve always done things.
It happened again just the other night, another shooting, and they’re getting more common. This time it wasn’t off in some remote, faraway place high up in the mountains. This time was near a small town in Arizona, minutes from civilization. This time, the bandit was wearing body armor. And fortunately, this time, we didn’t lose an agent. But we easily could have. Border Patrol, more than any other law enforcement agency, works out in very remote areas – sometimes high up in the mountains, often solo. And sometimes, the closest backup is an hour away, or longer. It is sometimes said that we have more in common with the military than law enforcement, and while that may not be true in most cases, it certainly is on the weapon we should depend on as our primary weapon, the Colt M4 carbine.
The US Border Patrol has strict weapon policies, which outlaw any type of personal weapons being carried on duty. While that may not seem unusual to the common person, an increasing percentage of police departments now allow individual officers to not only purchase their own handgun, but also to purchase a rifle for duty use. These personally owned weapons must meet strict guidelines in order to be allowed for duty use but this affords officers the option to carry reliable weapons that they know, trust and prefer while giving the department a break from having to purchase rifles for each officer. While pistols can be safely interchanged between individuals (typical duty pistols do not have adjustable sights that are sighted in by the user), rifles cannot. Giving an officer a rifle that is zeroed to a different officer can result in shot placement that is likely to be inches or feet off target in an engagement at any significant distance. This is because rifles have sights that are adjusted individually when a shooter zeroes that rifle. Zeroing is a term used to describe setting the rifle’s sights to your eyes, this is what makes a rifle effective for an individual. Without going into unnecessary detail, zeroing is what allows you to hit what you are aiming at. The sights are adjusted to line up the shooters aim with the shot placement of that rifle, and this can be very different for everyone. This is important as rifles are designed for distance shooting, not up close engagements as handgun are. If you pick up a rifle that is zeroed to someone else, there is absolutely no way to know where your shot placement will be. If we are issued a new pistol, we are required to qualify with that new pistol; however we are NEVER required to zero or qualify with the specific rifle we take to the field. That is an unacceptable danger to both the public and the officer, not to mention a complete contradiction of policy, considering that a rifle must be zeroed to a shooter to make it an effective tool and a pistol does not need to be zeroed. A myriad of factors make it a necessity to zero a standard rifle prior to any type of use on duty. Can you still shoot a rifle that has not been zeroed to you with decent results? Yes, it is possible, depending on the distance, but why would you set yourself up for failure? In a gunfight, you may not get those extra seconds to pay attention to where your rounds land and make adjustments in your head, all the while trying not to catch a bullet from a bad guy. This is why using ‘pool’ rifles (a rifle that is available for checkout by any agent – it is not assigned nor zeroed to any specific agent that may take it out and depend on it for their life) is an extremely dangerous and stupid practice; it should never be allowed in any law enforcement agency that has even a slim chance of being in a gunfight. To use such rifles is to condemn an officer (or possibly a bystander) to death should the circumstances necessitate precise shot placement. I may be depending on that shot to hit center mass to save my life, or more importantly, it may be needed to save the life of my partner or an innocent bystander. Any time I am shooting at a target, I prefer to be capable of as precise shot placement as I am capable of. As I’ll discuss later, I may already be dealing with my body’s own physiological responses to the stress of a lethal situation affecting my ability to place shots accurately, I certainly do not need to add to that problem a rifle that is far off target. Otherwise, I might as well carry a shotgun. Or run away and hope for the best. Not exactly what you would hope for, expect or demand from a law enforcement officer, huh?
It makes no difference whether you are shooting iron sights or some type of optic, your rifle needs to be zeroed to you. While the differences in zeroes are more pronounced with iron sights, I have always had to significantly adjust holographic and red dot sights to ensure proper shot placement. While this zero will not matter in close range shooting, it will make a significant difference at 100 yards. That zero can make the difference in a perfect chest shot or completely missing all vital areas of your target. And that is in perfect conditions, just sitting calmly on a shooting range. Now image you are out in the mountains of Arizona, walking a trail known to be used by drug smugglers. As you walk up a ridge, a group of smugglers crest over the mountain on the same trail 100 yards away – coming straight toward you, armed with AK-47s or the AR-15 models that our government so generously gave them (don’t think the fast and furious operation was a ‘big deal’? Then maybe you should put yourself up against the people our government armed). Today they don’t want to give up their drugs and instead of running, they raise their rifles and start shooting at you. Having no cover around, you have no choice but to return fire. With a Colt M4 rifle, 100 yards is a simple engagement, but this is not a simple situation. As the bullets zip by your body, adrenaline starts dumping into your system, your blood pressure pounds and your hands shake – this is no longer that ideal situation sitting on a range trying to find perfect shot placement on a stationary paper target. This time your targets are trying to kill you and while you know this situation requires your full attention, somehow you can’t manage to get the picture of your wife and kids out of your head. As you start firing back at the smugglers, your shots are not perfect but they are close enough that they should hit their mark. You pull the trigger quickly, hoping to end this nightmare as fast as possible but you start to worry when after you’ve fired 10 or 15 shots, they seem to be unfazed and continue to shoot. You slow your shooting down now, taking more time to aim carefully but your blood is still pounding and your hands are shaking more and more. Your bullets can’t seem to make their mark, always off to the side, but you don’t have the time to pay attention to how far off they are. On a normal range day you could use a little Kentucky windage to correct this problem and at least hit the target, but right here right now your mind doesn’t have the ability to think about that. The only thing it can focus on is pulling the trigger and getting scared because it knows you’re running out of ammunition and there are several of them and you’re all alone. The smuggler’s rounds are barely missing you and you can’t seem hit them even though you’re an above average shot. Can you put yourself in that agent’s shoes? Can you imagine the panic that would overtake your mind? Do you imagine that the panic overtaking your body and mind will make it harder or easier to shoot accurately and think rationally? EVERY DAY that I work out in the field, whether climbing mountains or walking trails, there is a fear in the back of my mind, that if I am engaged in a shooting, that the weapon I carry will not allow me to place quick and effective shots, despite my training, and hinder my chances to be victorious in that gunfight. I’m ok with dying for my country, I made that decision years ago, but what I am not ok with is dying for some archaic, stupid policy that places my life at the hands of a random bean counter in a bloated government agency who cares more about seniority than combat effectiveness. A warfighter did not put into place a policy that makes me share a rifle with several hundred other agents, a bean counter sitting behind a desk, who thinks that my life isn’t worth the cost of a $1,000 rifle did. That is unsatisfactory.
This isn’t Call of Duty, just because you put a dot or crosshairs on your target does not ensure that is where the bullet lands. Zeroing a rifle is the most important variable in that equation, next to the human element of practicing proper marksmanship fundamentals. The physiological response of your body to combative situations plays a huge role in your ability to make fine placed shots. This makes having a rifle that is zeroed to you that much more critical – it increases the room for error due to your body’s responses to this extraordinarily stressful situation. You cannot count on being able to make adjustments on the fly in combat, you have to have your equipment ready to respond the instant you need it. Let us say the rifle the agent is carrying in the above fictional (but very possible) situation has a zero that places his shots far to the left of the target at one hundred yards. He does not know this to be the case so when he fires back at the smugglers, he aims for their chest but because he is moving, when he actually squeezes the trigger, his sights are lined up closer to the left of his targets body. Now where does that zero place his shot – off to the left, completely missing his target. Would that play out for every subsequent shot? Maybe, maybe not, this is not an exact science but you can see that the possibly of error can become catastrophic very quickly. Zeroing a rifle gives more leeway for human error. No one is a perfect shot even on our best day at the range, and adding the enormous amount of stress that comes with a real shooting engagement creates a much higher capacity for error. This is drastically reduced by proper training, which Border Patrol does not offer to its agents. Not having a zeroed rifle doesn’t even make the list of things to do to increase combat effectiveness, because if you’re operating with an unzeroed rifle, you’re playing the dumbest game you can play as a law enforcement officer and you should probably just stay inside where all the big and scary things can’t get you. Yeah, it’s that important.
Working in such remote locations as we do, where mountains and ridge lines seem to go on endlessly, our possible engagements vary greatly from traditional law enforcement. Almost all shootings take place in very short distances, but our firefights could certainly take place at distances greater than a hundred yards. While it is uncommon, it is certainly possible that some day, a Border Patrol agent could happen upon a group of smugglers who are unwilling to surrender– as Brian Terry did. And as we saw in the case of Agent Terry, the cartel and smuggler groups have the firepower to outgun us in engagements; after all, our government gave them those weapons. Our government gave the cartels and smugglers the weapons that were used to murder a Border Patrol agent, yet they refuse to give me one of those weapons to at least match firepower with my enemies that they’ve armed. Agent Terry was in a unique situation in that he was with a small unit, a well-trained tactical team (BORTAC) that was actively taking measures to take down those armed rip crews. Unfortunately he was betrayed by our government, but that’s not what I’m aiming to shed light on here. BORTAC teams get combat training that regular agents do not get. In fact, regular agents aren’t given ANY type of training geared toward surviving combat. None, zero, nada, zilch. I know because I’ve gone through the Border Patrol academy and I spent several years as an infantryman in the military. It is only due to my time in the military that I feel confident in my ability to survive a firefight out on the job. I do not know how my fellow agents who have never received any type of combat training feel confident of the same. Honestly I believe it is only complacency which allows them to continue working in this capacity without ever having been adequately trained to do so. Proper and reoccurring training is one of the most important aspects to properly arming your officers/ agents/ soldiers for possible combat. When I moved on from the military to start my career with the Border Patrol, I thought that I would be entering a professional environment with more competent leaders and high caliber training. After all, I was just a grunt, I was anxious to see how good of training I would receive from a federal agency. Little did I know that the Border Patrol’s version of training is interlaced so heavily with complacency that our only training days are half days most known for the two hour sit down lunches at a restaurant after the so called training is over. It’s amateur hour over here, and I wish that I had just a fraction of the leadership, motivation and training that I took for granted in the military.
I know the type of training that agents should receive but don’t, and I also know all of the terrible excuses CBP gives us for not receiving that training. The tired old excuses are money and manpower. If this were the military, our command would be told to adapt and overcome, never the less, here the only option has been to completely sacrifice any training that is worthwhile. There is an optional training program known as the Tactical Awareness Training Program or TATP that agents may attend. It is three days long and is the best training that I have ever seen offered by the Border Patrol. However that program gets regularly shut down as its not deemed important enough. What does not get shut down are our quarterly Virtual Learning Center (VLC) courses that we have to complete. Agents are given four hours a quarter to complete what are basically distance learning courses. Most are about an hour long and completely worthless, most agents actually skip over the courses without reading or listening to any of it. Interested in budget cuts? Someone gets paid to develop those courses, which equals a lot of wasted taxpayer dollars. But I digress. TATP instructors also came up with a second course which I was able to take before it got shut down. Once again, it was the only worthwhile training I’ve attended as a Border Patrol agent. A third TATP course was developed that focused completely on night training after one of our agents was shot and killed in a supposed friendly fire incident at night. Can you guess the answer from the bureaucracy? It was never allowed to be taught. Can you guess how many hours of training Border Patrol agents receive on how to operate at night safely? Zero! That’s right, agents are thrown into working in an environment without one minute of even being taught how to use night vision properly, how to move and communicate, or how to survive at night. It’s pathetic. What’s worse is that this agency refuses to learn from veterans (some of whom have a decade worth of war fighting experience – you’d think that would be valuable right?) and change its approach to training, because well, this is how they’ve always done it.
Should I get back on topic? Recently an article was published by Fox News about how a large amount of our rifles were dead-lined and taken out of our inventory. This is true. My station alone lost well over one hundred rifles, and it was pretty clear that we would not receive a significant number of replacement rifles. What the Border Patrol union decided to keep quiet about was that almost all of those dead-lined rifles were pool rifles. That’s right, while the union claimed that they were opposed to sharing these pool rifles and that it will make our job much more dangerous, it’s a common practice that’s been around far longer than I’ve been in the agency. In fact, almost all agents are forced to share rifles as only the most senior agents were ever afforded the ability to have an assigned rifle. While the agency may counter that policy is to have a rifle for every two agents, it does not truly work out that way. Well over half the rifles were permanently assigned by seniority, the remaining pool rifles (less than 100) were shared by the over 400 agents who did not have one assigned. It does not matter how little the agent checked the rifle out to the field, how little the agent actually carried the rifle, how proficient the agent was with the rifle, or if they were even assigned to a field capacity; rifles are distributed solely on the basis of seniority. Some agents who were on administrative duties and maybe went out of the office once a month or year were still assigned rifles. The rest of us were left to check out rifles that were unzeroed to us and taken out daily by a different agent. That is so far beyond absurd and dangerous that words cannot describe how disgusted I am by this practice. I am currently unaware of any other law enforcement agency in the country that forces agents to share rifles. This practice needs to be outlawed, as it could cost someone their life. And our union flat out lied to the media about the situation. Again, this is unsatisfactory – and the driving force that pushed me to write this. My questions and outrage fall on deaf ears inside this agency. I had no desire to get involved in this mess but this bloated agency, inside a bloated government is accountable for nothing, and at some point this stupidity is going to cost good people their lives – so I feel duty bound to spread this far and wide in hopes that someone will force this agency to change.
I have brought this issue up with superiors and while they completely understand my position, but they have no power to do anything about it. The response I’m typically given is that the unzeroed pool rifle I carry can be used for suppressive fire to cover my escape from the area. So my objective is to run away, and apparently hope that my opponents don’t give chase and attempt to kill me again. Now I’m no Rambo and I’m certainly not against breaking contact in a firefight that’s over my head, however simply planning to run away from any possible firefight puts one in a position of dereliction of duty; maybe not legally, but morally it does. As a law enforcement officer, it is our job to place ourselves in front of the civilian population, to be that line in sand that separates them from harm. Danger is an inherent part of doing this job, we simply cannot plan to run away and hope for the best outcome. I know that I can’t. If we’re not ready and able to make that stand against criminals, then who will? We should own our battlespace and take active measures to apprehend these armed groups, not give them impunity because we’re too underequipped and undertrained to handle them.
The union got another thing wrong – the agency taking these weapons away actually made us a little safer. Almost all of our former pool rifles were taken during this ‘recall’, as the union called it. In reality this was not a recall at all, it was an inspection and the weapons that failed the inspection were taken out of service, as they should be. In the few years I’ve been at this station, never once has an armorer come in to inspect all of the rifles (as Colt suggests should be done yearly). While this weapon system does not typically have many problems, it needs to have proper maintenance and care. When you assign a rifle to an individual, you give him ownership over it. He will more likely than not take care of it, clean it and inspect it regularly because it is his lifeline. Hand a guy a random rifle every day and he has no incentive to clean or maintain it. How about a different example – have you ever rented a car? If you have you know that people tend to be less careful right? The same thing happens with gear that is not issued out to individuals – it is driven hard, abused, and then turned in. Maintenance is someone else’s problem. Conversely, if you have a piece of gear that is yours and you depend on it for your life, you tend to take care of it and you will know if something isn’t quite running right and you get it checked out. Back to why this makes us safer – all those pool rifles have been taken out of our armory. As an example, some of those rifles had bent barrels, which is not a good thing. Now the only rifles left in our inventory are ones that passed the inspection and are fit for duty. The only issue is that there are less rifles overall. Which really only effects senior agents, because they no longer get their own rifle, they have to share with everyone; just like I have had to do since the very first day I arrived at the station. So how does that make me less safe? It doesn’t – it just makes senior agents less happy. Think about it, every day I’ve taken one of those rifles out with me. Sometimes I’ve been up on mountaintops, an hour away from my closest backup and not being able to fully trust the weapon I have to protect myself. If you can fully put yourself in my shoes, that feeling should send a chill up your spine.
No officer, agent, or soldier should ever take a rifle out for duty use that has not been zeroed to them. It’s foolish, dangerous and stupid. I would think that it also sets them up for a huge liability issue. What happens when an agent shoots the wrong alien, smuggler, or God forbid another agent because the sights are so far off? Quite honestly it’s a disaster waiting to happen. And I’m more than willing to bet that the agency would shuck responsibility and try to pin it on the agent who pulled the trigger. Can you imagine the investigative process? When an attorney asks about your previous qualification on that weapon and you have to respond that at you have neither zeroed nor qualified with it before, how well do you think that is going to sit? That may not play out too well for that agency on the evening news. We have to qualify with our specific pistol every quarter. If an agent’s pistol breaks and he has to be issued a new one, that agent must qualify with that new pistol. A pistol is a basic weapon system without a sight system that requires being zeroed. So we have to qualify with a new pistol, which is virtually identical to our previous one, but for some reason we can pick up a random rifle and be ok with getting into a shooting with it? I think not, and I think that the court system would agree that this is unreasonable. I have to account for every round that leaves my barrel and that’s a much safer task with a rifle that is zeroed to me, both for me and the public.
One of the major factors involved with supplying us all with rifles is the cost. They don’t want to spend money on new weapons. Yet last year our station acquired brand new grenade launchers. Yes, you read that right, grenade launchers. This agency sets money on fire on a daily basis, but can’t scrounge around the change to purchase a rifle for every field agent. The things this agency finds to spend money on is ridiculous, yet somehow they always want to cut our pay or not fund projects that produce results. But that’s the government for you. However, in my infinite wisdom, I came up with a plan to allow every agent to have their own individual rifle and for it not to cost Customs and Border Protection (CBP – the agency over Border Patrol) a dime. How? By allowing individual agents to purchase their own rifles and use them for duty. Contrary to my previous statement (did you sense the sarcasm), this is not a new idea, and many local police departments have allowed their officers to carry personal rifles for years. As I mentioned earlier, these weapons have to meet stringent restrictions and typically have to be one of several approved makes or manufacturers. Currently Border Patrol employs Colt rifles. Even if the Border Patrol said that I had to buy a Colt, one of the more expensive rifles, I would jump on that opportunity. Civilians can pick up the exact same model (outside of the full auto function that some of our rifles have) that our agency carries for right around $1,000, and there are distributors that have special programs available just for law enforcement personnel. That’s a high end rifle, the same one used by both CBP and the military. I tell you what, my life is worth a thousand dollars to me.
If you ask anyone who served in a combat arms style profession about the practice of sharing rifles you’ll find that they would find this practice asinine, if they even understand what you’re talking about. In fact when I told a former Army Ranger this, he just gave me a blank stare and shook his head – he didn’t even have words to express the level of stupidity that this practice entails. Every infantryman is taught that his rifle is his best friend. Soldiers are assigned a rifle and that’s the one they shoot, no one in their right mind would pick up a random rifle out of the armory and be content on going to war with it without first hitting the range. I continually drift back to military mindsets and examples, and many might wonder what that has to do with law enforcement. I understand that these two worlds are very different at times, the methods of operating are different but at the core, the principles behind it are similar. This is not just a police or military thing, this is an accepted principle throughout the shooting community. You’d be hard pressed to find any shooter, hunter, cop, soldier or agent who likes the idea of using a rifle they is not assigned to and zeroed by them. And you certainly will not find anyone entering national shooting matches using a rifle they just swapped with another shooter. The only reason we do not have individual rifles is because this agency does not deem our job dangerous enough to require it. Apparently, our money is much better spent on brand new grenade launchers which have zero operational or practical use in our job. FOOLISHNESS! Our agency wastes so much money but the one thing they could do to allow me to adequately protect myself is considered too costly. What is my life worth to you?
When I began writing this, I was aiming to expose the lies perpetrated by our union and share with the American people the burden that is placed upon officers who are forced to carry these shared pool rifles. My hope is that that practice will be blacklisted and outlawed in the law enforcement community, that no other agent or officer will have to gamble with their life based on how some other random individual treated that weapon system. I tend to be a little long winded and this stretched on for much further than I anticipated, but I wanted to give an accurate view into this topic and there are several important influencing factors that cannot be ignored. This issue has been ignored by everyone for far too long, so plaster this everywhere you can. I would ask that news agencies demand to talk to average Border Patrol agents to see what’s really happening rather than relying on public affairs officers, upper management or union officials to give the story as they want it to be seen. I tried to give as honest view as I can, representing not only myself and my views, but the facts behind them. Prior to writing this, I discussed these things with other agents and soldiers, ones with vastly more experience than I have, and they concurred with my assessments and agreed that this needed to become known. I want to end this practice of pool rifles and force this agency to give me the ability to protect myself. Every day when I go to work, I put my life on the line to defend all of you. And honestly I wouldn’t have it any other way, it’s who I am. All I ask is that I’m given what I need to properly defend myself, my brothers or maybe someday, you. I don’t know what threat I’ll face tomorrow or the next day, but I do know that I stand a better chance of surviving it if I’m given the proper tools and training.
I’ll take it from there.