Black Mountain police let reporter fire AR-15 to simulate their special response training

Fred McCormick

While America is gripped by the ancillary debates around mass shootings, the stark reality is that the tragedies are on the rise.

What used to be unthinkable is now something that requires preparation and a strategic response. While Black Mountain oozes its own special brand of charm, it’s by no means immune to any number of factors that can contribute to a senseless act.

As a father, that’s something I’d thought about many times before Shawn Freeman, chief of the Black Mountain Police Department, mentioned the formation of a Special Response Team. The specially trained unit allows the town’s local department to respond swiftly and efficiently to a potentially life-threatening event without waiting for assistance from outside agencies.

The mere idea is comforting; witnessing the training that goes into developing the team is even more so.

I was invited to see the SRT perform exercises on June 7 and left with an entirely new perspective on what it takes to be a member of an elite team.

I watched, almost mesmerized while the chief spoke to me, as teams of three worked methodically down the range. Even though loud pops went off around me in both directions, I’d never felt safer in my life.

The team of three was working on a simulation in which they were approaching an entrance, and their motions were synchronized. Each member was wearing heavy armor.

At some point, between the bangs, I thought I heard Chief Freeman say “Fred, have you ever shot an AR-15 before?” As shots echoed off the surrounding mountains, it registered that those were the words he said.

“No, I haven’t, chief,” I responded, assuming that was the end of it, but it wasn’t. He said that I would that day and I wasn’t sure what to think.

I grew up around guns. Hundreds of them served as decorative pieces in my grandfather’s house, mounted on the exposed beams above his living room and along his giant fireplace mantle, and the grandchildren were forbidden from messing with them. He gave me a shotgun for one of my birthdays.

I had a B.B. gun when I was around eight, and both of my parents are gun owners. My dad has a .44 Magnum like Dirty Harry, and my mom has a .357 Smith & Wesson.

I also grew up in Florida, a state with its fair share of gun violence, so it’s safe to say I’m fairly comfortable around them. I’ve even been to a shooting range a handful of times.

But I’d never fired an AR-15, which is a lightweight semi-automatic rifle. The weapon has been much-maligned in recent years for its involvement in mass shootings, and I have to admit I was intimidated.

What I learned next, that I’d also be wearing the 55 pounds of body armor the members of the SRT are equipped with, was downright worrisome. I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of a bunch of professional law enforcement officers by not being able to stand under the weight.

It was so heavy that simply wearing it was a distraction. Then I learned I couldn’t move my limbs normally due to the bulk of the armor. This made the idea of operating a rifle I was not exactly comfortable with seem a little overwhelming, but I was assured it was something I could handle.

The SRT members who participated in drills on the range before I began were operating smoothly as they advanced and fired, constantly communicating verbally and non-verbally. They stepped with the confidence of athletes who had practiced those moves repeatedly.

I was clearly shown the rifle was in the safety position and instructed to keep it there until it was pointed down-range and I was ready to fire.

I was then told to advance down the range, lining the red dot visible through the sight of the rifle up with the target, while continuously firing until the 15-round clip was empty.

Members of the team are required to hit the target at a 95 percent rate, which seems nearly impossible, even after watching them do it with my own eyes.

I stood tall, too tall I later learned from the chief, as I fired a shot to get a feel for the rifle. There was not as much recoil as I braced for, and I started to slowly advance toward the target.

It was difficult to concentrate on taking steps and firing simultaneously, and I have no idea how many times I even hit the target. I may have done slightly better on my second try, but not enough to feel any sense of accomplishment.

I felt relief as I took off the heavy armor, which left me sweaty under the blazing late-afternoon sun. I was relieved that I hadn’t made a fool of myself and, more importantly, that nobody’s life depended on my ability to perform under those conditions.

Mostly, however, I was comforted that if the unthinkable were to ever happen close to home, there are Black Mountain officers working in the summer heat, wearing that same armor and sharpening their skills getting prepared to respond to what most of us would rather not think about.