Early in the morning on Sunday, June 12, a tragedy befell Orlando, Florida when a gunman opened fire on patrons at the Pulse nightclub. The gunman, Omar Mateen, pledged allegiance to ISIS in a phone call to 911. He was known to make homophobic statements, and Pulse was a club frequented by gay patrons. In a rather bizarre turn, he also was a documented patron of Pulse. The story is still developing, but as of writing the attack has claimed the lives of 49 club attendees as well as the gunman and has injured 53 more, making it the most deadly shooting in American history and the deadliest terror attack since 9/11. The gunman stormed the nightclub and opened fire on patrons before taking hostages and “digging in” for a siege. He was trained and employed as a security guard. In the attack he used a .223 Sig Sauer MCX , which media outlets have labeled an “assault rifle” or “assault-style rifle.” The label “assault rifle” is technically incorrect, as assault rifles are fully automatic and the MCX used by the gunman was semi-automatic. He also carried a sidearm.
The siege was ended by the Orlando SWAT unit. SWAT stands for “special weapons and tactics.” SWAT teams are specialized police units employed in dangerous operations such as hostage rescue, sieges, serving warrants on dangerous individuals, etc. The Orlando SWAT team used an armored vehicle to breach the night club and then detonated stun grenades (often referred to as flashbangs) to disorient the gunman. In the ensuing engagement, the gunman was eliminated. One SWAT officer was also hit, although his armored combat helmet prevented the bullet from penetrating into his skull.
Recently, police departments across the country have come under fire from what some refer to as “militarization.” Police militarization refers to the transfer of military-grade equipment, such as armored vehicles, assault rifles, stun grenades, etc. to police departments. Usually this equipment is used by elite police units such as SWAT teams. Many articles have been written about how police militarization is an unnecessary danger, how it precludes the US becoming a police state, and how police are incapable of properly utilizing military-style equipment. This has lead to an overall sentiment among many that the police do not need and should not have access to military-grade weapons such as assault rifles, armored vehicles, stun grenades, and high-quality body armor.
Yet, the Pulse massacre provides a counterpoint. An armored vehicle, the manufacture of which has not been reported, was critical in the resolution of the siege, as it was used to breach the night club without exposing the officers to fire. This seems to confirm what police departments have said all along: armored vehicles provide police with mobility and protection in high-stakes shootouts with well-armed gunmen. Next, stun grenades were employed to disorient and distract the gunman. Although it is not yet known exactly how these grenades were used and what effect they had on the shooter, stun grenades have been instrumental in ending many sieges and have a legitimate counter-terror role. It is not unreasonable to assume that the stun grenades probably protected the officers and victims by at least distracting if not temporarily incapacitating the gunman. Next, an officer was saved by his armored combat helmet, which illustrates how military-grade equipment such as combat helmets can allow SWAT units to maneuver with less fear of gunfire, as one hit to a protected area is often not enough to eliminate a member of the SWAT team.
All of the military-grade equipment used by SWAT units and other elite police units contributes to something called overmatch. Overmatch refers to the tactical dominance of the SWAT team over the gunman, a dominance that results from the SWAT team’s superior numbers, training, and equipment. Armored vehicles and armor significantly increase the tactical mobility (the ability to maneuver while under fire) of the police, allowing for a swift and decisive assault as opposed to a standoff where the police are afraid of enemy fire. Stun grenades and military-grade weapons allow the police units to engage the gunman effectively and incapacitate him more rapidly. In other words, the military-grade equipment used by SWAT teams gives them confidence in their ability to resolve dangerous situations with minimal losses.
Of course, police probably could have ended the siege without the specialized equipment they used, but they would not have had nearly as much of a tactical advantage over the gunman. Had the police not been in possession of such equipment, they likely would not have been able to intervene so decisively and effectively, resulting in a prolonged siege or a slower assault, as well as more police casualties. Considering that police reported saving 30 hostages, there may have been many more civilian casualties as well had the police not been as well-equipped as they were. Terrorists and gunmen have access to body armor and high-quality semi-automatic rifles on the open market, so police with service pistols and cloth uniforms are simply not very effective in an active shooter scenario.
Thus, it appears that the Pulse shooting has at least somewhat vindicated the role of military-grade equipment and police departments. While police militarization is often bemoaned as a danger (and indeed there are some instances of police abusing equipment such as stun grenades), military gear can play a crucial role in allowing police to effectively and decisively engage well-armed attackers in high-stakes situations.