Johnny Hurley carried a concealed weapon so he could defend himself and others should there ever be a threat, his friends said.
When the moment came on Monday, he drew his weapon and charged toward a gunman in Olde Town Arvada only to be killed a short time later by a responding Arvada police officer, investigators said. Hurley was holding the gunman’s AR-15 after shooting him when the officer arrived, police said.
Hurley’s death once again sparked questions about how Colorado law enforcement reacts to armed people who are acting lawfully in self-defense. Many of the hundreds of thousands of gun owners in Colorado keep their weapons in case they need to defend themselves or others.
But in chaotic moments, police can mistakenly believe someone trying to help is a threat.
“It’s a difficult thing,” said Pete Blair, executive director of Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training at Texas State University, which trains law enforcement officers how to respond to active shooters. “You’re asking people to make split-second decisions about who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy and obviously mistakes happen.”
Jimmy Graham, owner of Centennial self-defense training program Able Shepherd, trains civilians for exactly these scenarios. He said people carrying guns should only intervene in active shooter situations if they reasonably believe they can do so effectively and safely. Target practice is important, but people also need to complete scenario-based training on movement and tactics, he said.
“This is a responsibility and it has to be realistic,” he said. “They need to have skills beyond shooting cans down by the river.”
“You need to be prepared”
Hurley is not the first Coloradan defensively using a gun to be shot by police. Aurora police in August 2018 shot and killed 73-year-old Richard “Gary” Black after the grandfather used his gun to shoot and kill a naked man who kicked in his front door and attacked his 11-year-old grandson.
Prosecutors decided that the officer who killed Black should not face criminal charges.
A year earlier, the law enforcement investigation into a shooting at a Thornton Walmart that left three dead was slowed because multiple people drew weapons when shots rang out. Police poring through video recordings of the shooting had to rule out each person who drew a weapon as a suspect in the shooting.
“They have to understand that there’s nothing that distinguishes them from a bad guy to a police officer,” Blair said.
Graham’s instructors teach people to protect themselves from being mistakenly shot by police. If a person drew their weapon to defend themselves, they should loudly communicate to police that they are trying to help and make sure police are aware of their presence to avoid surprising them. People should also holster their weapons and make their hands visible, Graham said.
“You know (law enforcement) are coming, so you need to be prepared for that second part, too,” he said.
Officials have not said whether Hurley announced himself to arriving officers or how he reacted to their arrival.
Graham said he sees a spike in the number of people interested in his training after any major active shooter event.
“A really difficult situation”
Active shooters have become more common and more deadly over the past two decades, FBI data shows. Between 2000 and 2004, the FBI recorded an average of seven active shooter situations a year. Between 2015 and 2019, the average was 26 a year.
In the first five years of the study’s two-decade timeframe, an average of 22 people were killed by active shooters every year. By the last five years, the average had grown to 91 killings every year.
Data compiled by the FBI shows that civilians successfully stopping an active shooter is extremely rare. Of 345 active shooters recorded between 2000 and 2019, four were killed by civilians. The vast majority were killed or arrested by police.
Police don’t usually undergo extensive training about identifying a “good guy with a gun” outside of running through some scenarios in weapons training that involve armed people who are not suspects, said Paul Taylor, a former police officer and assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver who studies police decision-making.
“It’s not something that’s really stressed or talked about,” Taylor said. “It’s acknowledged that it could happen.”
The dispatch information officers receive will also greatly influence how they handle a situation, he said.
“You roll up on scene and someone is pointing a gun at someone and how much time are you going to take before you take action?” Taylor said. “It’s a really difficult situation.”
David Lane, a Denver civil rights attorney, said officers should issue a warning to the armed person to drop their gun before opening fire. If the person doesn’t comply and police reasonably saw him as a threat, prosecutors will see the shooting as justified, he said.
It’s unclear whether police issued commands to Hurley or what dispatch information the officer who shot Hurley had received.
The Jefferson County 911 communications center denied a public records request by The Denver Post for audio recordings of 911 calls and dispatch communications related to the Olde Town Arvada shooting, citing the ongoing investigation.
Arvada police officers are not equipped with body cameras. Investigators on Friday released video from a security camera showing the gunman ambush Officer Gordon Beesley, but did not release any video connected to Hurley’s actions or death.
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