Cleveland FBI Citizens' Academy learns to shoot at training facility

CAMP PERRY, Ohio - If you were to tell me that one day I would be shooting a Tommy gun with the FBI, I would have asked if I went back in time to the Al Capone days.

To my surprise, half of that sentence became reality.

Every FBI agent is trained to shoot. And so is every member of the FBI Citizens’ Academy.

After completing the Citizens’ Academy courses at the Cleveland division, I got my invitation to range day. Range day tends to be one of the more popular events in the Citizens’ Academy, and it’s not too hard to guess why.

I drove nearly two hours from my house on the east side of Cleveland to Camp Perry in Port Clinton one sunny summer day. Camp Perry is a National Guard training facility. It’s got some barracks, some historical military machines, and lots of wide open green space to fire weapons. On a clear day, the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Plant is visible in the distance along the shore of Lake Erie.

My classmates and I sat down in a modular classroom. It was, blessedly, air conditioned – a brief respite from the landscape. Not only is the range outdoors, there’s no shade, and this particular day it was 90 degrees with nary a cloud to interrupt sun’s rays.

Safety first. And last, in fact. An agent who serves as a firearm instructor walked us through proper protocol on the range. When first handling a gun, safety on. Finger off the trigger until intending to fire. Always keep the firearm aimed down the range. These were live rounds we were dealing with, not kids’ stuff.

A member of the Cleveland FBI’s SWAT team briefed us on how to shoot, the nuances of aiming a handgun as opposed to a rifle. We were told not to think about pulling the trigger. Instead, focus on aiming, while squeezing, and let the shot come as a surprise.

We were treated to a crash course in firearm safety and marksmanship, a very abbreviated version of the intensive training that FBI agents must perfect. But the Citizens’ Academy only needed enough know-how for an afternoon on the range. We wouldn’t be fighting crime on the streets any time soon.

The FBI had six stations set up on the range, each with a different gun or target. We broke off into several little groups. Four of us, including Micki Byrnes of Channel 3 News, went straight to the Thompson submachine gun. These rare machines were what agents were issued in the 1920's.

A member of the FBI SWAT team told us how the gun worked – which it still did after 80 years. I picked up the gun. It was surprisingly heavy. In fact, it’s so heavy, you could rest the butt of the gun against your chin and fire, and not feel any recoil. On single fire, that is.

It was a different story when the gun was switched to automatic. When I shot the Tommy gun on single fire, I shot one bullet at the target, and it was not very easy to aim.

When the Tommy gun was on automatic, it’s even more uncontrollable. The barrel has a tendency to rise. If you were shooting the center mass of a target on automatic, by the time you took your finger off the trigger, the gunshots would trail straight up and probably over the target’s head.

Enough with the technical stuff. Shooting a Tommy gun on automatic was a blast, no pun intended. I didn’t even try to aim. I just pointed at the target, pulled that trigger, and emptied a wild clip somewhere at Lake Erie. No reason pretending I could aim one.

The other good thing about starting range day with a Tommy gun was that aiming every other gun after that got much easier to hit a target with.

Our group then walked over to the station with the Colt 9mm submachine gun. This is the weapon that FBI SWAT teams currently use, but with a different a caliber. The gun was equipped with an electronic sight. By looking into it, I saw a red dot that pinpointed where the round would hit. And it was a moving target.

This station gave us a small taste of the specific training and unique challenges the SWAT teams face. I know I hit that moving target a couple times, but I took my time firing. SWAT team members have to be able to do twice as good as I did in a fraction of the time, and that’s just in training.

The next station featured the MP5, the submachine gun that the FBI SWAT teams used prior to the Colt SMG. This was the first time I ever fired an MP5 and I have to say I loved it. My aim wasn't too shabby either. The SWAT team member supervising this station told me I stayed within the ten ring for most of my shots.

What’s a ten ring? Picture a bullseye on a target. The ten ring is the center.

Our group then headed over to the handgun stations. First we tried out the classic Smith & Wesson .38 caliber. This is the six-shooter cylinder revolver we all remember from the older cop shows on TV. It’s a pretty straightforward firearm, and what agents used to carry.

Now agents carry Glocks. The Glock is an Austrian-made automatic pistol. It’s an impressively crafted automatic, and I preferred the Glock over the S&W, but it does have more of a kick after each round. One can fire the S&W and keep the barrel aimed at the target. The Glock though tends to kick up with each shot.

Our last stop was a different station featuring the Colt SMG. Instead of a moving target, this one featured six metal disks on a post as targets, each about the size of a teacup saucer.

Micki may work at Channel 3 now, but she was on a shooting team back in her school days. She brought the stock of the Colt SMG to her shoulder, leveled her sight, and took her time to fire. Not one round wasted, she hit every disk. The SWAT member said she had the first perfect score of the day.

After using up a bunch of ammo, we made our way back to the modular classroom. The firearms instructor explained how fortunate the bureau is when it comes to firearms training. Agents must qualify with firearms four times a year, and they have lots of rounds they get to practice with. In contrast, police departments across the country must typically qualify twice a year, and they have a very limited amount of rounds they can practice with.

This is a startling contrast because police officers work on the streets, often walk into unpredictable situations, and must make arrests on the spot.

In contrast, FBI agents make arrests after long-term investigations. They know when and where the arrest will happen, it’s been planned out, and plenty of them are on hand for the event.

The firearms instructor said less than 98 percent of agents have ever had to fire their weapon.

The Cleveland FBI has another training tool at its disposal: a makeshift house created for live fire training exercises. It has two stories. The second story is a catwalk, which looks down into the first floor. This way agents can observe a SWAT team as it enters the house and clears it room by room.

The first floor is a mockup of a normal house floor plan, with hallways, bedrooms, and a kitchen. The goal is to create a lifelike scenario that a SWAT team would find during an actual arrest in a real home, and practice until there is zero chance for mistakes so no member of the team gets shot.

This type of training is critical. One day earlier, the Cleveland FBI was involved in a major drug bust made across the country, and nine people were arrested in Northeast Ohio. During one arrest in Akron, a suspect opened fire, hitting two Summit County SWAT team members in their helmets. Fortunately, the helmets did exactly what they were supposed to and those members are still with us today.

Lastly, Special Agent in Charge of the Cleveland FBI Stephen Anthony took the time to come to Camp Perry. He presented each of us with a certificate, thanking us for our commitment to the Citizens’ Academy and to our communities in general.

The certificate also featured a letter with an official signature from Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI. I felt truly honored at such a gracious gesture. The letter asked that members of the Citizens’ Academy serve as ambassadors for the FBI and help demystify the work that it does. After learning what the FBI faces daily to protect us, it’s the least I can do.

[Look for updates about the FBI Citizens' Academy from Colin McDermott over the next several months.]

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