by Sarah M. Chen
I’m into week 5 now with my ATF Citizen’s Academy training. So far, I’ve really enjoyed it and learned quite a bit about things I wouldn’t expect like why dogs have such a strong sense of smell, fire investigations in Tijuana, and digital forensics.
Of course, the main draw for the academy is the shooting range day. Was it my favorite week of training? You bet! It was what everyone was pumped up to do. I know I won’t ever get the chance to shoot such a variety of guns all in one day or ever again for that matter (unless I join the alumni association – hmmm, tempting, but more on that later). They were all seized weapons. There were revolvers, pistols, AK-47s, a Thompson submachine gun, and a shotgun. There was even a pen gun. I never heard of a pen gun except maybe in a James Bond film. Sadly, we didn’t get to shoot the pen gun. It was pretty darn cute too and looked exactly like an innocent pen.
The only downside to this day was the heat. It was a record heat wave in Southern California that entire week and of course, range day landed on the hottest day. Not only that but we had to be in Glendale which is at least 10-15 degrees hotter than the beach community where I live. I’m sure temperatures were over 100. All the agents and police officers that helped us that day were there on their own time. It was really impressive how patient they were with us and good-natured despite the unbearable heat.
It wasn’t just guns we learned about either. We were introduced to Junior, a canine agent, and even got to see firsthand how he tackled a suspect to the ground. I’m glad we didn’t have to volunteer to be that guy. We played around in the BearCat or what looked like a giant tank.
I now know my favorite gun to shoot is a Heckler & Koch submachine gun although I doubt I’ll do much with that knowledge. I’m not sure which model it was but it was the most lightweight and had almost no recoil. I could actually hold it without feeling like my arms were going to fall off. But it was extremely powerful. My instructor put it on full automatic once he was satisfied I wasn’t going to shoot everyone around me, and man, was it an experience! That rat-a-tat-tat sound and that feeling of power firing it. It’s both exhilarating and intimidating.
I also learned quite a bit about dogs which I didn’t realize before. Labs are the preferred dogs of choice for the ATF not because of their keen sense of smell which isn’t quite as good as the bloodhound (the breed with the best sense of smell) but their temperament and adaptability are key factors. I didn’t know dogs use the slits on the sides of their noses to exhale and their nostrils to inhale. This enables them to be able to find the source of a smell fairly quickly. They exhale the previous odor and inhale the new odor. If it’s the same odor but much stronger, then they know they’re getting closer. They’re also able to distinguish many different odors at once. So if someone tries to smuggle cocaine by pouring coffee grounds over it, the dog will smell the drug as well as freshly ground coffee.
I’m sad my training is coming to an end soon and am contemplating joining their alumni association. There are several opportunities to help plan events, assist with trainees, go to community fairs, and even be on the board. It’s one more thing to add to my already-busy schedule so I have to decide what exactly I hope to get out of this training. Is it simply research for my writing or do I want to help the agency connect with the community? I don’t have to decide right this second, but it’s definitely something I’m going to be thinking about over my last few training sessions. I’ve met so many interesting people during my training and it’s fascinating to learn what motivates us all to come together once a week.
Sarah M. Chen has worked a variety of odd jobs, ranging from script reader to private investigator assistant. Her crime fiction short stories have been accepted for publication in All Due Respect, Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, Betty Fedora, Vol. 2, Plan B, and the Sisters in Crime/LA anthology, Ladies Night. Her noir novella, Cleaning Up Finn, is slated for publication in 2016 with All Due Respect Books, proving she can write something over 6,000 words. www.sarahmchen.com