Gun Club

Overland wasn't the only city helping put guns on the streets

Police officers in the city of St. Louis have carried Berettas for the past decade -- just about the typical lifespan for a law-enforcement agency sidearm. During the same period, Overland cops have had three handgun upgrades.

But Overland wasn't that unusual. During the 1990s, gun reps were prevailing on police chiefs not only to upgrade their firepower but also to swap in their late-model handguns to whet the public's appetite for semiautomatic weapons.

Local law-enforcement's conversion to 9mm semiautomatic weapons began in earnest in the mid-1980s, after the military decided to adopt the 9mm as its official sidearm, replacing the Colt .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol. Police said they wanted to match the sophisticated firepower that was showing up in the streets.

The new semiautomatics -- made by companies like Beretta, Glock and Taurus -- came with high-capacity magazines, giving a shooter with a typical 9mm more than a dozen bullets before having to reload. When those guns got into the wrong hands, the implications for mayhem were clear. In a 1993 shooting rampage, Colin Ferguson opened fire with his 9mm Ruger handgun while aboard the Long Island Railroad, firing off 30 rounds in less than two minutes, killing six and wounding 19.

In response to high-profile multiple shootings like the commuter-train murders, the Clinton administration and Congress responded with the 1994 assault-weapons ban, a law that identified 19 powerful weapons that couldn't be made or imported anymore (guns like the notorious TEC-9 used in the Columbine High School killings). The federal law also barred the sale and importation of high-capacity magazines -- magazines that hold more than 10 rounds -- made after Sept. 13, 1994.

The ban on high-capacity magazines, however, didn't apply to law-enforcement agencies, and gun manufacturers and dealers quickly recognized that police departments were sitting on a potential goldmine. If manufacturers and dealers could convince cops to trade in their pre-ban handguns and magazines, they could turn around and sell them to the public. High-capacity clips that sold for $17 apiece before the assault-weapons ban were commanding as much as $90 on the resale market afterward.

That the trades, which helped put more firepower on the streets, didn't make law-enforcement sense seemed obvious to some cops. When Doug Hamilton, police chief of Louisville, Ky., was invited to swap his department's high-capacity magazines in 1995, he condemned the idea as "immoral." Other law-enforcement groups have taken similar positions.

In October 1998, the International Association of Chiefs of Police adopted a resolution calling on law-enforcement agencies to destroy all weapons no longer needed for evidence or "legitimate law enforcement or forensic purposes." Larry Todd, chief of police for Los Gatos, Calif., explains the IACP's thinking: "After studying it for several years, we determined that we were costing society far more as a result of the injuries that were associated with firearms violence than we were gaining back in a trade-in."

But for many police departments, the bigger picture didn't seem to matter: The trades made financial sense -- their officers could get brand-spanking-new guns, sometimes with slight improvements, in exchange for used guns -- often at little or no cost.

Most area law-enforcement agencies were involved in gun trades as they beefed up their firepower in the 1990s, and most dealt with Glock.

"This area has been very, very good for Glock," acknowledges Ray Reynolds, the company's Chesterfield-based regional manager. He traces the company's success here to the Missouri Highway Patrol's decision a decade ago to equip its officers with Glock's then-new .40-caliber Model 22s. "When a large prestigious agency like the Missouri Highway Patrol comes on board with a manufacturing company -- whether it's Beretta, Glock, Smith, Ruger -- there automatically are a number of smaller agencies that follow suit."

Indeed, six of the 10 biggest municipalities in St. Louis County, including Overland, dealt with Glock; combined, those cities traded in more than 500 late-model Glock semiautomatics in the past decade. And in some cases, the trade-ins were less than two years old. Many of the early trade-ins were spurred by the introduction of a new .40-caliber cartridge in 1989, which law enforcement saw as superior to the 9mm, says Reynolds. The new cartridge offered more knock-down power with less penetration; in other words, the chance of a bullet going through the target and hitting someone else was lessened. "If you have to shoot a human being, it won't go through that person into the next or subsequent two or three people," Reynolds says. Subsequent trade-ins came as Glock offered improvements -- drop-free magazines and other bells and whistles -- that cops wanted.

One of Glock's biggest customers is the county's biggest municipality. Florissant, in the past decade, has made at least three large purchases of Glock semiautomatics. The latest was in fall 1998, when the North County city swapped 109 Glock Model 22s and three pre-ban high-capacity magazines for 109 Glock Model 22s and three law-enforcement-only magazines. Glock charged $44,150 for the new guns and magazines but offered a credit of $44,150 on the older magazines and guns, which the city bought from December 1993-July 1995.

Lt. Ronald Vaughn, one of the department's armorers, says the last trade came after Florissant advised Glock that one of its new guns had jammed during a shooting. "We contacted them and asked them if they had any magazine problems or malfunction problems," Vaughn says. Glock didn't just offer to examine the one gun -- it offered to trade all of the guns it had sold the city, giving Florissant full credit.

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