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.

Good PR may have motivated Glock. "Our department is recognized as being pretty professional, and if they can use our name as ones that have Glock, that helps with their marketing or whatever," Vaughn says.

Florissant has been a loyal Glock customer for a decade, buying its first 75 Model 22s in 1990 for $27,712. It appears to have been a good deal for the city, especially because Glock gave Florissant a credit of $17,005 on 121 used departmental handguns, most of them old Smith & Wesson revolvers, and accessories. Three years later, Florissant would return the favor, trading in its Model 22s and pre-ban magazines for 72 new Glock Model 22s and magazines. That trade cost Florissant nothing.

Neighboring Ferguson acquired its first Glocks -- 11 Model 22s -- in October 1996, then purchased an additional 38 Model 22s and five Model 23s in November 1998, according to city records. In January 1999, Ferguson traded in 40 department-owned Glocks and 29 other handguns for 62 brand-new Model 22s. With the credit for the trade-ins, the city ended up paying $107 for each new gun.

Officer Tim Allen, Ferguson's armorer, notes that his city may have been trading in the same model but that the newer guns came with additional improvements. "The first generation of Glocks had solid-plastic magazines with only two metal sides. What that means, basically, is if you put ammunition to full capacity in the magazine, the magazine would swell because it was made of plastic (and) if you fired a couple rounds, the magazines wouldn't drop free." Glock fixed that problem, and through the 1990s continued to offer improvements, such as revised grips to accommodate shooters with small hands and new rails for accessories like flashlights and expensive glow-in-the-dark night sights. Glock's quality was undisputed -- the hammer-forged steel barrel, as Allen points out, ensured a "very long-lasting gun" -- but with the manufacturer continually putting more features on its guns and offering law-enforcement agencies unbeatable trade-in deals, who could resist the temptation to upgrade?

"It's like trading in a '92 Cadillac for a 2002 Cadillac for almost next-to-nothing. So it's really economical to do that," Allen says. "As far as what Glock gets out of it, I have no idea -- I don't know if they aftermarket these guns to other countries or what they do with them, but, you know, at that point, they're Glock's guns."

The city of Ballwin isn't sure where the Glocks it bought in 1988 ended up. In 1993, a Glock sales representative showed up and, says Ballwin Police Chief James B. Biederman, offered the city "a very significant savings on new weapons" if Ballwin would trade in 43 older-model 9mm semiautomatics for 44 new .40-caliber handguns. Glock needed the 9mm guns "to fulfill a large government contract with a NATO country," he says. (The 9mm was NATO's handgun of choice.)

Chesterfield purchased 73 Glock 9 mms between May 1989 and August 1991 -- and traded them to Kansas City, Mo.-based Law Enforcement Equipment Co. (LEECo.), a leading supplier to law-enforcement agencies, in early 1993 for 74 Glock .40-caliber semiautomatics. Chesterfield paid $22,729 for the new guns but did not provide a record showing how much the city was credited for the trade-ins. Since 1993, the city has purchased more than three dozen additional handguns from Glock.

Hazelwood bought its first 40 Glock Model 23s in August 1993, then bought another 15 during the next year-and-a-half. The city traded the guns -- some less than four years old -- as well as at least three pre-ban magazines to LEECo. in early 1999.

The county's other big municipalities -- Maryland Heights, Webster Groves and Kirkwood -- have stuck with Smith & Wesson. Maryland Heights traded in 10-year-old revolvers in 1996; Webster Groves swapped a hodgepodge of handguns for Smith & Wesson semiautomatics in 1993; Kirkwood traded revolvers for semiautomatics in the early 1990s. University City uses a different method to arm its officers: The municipality solicits competitive bids, then sells the guns to its officers -- Berettas for on-duty use, Glock Model 26s for off-duty carry.

Despite all the buying and trading of guns by police, ATF officials say they haven't detected anything unusual. "A lot of police departments upgrade for reasons known to the police departments," says Special Agent Larry P. Scott, a bureau spokesman in Kansas City.

Nor does the ATF see anything unusual in the frequency of trade-ins -- trading in a gun that's only a couple of years old for essentially the same type of gun. "It becomes a decision of how much of the firearm has been fired, how much range time is there before they decide it's time, before it's no longer practical to service that weapon and it needs to be replaced. They do have a finite lifetime," says Robert P. Mosley, ATF director of industry operations.

Reynolds, a former St. Louis police lieutenant who retired in 1988, says trade-ins, which let police departments save money on new weapons, actually end up costing the manufacturers, who aggressively compete with each other. "You're only going to sell so many guns, regardless of whether they're new or used," says Reynolds. "Glock would make more money if we did not accept police trade-ins. Bottom line."

Unusual or not, the frequency of police trade-ins has come to haunt some cities, who've recently gone to court in an attempt to pin gun violence on gun manufacturers. The lawsuits -- the city of St. Louis went to court on April 30, 1999 -- so far have yielded mixed results. Smith & Wesson, under competitive pressure, recently agreed to a settlement, winning applause from city officials like St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon.

But other cities -- including New Orleans, the first to sue -- have been embarrassed by revelations that guns sold or traded by its police departments have ended up back on the streets, used in crimes. Last year, New Orleans police acknowledged they had traded nearly 10,000 confiscated and used guns to Glock in deals for new weapons. New Orleans wasn't the only city to get a black eye, as press reports increasingly document how many former police and evidence guns end up back on the streets, in the hands of criminals.

The information is developed through the matching of serial numbers of former law-enforcement guns with serial numbers that show up among the more than 800,000 crime guns traced by the ATF since the late 1980s.

For example, the Wall Street Journal last year reported that at least 1,100 former police guns were among 193,203 guns traced by the ATF in 1998. The Washington Post, in November, found 137 crime guns among the more than 15,000 guns formerly owned by the District of Columbia metropolitan police, the Virginia State Police and Baltimore County police. Those results hint at the scope of the problem.

Only about half of all guns used in crimes in 1998 generated an ATF trace, the Post reported, and fewer than half were tracked to the first purchaser. Additionally, ATF's trace records provide only general categories classifying the type of crime. In some cases, the guns cannot be easily identified because an attempt has been made to obliterate the serial number. In some instances, a trace is requested in noncriminal cases. For example, one of the police trade-ins that the RFT checked was assigned to a Maryland Heights police officer at the time that the trace was generated. The officer shot and killed a bar patron who attacked another officer.

One former Overland police gun showed up in the ATF-trace database -- a Smith & Wesson stolen from the St. Charles home of an officer and later used in an assault in St. Louis in October 1995.

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