Police gun plan draws criticism

Dealers would sell service weapons that department trades in

May 18, 1999|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

As the Howard County Police Department makes plans to purchase new guns for officers, area observers worry what will happen to the old weapons -- and what responsibility the department should have for them.

Some Maryland police agencies require that old weapons be melted down, be sold only to law enforcement officials or be sent out of state to reduce the chance that they will find their way back into communities.

To save money, county police plan to trade in their 11-year-old 9 mm weapons to gun manufacturer SIG Sauer, which would sell them to licensed gun dealers with no restrictions on where the firearms would be marketed.

Opponents argue that the guns could be used in a crime or accident and that the police should consider public safety over money.

"What they overlook are the accidents because a child gets hold of [one of these] guns, or a household gets caught up in a domestic [dispute] with a gun in the house, or a suicide," said Cornelius Behan, a former Baltimore County police chief who has worked on gun control initiatives. "All that adds up to trouble."

An official at the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based organization promoting education about violence and handguns, criticized the trade-in plan.

"Police provide these powerful guns to the public. Then they say, `See, we need higher-powered guns to defend ourselves,' " said Tom Diaz, senior policy analyst at the center. "It's a cycle. How many times have [county officers] been out-powered?"

Lawrence W. Sherman, chairman of the criminology department at the University of Maryland, College Park, said the issue isn't firepower.

"We can't say former police weapons are any more lethal. It's just a debate about whether [police] should be pumping more weapons into the community," he said. "You would think the police wouldn't want to."

County police officials defended their plan, saying the sale is legal, that the likelihood of one of the department's 355 guns being used in a crime is minimal, that many jurisdictions practice the same policy and that trading in the guns, which would save about $11,000, is the only way the department can afford new firearms.

"There is always a concern, [but] you can't assume that guns are going to be used in a crime," said Maj. Mark Paterni, the administration commander.

Paterni said the department has not ruled out putting stipulations on its contract with SIG Sauer about where the guns would end up. But Paterni said there has been no recent discussion about that.

Nothing in the county code requires stipulations on the sale of police guns, said Harrison Showell of the county's purchasing department.

The department is considering buying one of four models: the .357-caliber semiautomatic SIG Sauer, the .40-caliber SIG Sauer, the .45-caliber SIG Sauer and an updated version of the 9 mm its 313 officers now use, said Sgt. David Richards of the staff inspections unit.

Compared with the 9 mm weapons, the .357 SIG Sauer model shoots the same size bullet at a higher velocity; the .40-caliber shoots a larger bullet at the same velocity; and the .45-caliber shoots a larger bullet at less velocity.

The combined differences in bullet size and velocity increase the impact a shot has on a target, making it easier for officers to stop an immediate threat, Paterni said.

Police said they decided to buy new weapons because during an annual check, officials determined that many of the weapons needed new parts, costing about $220 a gun, said Paterni.

Officials decided it was more economical to trade in their guns to the manufacturer for new, more powerful firearms costing about $250 each, Paterni said.

Officials at New Hampshire-based SIG Sauer said they are completing a contract with the Howard police and do not expect the county to put stipulations on the deal.

SIG Sauer plans to sell the traded-in guns nationwide.

Sherman said the "mystique" of police guns makes them more valuable in some markets, at times benefiting sellers.

Trade-in companies "like to sell to police departments because it's good advertising for them," said Diaz.

Baltimore melted its old guns in 1990 "because [city officials] didn't want to take the chance one of our service guns put out on the street would be used in a murder," said Sgt. Donald Kramer of the city's armory unit.

State police -- the regional department that most recently bought new guns -- opted for .40-caliber weapons last year. The agency banned the sale of trade-in weapons in Maryland, said police spokesman Pete Piringer.

Melting guns or imposing restrictions comes at a cost, one that Paterni said Howard County can't afford.

"We are counting on a trade-in value," Paterni said. "That's the reality when you are trying to manage a tax-governed agency."

Retired Lt. Charles "Joe" Key, who was in the Baltimore firearms unit, said, "The fact of it is, any gun that is sold has the potential of being used against someone. [The county] could make this grand gesture, but they will eat about $300 a gun."

A four-member committee is reviewing the guns and will make a recommendation to Police Chief Wayne Livesay in the next month. County officers each shoot about 150 rounds a year from the 9 mm firearms, usually in training, Richards said.

Pub Date: 5/18/99

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