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Police Selling Old Guns to Buy New Arsenals

September 05, 1993|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At a Northridge gun shop, a blued-steel Colt .38-caliber revolver with a wood-grain grip is one of the shop's best bargains.

Priced at only $99, it is far cheaper than most new handguns--a similar model would cost about $340 new. And although it is used, the shop owner guarantees it has been well-maintained.

But the gun is on sale due to a controversial policy that has been harshly criticized by gun control advocates and some law enforcement agencies.

It is a "police trade," one of thousands of service revolvers originally purchased by law enforcement agencies for their officers, which the departments are now selling to gun dealers across the nation as they replace the .38-caliber special revolvers--standard police weapons for generations--with semiautomatics.

The motive often is simply money: Faced with the expense of rearming their officers with costlier new weapons, the departments are squeezing what reimbursement they can from the sale of their used pistols.

During the past five years, nearly 4,000 "police trades" were sold or traded by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the California Highway Patrol and the Burbank Police Department, according to a survey of the 10 largest law enforcement agencies serving Los Angeles County.

Another 2,000 to 3,000 guns are expected to be sold or traded in the next year by the Sheriff's Department as it completes the complicated task of updating its massive, aging arsenal.

The sale of aging firearms by law enforcement agencies has drawn criticism from gun control advocates and other police agencies who see it as a shortsighted measure that only increases the potential for gun violence on the streets. They compare it to police departments reselling guns confiscated from criminals, a once-common practice now abandoned by many departments.

"The police should be doing everything possible to lessen the number of guns on the street," said Jeff Muchnick, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a Washington-based coalition of groups that want to ban the sale and manufacture of handguns and assault weapons.

Santa Monica Police Sgt. Gary Gallinot said his agency switched five years ago from old six-round service revolvers to 9-millimeter semiautomatic handguns. But rather than sell 175 old revolvers, the department has kept them in the Police Department armory.

"We just felt we didn't want to contribute to putting the weapons out on the marketplace," he said.

But gun dealers and police agencies that sell guns defend the policy, saying the proceeds from the sales are needed to modernize police arsenals. Besides, they say, the guns are sold to legitimate gun dealers who deal only with buyers who undergo state-required background checks.

"Part of (the decision) was an economic concern to help offset the purchase of new weapons," said Sheriff's Lt. Jeff Spring, referring to the 2,000 handguns the department sold in 1988 to the Beretta U.S.A. Corp. for about $160,000. The proceeds from that sale were applied toward the purchase of about 7,000 new semiautomatics for $2.5 million.

He said some of the guns sold to Beretta were then resold to other police agencies. But an independent contractor who helped negotiate the exchange said he could not determine how many ended up in police holsters.

The Burbank Police Department seems to have avoided the controversy by selling 15 of its old Smith & Wesson revolvers to a gun dealer who guaranteed that they would be sold only to other law enforcement departments.

The question of what to do with the nation's aging police arsenal has sparked heated debate in cities nationwide as law enforcement agencies gradually convert from revolvers whose design has changed little since the 19th Century to the semiautomatics that became common in the military by World War I.

Last year, the Oakland City Council rejected a police plan to trade in 525 .357-magnum revolvers toward the purchase of 769 semiautomatics. In 1991, the Detroit City Council also turned down a police proposal to sell 8,482 .38-caliber Colt revolvers toward the purchase of more up-to-date 9-millimeter handguns.

For some police agencies in cities such as Pasadena, Inglewood and Long Beach, the question of what to do with the old guns has yet to arise because they have not made the switch or are just beginning the process.

The abandonment of revolvers started for many police agencies in the late 1980s as officers found themselves outgunned by criminals armed with semiautomatics, or even fully automatic weapons--submachine guns.

Semiautomatics fire more shots, faster--as many as 15 for some models--and can be reloaded easier in the high-stress atmosphere of a gunfight. Semiautos use pre-loaded magazines, box-like containers of cartridges that can simply be slammed into the butt of an empty pistol in a few seconds.

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