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Trafficking in Lethal Weapons : Police departments' sales of old firearms are sadly misconceived

September 11, 1993

As street criminals keep coming up with heavier firepower, many big-city police departments have countered the threat by replacing their standard-issue revolvers with more powerful weapons such as nine-millimeter semiautomatic handguns. Necessary though that may be, a few law enforcement agencies here in Southern California have shown truly poor judgment in how they have chosen to dispose of their old firearms.

Instead of destroying or holding on to the aging .38s, these departments are selling them off to gun dealers at bargain-basement prices. And in the process they are adding weapons to a saturated regional market that already absorbs somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 firearms every year.

Since 1988 the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the California Highway Patrol and the Burbank Police Department have sold or traded nearly 4,000 firearms, most of them handguns. And the Sheriff's Department says it expects to sell off as many as 3,000 more firearms in the coming year.

In an era of shrinking budgets, it might appear that these so-called "police trades" are an innovative way to upgrade arsenals. But that simple-minded argument completely ignores the grisly reality of the gun pandemic, which last year claimed 2,087 lives and sent more than 8,000 people to L.A. County hospitals.

The Legislature has killed a measure that would have prohibited police departments from engaging in police trades as well as the practice of selling firearms confiscated from criminals.

Now pending is another piece of legislation, AB 1333, which although it would bar sales of confiscated weapons would let the police trades continue. That's a loophole that must not be allowed.

The real problem is that police departments throughout California lack the funding they need to modernize their equipment--and this is why they enter the gun resale business in the first place.

In light of the hard-fought efforts of police to get guns off the street, police trades are bad symbolism and bad policy and pose an unnecessary threat to public safety. What's more, police departments shouldn't wait for a new law to ban the practice.

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