Right now, as you read this, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) is mounting a campaign to get guns off the streets of Washington. Within the month, 50 officers will be reassigned to a concerted citywide effort—dubbed “Operation Ceasefire”—to round up as many firearms as possible. Cars will be stopped, suspicious pedestrians frisked, raids conducted.
Right now, as you read this, MPD is also apparently putting guns, a whole lot of guns, back on the streets of America. And not just any guns, but the weapons the cops currently tote—5,300 Glock 9mm, semiautomatic service pistols, along with 15,900 clips. Through a trade-in agreement with Glock Inc., the U.S. distributor of the Austrian-made weapons, the cops have begun to exchange their old guns and magazines for new guns—about $3 million worth. According to MPD spokesperson Sgt. Joe Gentile, the new guns, which differ from the old ones only in their textured grip, have been “generously” donated by Glock as “a public service.”
Glock has refused to comment on its reasons for offering such a deal, but gun-control advocates suggest two: By upgrading MPD's weapons, Glock avoids further negative publicity—and even potential liability suits—arising from complaints that the weapons have been jamming or accidentally discharging. And perhaps more important, Glock gets back thousands of high-capacity clips, capable of holding up to 19 rounds, that were manufactured before the assault weapons ban. Glock is free to resell those to anybody—unlike clips made after the ban that hold more than 10 rounds, which can only be sold to cops.
In other words, Glock may be using the District police department to circumvent the intent of the assault weapons ban by retrieving merchandise it is no longer able to manufacture for the general public.
The debate over the Glock trade-in is only the latest example of how the nation, and its capital in particular, has been unable to prevent manufacturers from skirting gun laws. In 1976, shortly after the District of Columbia was granted limited home rule, its lawmakers voted to freeze the number of handguns in the city. “Grandfathered” handguns, owned by residents prior to the ban, could be kept if licensed in '76. But the sale or ownership of new handguns was forbidden. For the first 11 years after the ban, D.C.'s firearm murder and suicide rate declined by about 25 percent, according to a study published by Dr. Colin Loftin in the 1991 New England Journal of Medicine.
But as all the nation knows, the positive effects of D.C.'s handgun ban did not last. The same year that Loftin's study was released, Washington was dubbed the “murder capital of the United States,” due to record numbers of shooting homicides.
To gun-control opponents, D.C.'s murder rate served as proof that bans only relieve law-abiding citizens of their weapons, leaving criminals better armed than the populace and the police. The real problem, countered gun-control advocates, was that neighboring jurisdictions—particularly Virginia, which with its notoriously weak handgun laws was the No. 1 source of guns used in crimes up and down the Eastern seaboard—did not have bans of their own. Under intense national pressure, the Virginia State Assembly passed a one-gun-a-month purchase limit on Feb. 25, 1993.
Meanwhile, any meager national gun restrictions the National Rifle Association (NRA) failed to stymie were easily skirted by gun manufacturers. In 1989, after Patrick Purdy used a Russian AK-47 to gun down children at a Stockton, Calif., elementary school, President George Bush banned the import of foreign assault rifles. The bill had little effect. Most assault rifles were (and are) domestically made, but banning them was politically untenable. And foreign manufacturers just slightly modified, or “sporterized,” their assault guns and imported them as hunting or target rifles.
The next attempt to pass an assault weapons ban came in 1991, one day after George Hennard used a Glock 17 (the same gun used by MPD) and a Ruger P-89 to kill 22 people and himself at the Luby's cafeteria in Killeen, Texas. Though Luby's became the worst bloodbath in the nation's history, the House of Representatives voted 247 to 177 against a bill that would ban high-capacity clips—such as Hennard used, and MPD is returning to Glock—and domestic assault weapons.
But as the body count from Killeen, Stockton, fast-food outlets, post offices, and inner-city street corners began to mount, the political tide turned. Three years after the Luby's massacre, many citizens didn't want their neighbors to have access to the same kind of firepower that Hennard did. Last summer, gun-control advocates scored a major victory when Congress passed an assault weapons ban, which President Clinton signed into law as part of his larger crime bill a year later on Sept. 13, 1994.
Under this new federal firearms law, 19 specific semiautomatic assault weapons and copycats were banned from future sale or manufacture, as were all weapons with two or more “assault” characteristics. The sale of clips or magazines that hold more than 10 rounds to anyone other than law-enforcement personnel was also banned. Any guns or clips manufactured before the assault weapons ban was signed into law, however, are grandfathered, and can be sold to anybody.
By accepting Glock's trade-in offer, MPD will provide the company with at least 15,900 high-capacity magazines made before the ban, which Glock is legally free to resell or redistribute. According to MPD's Gentile, the clips are specifically included in the deal.
The clips in question fit both of the handguns the cops currently carry. Most MPD officers use the Glock 17, which comes with a standard magazine of 17 rounds; each officer carries two backup clips for reloading. The Glock 19, a compact version of the 17, is favored by plainclothes cops and officers with small hands. It has a standard magazine of 15 rounds. Glock also makes a 31-round magazine that, although designed for the little-heard-of Glock 18, a fully automatic 9mm, can be used with either of the other two models. All magazines can be fitted with a floor plate, which adds two rounds. Oh yeah, and one in the chamber.
Any way you cut it, it's a whole lot of firepower.
“Even for the gun industry, it's amazingly cynical to get the police to help you circumnavigate the assault weapons ban,” says Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a D.C.-based gun-control group. “Glock has the notorious distinction of being the first to find a way to do that.”
“We're not circumnavigating anything,” counters MPD Deputy Chief Max Krupo. “We had wanted to buy new weapons, and started our discussion with Glock before the assault weapons ban went into effect.”
In fact, in a letter dated Oct. 12, 1994—one month after the ban became law—Paul Jannuzzo, deputy counsel for Glock Inc., wrote Krupo to formalize a “previously communicated verbal offer” to exchange the weapons “one-for-one free of charge.” He assured Krupo that “this offer is not being made for any other reason than Glock's dedication to our law-enforcement customer base. [MPD] is one of our oldest customers and therefore a flagship for this corporation.” Krupo wrote back to accept the “most generous offer.”
“We didn't deal with their disposal,” Krupo now says. “We feel very comfortable—we're dealing with a reputable manufacturer. It's an excellent opportunity for the District of Columbia to upgrade its service weapons—and it's a legal action. If I can do that with a direct exchange, so be it.”
Not all police departments were as comfortable as MPD with the Glock exchange offer. The company approached the New Haven Police Department with the same new-guns-for-old deal, but Chief Nicholas Pastore turned them down. From talking to other law-enforcment agencies Pastore believed that what Glock really wanted was “to increase their inventory” of pre-ban clips “to sell for profit,” according to department public information officer Judith Mongillo. “Chief Pastore felt it was not in keeping with the spirit of the legislation,” says Mongillo, and worried that the “500 guns would wind up on the streets, and potentially used against officers and the citizens of New Haven,” she says.
Glock isn't the only company to offer trade-ins. In a recent 60 Minutes segment, correspondent Leslie Stahl interviewed Doug Hamilton, chief of police in Louisville, Ky. His local distributor, Kieser Police Supply, had offered an even swap: brand new pistols and magazines in exchange for the department's used 9mm Smith & Wessons. Sound familiar?
Hamilton: At first, of course, it seems to violate the first law of fraud. You know, if it sounds too good, it probably is.
Stahl: They were trying to get around this ban because they could sell your gun...with the 15 rounds....
H.: And they could sell our magazine out on the street. Retail, over the counter. And it was strictly, like I say, legal.
S.: Legal because the law says that the new magazines that hold more than 10 bullets can be made only if they're sold to law enforcement, while the old ones can be sold to anyone. That's why gun dealers are so eager to get the old 15-, 17-, or 20-round clips back from the police....(Holding up clip) And this is what the manufacturer wants, when he offers you a swap. This is the thing he's most...
H.: In the final analysis, that was the thing in Louisville, Kentucky, that was wanted by the distributor, was our magazines, 2,100 of them.
Hamilton refused to take Kieser up on the deal, saying that to do so would violate the spirit of the assault weapons ban. Hamilton also feared that the guns and clips might wind up being used in the shooting of a police officer. But employees of Kieser told 60 Minutes that other police departments had accepted their offer.
While it seems unlikely that the city with the oldest, and one of the most restrictive, gun bans in the country would tread where Louisville and New Haven dared not, that's exactly what is happening in D.C. And it outrages gun-control advocates.
“In the same way that the District used to complain that it was held hostage by the lax gun laws of other states, we are now supplying weapons that otherwise would not be available,” says Sugarmann. “We have a responsibility to make sure that we don't add to the numbers of guns out there. Up until now D.C. was part of the solution. Now we're part of the problem.”
Police officials discount the theory that Glock offered the deal to MPD specifically to get its pre-ban clips. They note that in the 11 months between Congress' passing the assault weapons ban and Clinton signing it into law, gun manufacturers geared up production, stockpiling weapons and clips. And it's true that at any gun show or store, so-called banned guns are everywhere. You can buy a Tec-9, an AK-47, or even the notorious Street-Sweeper, and because they were all made before Sept. 13, 1994, you can do it legally. Since the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) has yet to write the regulations that back up the “copycat” and “two or more characteristics” restrictions on assault weapons, it's also possible to buy guns that are specifically banned. According to 60 Minutes, manufacturers of the Tec-22 and the AK-47 have slightly altered their guns—say, by re-rifling the barrel, adding a long stock, or getting rid of a laser sight—and continue to make and sell what are virtually the same guns under new names like the Sport-22 and Max-90. Sugarmann, the first to expose foreign manufacturers who were slightly altering their weapons to get around ATF rules in 1991, says that the gun industry “learned the lessons of sporterization well” after the ban on foreign imports. “They've just applied them to the domestic market.”
Until ATF writes its regs and begins enforcing them, abuses of the ban on the assault weapons themselves seem boundless. But the restriction on clips is more narrow, and more enforceable. New clips that hold more than 10 rounds must be stamped with a serial number so that they cannot be sold to the public. Which raises the question: Did Glock stockpile enough pre-ban clips to last into the next century, or is there now a demand for high-capacity magazines that Glock cannot fill?
ATF conducted an inventory on all manufacturers of clips before the ban, according to bureau spokesperson Tom Hill. While Hill would not divulge how many pre-ban clips Glock had in stock, saying that was proprietary information, he says, “The supply is not endless.”
Demand, however, is, according to a clerk at Potomac Arms Corp., “Virginia's Oldest Gun Shoppe,” located in Old Town Alexandria. According to the clerk, Glock started rationing its high-capacity clips last summer. “They're running out of clips,” he says. “They're having a hard time filling orders.” Sugarmann agrees: “Their product is in high demand. Historically, Glock has had a problem filling orders.”
A Glock owner himself, the Potomac Arms clerk politely shows me previously owned Glock 17s and 19s for $439 a piece, as well as new guns that, depending on whether or not they come with accessories such as a laser sight, cost between $545 and $600. All were made before the ban, and all come with only one clip.
I asked how long a Glock would last an owner who uses it regularly like, say, a cop. “A lifetime” if well-maintained, the clerk says. Used guns are usually good as new, he assures me. Previous owners sell them because they want a different gun, or because they need money.
Selling or trading used service weapons is a tried-and-true way for police departments to save money. “We had wanted to buy new weapons, but the budget here says we can't afford it,” says Deputy Chief Krupo. “I always want to get my officers the best weapons possible.”
According to Krupo, if the department had to buy new guns, they would cost about $3 million. “Look at it this way: We put off future debt to the department by six or seven years,” he says.
Or as J.C. Stamps, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) puts it, “It's one sweet deal.”
In a December 1993 article, the Washington Post reported that the Prince George's, Montgomery, and Fairfax County police departments, as well as MPD, sold their weapons to dealers or manufacturers. But these were generally very old or outdated weapons that needed to be replaced. MPD's Glocks are, at most, six years old. And while some law-enforcement officials questioned the wisdom of selling service revolvers to local gun stores, at least in 1993 no one could accuse the police of helping dealers skirt federal firearms legislation.
Some area jurisdictions, then and now, even sell weapons that they confiscate, or accrue during buy-back programs. Kevin Ohlson, special counsel to U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr., whose office is heading the new gun interdiction program, says that under no circumstances will guns seized by D.C. cops be resold. Holder's office was not consulted on the MPD's decision to trade in its weapons. “But in the scheme of things, it's not a problem to us,” says Ohlson. “We're trying to address the problem here in the streets. We have to be realistic. Our whole area of responsibility is in the District.”
Sugarmann argues that it is MPD's responsibility to respect the spirit of the assault weapons ban. “To create a false boundary by saying that, because we don't sell guns in the city, somehow excuses [the deal] is irresponsible,” he says.
If the prices at Potomac Arms are any indication, well-maintained, used Glocks can be resold at nearly 80 percent of their original purchase price. So while Glock may be giving MPD $3 million in merchandise, the company stands to recoup its losses by reselling MPD's old guns and clips.
“What's Glock's motivation, I can't say,” says Krupo. “I think a lot of it had to do with public relations. We were one of the first large police departments to use Glocks, and the District of Columbia is an excellent place to showcase the weapons. I assume they're making a profit somewhere or they wouldn't do it.” The department comes out ahead, he says, because “we won't have to buy new pistols for 15 to 20 years.”
Will the MPD Glocks come back to haunt the District? There's no way to know, but its worth noting that Glock Inc. is located in Georgia (Smyrna, Ga., to be exact) a state that is one of the largest “source” states for weapons used in crimes, according to the ATF.
“I guess [MPD] could have held on to the clips; I'm not sure why they didn't,” says FOP's Stamps. “My only concern would be who [Glock] is going to sell them to. I hadn't thought about it, but now that you bring it to my attention, I am concerned.”
Ten years ago, hardly anybody in the United States had heard of Glocks. Today, they are one of the most popular, if not the most popular, brands of handguns among law-enforcement agencies and common citizens as well. Glock hasn't so much captured a market as created one—leaving blue-chip American gun manufacturers like Colt and Smith & Wesson scrambling to catch up.
The Glock dynasty began in the early '80s, when Austria was looking for a new gun to give its troops. Austrian engineer Gauston Glock saw an opportunity, gathered armorers from around Europe, and designed the Glock 17 9mm. The grip and the magazine were made of polymer 2, a high-tech plastic, and the slide and barrel of metal. The guns were light, accurate, and easy to disassemble and repair. After a few minor adjustments, ATF gave Glock the green light to start producing guns for the American market.
Two days after Glock set up shop in Georgia in January 1985, all hell broke loose. Syndicated columnist Jack Anderson penned an article claiming that the Glocks were undetectable by metal detectors, and that Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi was trying to purchase more than 100 “plastic weapons.” Neither allegation turned out to be true, but for a few years Glocks were reviled by law-enforcement officials.
Glock's salvation was the growing epidemic of gun violence on the streets. Fueled in equal parts by reality and gun-manufacturer propaganda, police in the mid-'80s decided that they were being out-gunned by criminals using weapons that could hold more rounds than standard police-issue revolvers.
Once again, Gauston Glock's company saw a niche and captured it. Glocks were lighter than revolvers. They lacked parts that snagged on clothing, like a hammer. They could fire as fast as the shooter pulled the trigger. Reloading was simple and fast. They were accurate and easy to maintain.
But what cops liked most of all was that unlike most semiautomatics, Glocks had no external safety, says Krupo. No need to flip a switch—just point and shoot. Since most officers had been raised on revolvers, which also have no safety (but have a much harder trigger pull), police departments were hesitant to add an extra step before firing, he adds.
Glock stressed all these attributes to the police, and offered incredibly deep discounts, even giveaways, to police departments to win their loyalty, according to local and federal law-enforcement officials. In 1987, Miami was the first really big department to get Glocks. (The Miami cops were especially impressed that the Glock could be fired underwater.) Washington joined the Glock team in 1989. By 1991, 3,500 federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies were using Glocks.
Glocks and cops are a bad combination, according to Jeff Cooper, a columnist with Guns & Ammo magazine and a weapons consultant to police departments. “It's a foolish weapon. It's a plastic throwaway gun for a plastic throwaway soldier. I wouldn't want one in the house,” he says.
Cooper is old-school. He believes in accuracy and discipline more than firepower and high-capacity clips, in revolvers rather than semiautos. Police have been fooled by the marketing departments of gun manufacturers into thinking they need to be able to spew 17 rounds at once, he says: “I never knew anybody who went dry in a firefight. It's a matter of temperament.” Temperament and training are qualities that too many law-enforcement officers lack, he says, and given that, they shouldn't be armed with Glocks.
“The Glock is the worst gun for poorly trained police, and the D.C. police force is one of the worst-trained in the country,” Cooper growls.
While MPD, ATF agents, and the local FOP all defend the need for cops to have the kind of firepower Glocks offer, FOP has received numerous complaints from D.C. cops that their guns are failing to fire, jamming, or “stovepiping,” which is when the cartridge doesn't fully eject. Officers are also shooting each other and suspects accidentally.
In an October '94 weeklong series prompted by a joint FOP/MPD study on the guns, WUSA Channel 9 reporter Bruce Johnson cataloged a litany of jammings and accidental shootings. For example, D.C. resident Glowdean Catching was almost killed when a police officer accidentally fired her Glock in the apartment above Catching's. Officer William Covington's gun jammed when he tried to use it on a robbery suspect near the National Zoo; Covington was stabbed twice. Detective Jeff Mayberry was examining his laser sight inside police headquarters when his gun went off. The bullet hit Detective James Dukes:
“It hit me in the abdomen, on my left side. It went through my left lung, it went through my stomach, and it went through my liver. And the bullet is fragmented and there's still a couple of pieces of the bullet in between my liver and my kidney,” Dukes told Channel 9. Dukes was permanently disabled as a result of the shooting.
According to statements made by MPD officials to Channel 9, the accidents were largely a result of poor training; 75 percent of the department's officers had failed to take part in required semiannual instruction on how to use the guns. Between January 1991 and October 1994, the cops had fired their guns on duty 457 times, including 62 accidental discharges. Both Glock and MPD said that poor training, rather than the guns, was at fault.
Nonetheless, Glock offered to exchange the weapons, while insisting on the Channel 9 report that the weapons were not being recalled. The trade might seem like more than Glock simply seizing an opportunity to get pre-ban clips, while simultaneously pacifying the FOP, if the company was making substantive modifications to MPD guns. But that's not the case.
According to MPD, the new guns will be essentially identical to the old guns in every way except one: the grip on the replacement weapons will be textured, whereas the old weapons have a smooth grip. The advantage, say Gentile and Stamps, is that the textured grip helps officers with small or sweaty hands to grasp their weapons more firmly. Replacing just the grip is impossible, says Gentile, because “the Glock is one-half plastic, a space-age polymer. The plastic is all in one piece.” Krupo adds that the newer guns will have a slightly different night sight, and the magazine will drop from the gun when empty—changes Glock has made to their guns since 1989.
But Cooper scoffs at the notion that such modifications will do anything to improve the MPD's accident rate. “The cross-hatched grip is not of any significance,” he says, and will not help officers with small hands, who simply need a smaller gun.
Cooper and Krupo agree that occasional jamming is a fact of life with all semiautomatics, and that proper training can help officers avoid and clear jams.
The real problem with Glocks, says Cooper, is their trigger pull and the fact that they have no external safety. Traditional revolvers have no safety either, but the shooter must pull the trigger back quite far and use at least 12 pounds of force before the guns will go off. Glocks have a short and much lighter trigger pull. Most Glocks have a 5-pound trigger pull, though some police departments requested a heavier, 8-pound trigger pull. (The New York State Police requested further modification to their guns. Using a different trigger spring, the “New York standard” requires between 7.5 and 8.5 pounds of force; the “New York plus” requires between 9 and 11 pounds of force.)
Given that most Glocks have a light trigger pull and no safety, officers must be trained (and in the case of those used to a revolver, retrained) never to put their finger on the trigger until they intend to shoot, says Cooper. Stamps and MPD's Krupo agree that if officers have their finger on the trigger,adrenalin, muscle spasms, or tripping can cause the gun to go off unintentionally. But Krupo insists that no matter what kind of gun you carry, you shouldn't put your finger on the trigger unless you intend to shoot. “That's what they told me when they gave me a machine gun [and] stuck me on a plane headed for Vietnam. It's stuck with me ever since,” he says.
“Guns are made to be held with the finger on the trigger,” Massad Ayoob wrote in the September 1990 issue of Guns magazine, adding that if cops can be trained to keep their finger off the trigger, they can be trained to flip a safety. In the article, Ayoob, a Glock owner himself, chronicled nine cases where an affirmative safety might have prevented tragedy. One shooting Ayoob cited occurred when a D.C. cop came home, put his holstered weapon on the bed, and went to the bathroom. When he came out, his 2-year-old daughter was dead.
“Officer Dobbins did not sue,” says attorney Josh Horowitz, who as executive director of the Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence and its Firearms Litigation Clearinghouse coordinates lawsuits against gun manufacturers. “But by far we get more cases against Glock than against the manufacturers of any other gun sold.” That may change, he says, now that in an attempt to compete with Glock both Colt and Smith & Wesson are making 9mm semiautos with no affirmative safety.
Horowitz says that he knows of 29 current lawsuits against Glock brought by shooting victims and their survivors. Most of those suits, he says, are being brought by people accidentally shot by cops, or by law-enforcement agents who have accidentally shot themselves.
Horowitz calls the deal Glock cut with MPD a “conspiracy of silence.” His organization sent a Freedom of Information Act request to MPD, trying to see if Glock was refitting the new guns to make accidental discharges more difficult. “They stonewalled us,” he says.
According to Krupo, MPD's guns—new and old—have the 5-pound trigger. In reality, he says, there's not much difference between the 5- and 8-pound triggers. “We've seen no empirical data saying that the 5-pound is a problem. Do you think that if [Officer Dobbin's] child could pull a 5, she couldn't pull an 8?” Both Krupo and Cooper agree that if you make the trigger pull too heavy—like the New York triggers—accuracy becomes a problem. “Our accuracy rate doubled when we switched [from revolvers] to the Glocks,” Krupo says. You can argue about the pros and cons of any gun, and find people on both sides, he adds, but a committee of experts found that the Glock was the best gun for MPD. “Believe me, I would not tolerate, nor would the Chief, allowing our guys out there to carry a weapon that wasn't safe. No way,” he says.
Glock was victorious in its first product-liability case to go before a jury. In court, a Knoxville, Tenn., police officer testified that when a female suspect who was resisting arrest hit him in the arm, he accidentally shot her in the back of the head, killing her. “His gun went off again when he was trying to reholster,” says Robert Ritche, attorney for the suspect's family. The city settled with the woman's family, but the suit against Glock went to a jury.
Glock took the position that the officer should have kept his finger off the trigger, says Ritche. “We had excellent testimony that a Glock 17 with a short, light, 5-pound trigger pull is an unreasonably dangerous weapon for normal police work,” he says. To counteract Ritche's expert witness—a former FBI agent who was an arms expert involved with the bureau's decision not to use the guns—Gauston Glock himself took the stand. “He's a charming man, a likable fellow. The jury liked him more than our client,” Ritche says.
Glock may have won this decision, but there are signs that some police departments are rethinking their choice of weapons. The New York Times recently reported that the city's finest were using their high-capacity clips to fire hundreds of shots at suspects, killing bystanders in the process. That, and a slew of accidental shootings, has prompted the brass to examine whether they should trade in their Glocks—for revolvers.