Steve Downing remembers all too well that when he was an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, it was routine for the department and the courts to auction off guns that had been confiscated during criminal investigations. "A lot of them," he recalled, "were getting back to the streets."
The police department has since taken to destroying the weapons, but some other major police departments and courts still auction off guns to the public.
Downing, now co-executive producer of ABC's action-adventure series "MacGyver," is angered by the practice and hopes to illustrate the need to squelch it in tonight's episode, "The Gun." It airs at 10.
"In our story (written by Robert Sherman), a gun that was used 20 years ago by a fanatic to assassinate a senator--a parallel to the Bobby Kennedy shooting--is taken off the street but re-emerges," Downing said. "The gun is eventually used by a crack addict to make a buy on a street and a police officer is killed."
A young man, a friend of MacGyver's (Richard Dean Anderson), is unjustly accused of the murder. In the course of trying to clear the man, MacGyver traces the bloody history of the gun over the past two decades.
Downing, who spent 20 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, is a firm advocate of measures to curb access to guns, especially handguns.
"Let me read you an interesting statistic," Downing said. "In 1988, handguns killed seven people in Great Britain, 19 people in Sweden, 53 in Switzerland, 13 people in Australia, eight people in Canada and 8,915 in the United States."
"The Gun" isn't the first time Downing has explored the dangers of guns. Two years ago, viewers learned why MacGyver uses his brain, not a bazooka, when the going gets tough.
"We flashed back to when he was young and he took his father's gun and one of his best friend's was killed in an accidental discharge," he said.
It didn't go unnoticed.
"The result of that story was a lashing out of us by the NRA (National Rifle Assn.)," he said. "Since that time, we have been on their hit list. They have been encouraging people not to watch us and boycott our sponsors. We try to do a decent job of really saying why a gun is dangerous and they choose to boycott us and put us on their hit list."
Married at 19 and a father by 20 (that son, Michael, is now a police sergeant), Downing joined the Police Department in 1960 at the age of 21. It was a way for him to support his family on $489 a month and also get his education. He worked nights and took classes during the day. He majored in public administration but also took courses in creative writing.
In the mid-1960s, Downing was assigned to work as a technical adviser for producer Jack Webb, who was developing "Adam-12." "Jack wrote the pilot for 'Adam-12,' and after he finished the episode I told him, 'I can do that.' "
He did. Downing sold Webb a "Dragnet" script and then wrote 11 more episodes for that series. He also did several scripts for "Adam-12" and "Police Story."
"I wrote on weekends," Downing said. "I would come home on Friday and write a full script over the weekend. My wife would deliver it (to the producers) Monday morning. My police department job, though, always came first and the producers always honored this."
When he retired in 1980, Downing intended to become a free-lance TV writer. But a producer with whom he had worked previously asked him to become story consultant on the short-lived James Arness series, "MacLain's Law." He went on to produce "T.J. Hooker" for two years and has been with "MacGyver" since it premiered in 1985.