Police Feel Pressure to Choose the ‘Code’
When salesmen for Glock Inc. pitch their .40-caliber handgun to police, they talk about its firepower. They talk about its precision. And they talk about its durability--daring cops to freeze the pistol or drop it in mud and watch it still shoot.
Such qualities long have been overriding priorities for police buying guns. But that could be changing in the face of pressure from the Clinton administration. Some public officials who buy weapons for their officers--a major segment of the $1.5 billion-a-year gun market--are starting to ask gun suppliers a new set of questions.
Is the company doing its part to keep the guns it manufactures out of the hands of criminals? What is the company doing to stop kids from firing its guns accidentally? And has the manufacturer signed “the code”: the new criteria that federal authorities are touting to promote responsible manufacturing and distribution of firearms?
An Effort to Change Manufacturing
A growing number of jurisdictions are teaming up in what they hope will become an economic power play to force gun makers to change the way they manufacture and sell weapons. But critics worry about limiting the choices of police at a time when they are facing criminals who are increasingly armed with more firepower than officers.
“In theory, it sounds like a great idea,” said Tom Diaz, an analyst at the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based nonprofit group devoted to reducing gun violence. But Diaz cautioned that introducing a political dimension to police firearm purchases will be difficult because officers are often “very jealous about their firearms decisions. . . . They’re going to buy whatever gun they want.”
Still, by the most recent count, officials of 70 cities, counties and public agencies have moved in the last few weeks to steer contracts for their police weapons to gun makers that sign the code. Under the code, the gun makers agree to put trigger locks on all guns, develop “smart” weapons that can only be fired by owners, cut off their shipments to dealers who sell a large number of guns later used in crimes and institute dozens of other reforms.
“It’s really an attempt to create an ethical business standard--a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for gun manufacturers,” said Franklin Zimring, a gun policy expert and law professor at UC Berkeley.
Berkeley and San Mateo County in California and Atlanta already have decided to give preference in such purchases to Smith & Wesson--the only gun maker so far to sign the code--and any other manufacturer that follows suit. Los Angeles, Inglewood, San Francisco and Oakland, along with Miami-Dade County, Fla., and Waterloo, Iowa, are among jurisdictions in 22 states considering similar actions.
And U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo, a leader in the campaign to increase the financial pressure on gun companies, has directed the nation’s 3,200 public housing authorities to steer the purchase of guns for their security officers to “responsible” gun makers.
Cuomo insisted that police agencies will have the right to choose the weapon they believe best protects officers and the public. “But if Glock sells a 9-millimeter and Smith & Wesson sells a 9-millimeter, and the police department says either one would be fine, then why wouldn’t you prefer Smith & Wesson?” he asked.
Because police departments purchase a major part of the more than 3 million guns manufactured each year in this country--up to 25% of all handguns, by some estimates--the new tactic has the gun industry, the National Rifle Assn. and police unions fuming.
“Adherence to a particular political philosophy” shouldn’t play a part in gun purchases, said Gilbert G. Gallegos, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police.
He and others argued that police should choose their weapons based solely on how well they protect officers and the public: how fast and accurate is the gun.
For these reasons, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is sticking with its Beretta 9-millimeter guns.
“Politics aren’t going to enter into how we choose our firearms,” said Capt. Garry Leonard, whose department plans to spend $370,000 this year on gun purchases. “When you think of what we do for a living, we just can’t take chances.”
Paul Jannuzzo, general counsel for Glock, an industry leader in selling firearms to police, said that steering contracts to certain manufacturers is “ridiculous.” And he claimed that Cuomo sought recently to unfairly pressure his company into accepting the code.
Jannuzzo said that, in a recent phone call, Cuomo asked how many guns Glock sells to police. “He made it fairly clear we wouldn’t have that [business] if we didn’t sign on to the agreement. I think the expression he used was, ‘I have a lot of push with these Democratic mayors,’ ” Jannuzzo said.
“There was no doubt in my mind that I’d just been threatened with economic extortion,” he added.
Cuomo said: “It’s an interesting response from the subject of an antitrust investigation.” He was referring to investigations in several states into allegations that other gun manufacturers may have targeted Smith & Wesson for economic reprisal for signing the code.
Initially, the Clinton administration floated the idea of an all-out boycott of manufacturers who do not sign the code. But some officials fear that would spark daunting legal and political opposition.
Instead, the administration decided to promote the “preferential” buying program, which still allows all gun makers to bid on contracts. The code of conduct would be factored into the award and in effect would serve as a tie-breaker if companies offer comparable bids.
“What’s going on,” said Peter Greenwood, a senior scholar in criminal justice at the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank, “is that the NRA has made it impossible to pass anything in Congress but it’s created a market for activists” to pursue other means of pressure.
Emboldened gun-control advocates say that the new strategy should spur more responsible conduct by gun makers and reward companies such as Smith & Wesson.
Smith & Wesson agreed to the code in exchange for its removal from more than a dozen municipal lawsuits against gun makers. But its gambit already has caused a backlash, with some gun dealers threatening to boycott its products.
Increased sales to law enforcement could help Smith & Wesson recover from sales lost to gun owners angry because of the company’s concessions.
“We will at this point purchase nothing but Smith & Wesson,” said San Mateo County Sheriff Don Horsley. “We should support a corporation that takes responsibility for an inherently dangerous product.”
As seen dramatically during the 1997 bank shootout in North Hollywood in which two robbers used weapons with significantly more power and clip capacity than those used by police, officers are facing what Dennis Henigan of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence calls “a domestic arms race” with criminals.
But gun control advocates say that the aim of the preferred purchase program is not to keep police from buying guns that would better serve them in this changed environment.
Criminals Force Police to Use Powerful Guns
“We certainly don’t fault the cops for buying more powerful weapons, because that’s what they’re facing in the streets,” said Henigan, the group’s legal director. “No one wants to be suggesting the police should buy inferior weapons.”
Rather, advocates are trying to “use our market clout in a positive way,” said Los Angeles City Atty. James Hahn. “It’s about putting yourself on the right side of history and making a statement.”
Although precise figures are lacking, thousands of law enforcement agencies spend millions of dollars on guns. Glock says that it does business with 8,000 agencies, for example. Police contracts also carry a certain cachet for the manufacturer, and that can translate into more sales to the public, said Timothy D. Lytton, a professor at New York Law School.
Profit margins among some gun manufacturers are so slim that they may not be able to withstand the effect of a widespread movement, said Robert J. Spitzer, political science professor at the State University of New York at Cortland and author of “The Politics of Gun Control.”
“These companies are not immensely profitable to begin with. So their ability to withstand drops in sales may not be very great,” he said.
The more cities that join, the greater the pressure on the gun industry, said Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean.
“One little city isn’t going to make that much difference,” she said. “One hundred little cities begin to make the difference; one thousand little cities, now you’re going to get heard.”