City slickers

New Orleans, Boston, Detroit and Alameda County, Calif., are suing gun manufacturers and dealers for distributing what they deem a dangerous product -- and then turning around and selling guns themselves.

Published July 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When Paul Jannuzzo, the vice president and general counsel of Glock Inc., the Smyrna, Ga., gun manufacturer, heard that the city of New Orleans was preparing to sue the gun industry, he couldn't believe the hypocrisy.

Jannuzzo, after all, had been working with New Orleans, to help the city swap around 10,000 guns in its possession -- most of which had belonged to criminals -- in exchange for 1,700 new Glock .40-caliber pistols for its officers. The deal was worth $613,000.

Thus the city of New Orleans was dumping onto the street the same allegedly "unsafe" product that it was now suing Glock and several other companies -- including some New Orleans pawn shops -- for distributing.

Since last October, more than 20 U.S. cities and counties, copying the states that sued the tobacco industry and won, have filed lawsuits against gun dealers and manufacturers for various forms of negligence and irresponsibility. The NAACP joined the action on Monday.

One small glitch in the argument, however: Some of these cities and counties have been more than willing to engage in quiet deals with these same manufacturers to trade in their old police weapons -- and sometimes even confiscated criminal weapons -- for new guns for their officers.

In essence, these cities served as gun distributors themselves. In order to save a buck, they're dumping thousands of firearms, despite the fact that many of them are publicly trying to get guns off the street. New Orleans isn't the only city with the contradictory gun policy: Boston, Detroit and Alameda County, Calif., which includes the high-crime city of Oakland, have also sold confiscated guns while suing the industry. By contrast, the federal government, as well as cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, destroy
criminals' guns.

"It's unfortunate because some of them are beautiful guns," says a
spokesman for the LAPD, which eventually melts down all of its confiscated
weapons. "But if a gun's been used to kill someone, they don't want it out
there where it could kill someone else."

In the New Orleans swap -- which is believed to be the largest police trade-in of criminally used weapons -- Kiesler Police Supply and Ammunition in Jeffersonville, Ind., worked as the broker between New Orleans and Glock. The city traded 7,300 weapons seized in crimes as well as 700 Berettas that at one point belonged to New Orleans cops.

Included among the 7,300 criminals' guns that the city of New Orleans was willing to see dumped back out on the street: 230 semiautomatic assault weapons -- including TEC-9s, AK-47s, Cobray M11s, an Uzi and a Fabrique National, a self-loading military rifle. The manufacture and importation -- though not the sale -- of all of these weapons were banned by Congress in 1994.

Dennis Henigan, legal director of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, which is co-counsel for many of these lawsuits, says that the gun industry's outrage over this perceived hypocrisy is "part of an overall strategy to change the subject." [Full disclosure: I worked at the Center for six months in 1997.]

"Ever since we filed the case on Oct. 30 of last year," Henigan says, "the gun industry wants to talk about gun swap programs, they want to talk about how greedy trial lawyers are. What they don't want to talk about is how dangerous their products are. You'll notice: They're not defending their products."

But Henigan didn't defend the merits of the gun swaps themselves. Assuming that these products are unsafe and the companies should be held liable, which is what Henigan is arguing though lawsuits, cities that engage in gun swap programs would seem to have some liability as well.

So many cities have engaged in the practice that the International Association of Chiefs of Police was moved to pass a resolution last October condemning police gun swaps. "The re-circulation of these firearms back into the general population increases the availability of firearms which could be used again to kill or injure additional police officers and citizens," the IACP resolution read. It urged "all law enforcement agencies to adopt a mandatory destruction policy," like the federal government has.

But despite the IACP resolution, and federal law enforcement's example, police departments -- often short on cash for new weapons -- continue to cut financial corners by dancing with the very devil their friends at city hall are suing.

Take the city of Boston, which is the most recent city to file a suit against the gun industry, on June 3. The Boston suit argued that "The defendants employ a strategy which couples manufacturing decisions, marketing schemes, and distribution patterns with a carefully constructed veil of deniability regarding point of sale transactions."

But according to a Boston Police Department administrator, the city has for years traded its old guns with the Interstate Arms Corporation, a Massachusetts gun dealer that refused to comment.

William Casey, deputy superintendent of the Bureau of Administrative Services for the Boston Police Department, says that thousands of guns belonging to uniformed Boston cops and detectives were swapped one-for-one for new guns. A few years ago, the Boston PD traded 3,000 to 4,000 .38s for the same number of 9 mms, says Glock's Jannuzzo. Then just a few weeks ago, the Boston PD traded around 4,000 9 mms for .40-caliber Glocks, a deal that could be worth up to $1.7 million to the city.

"I just got mine two weeks ago," Casey said in an interview with Salon News on Friday. "We did this with the caveat that the guns would be sold outside of the United States, so as to prevent them from being circulated in the U.S."

But according to Jannuzzo, Boston's previous gun swap -- when it traded .38s for 9 mms -- had "no such caveat. There were no restrictions on that first deal whatsoever."

Talk about a "veil of deniability." And this from a city now suing the gun industry for, among other things, "willful blindness."

Police departments -- in order to pay for much-needed equipment -- have
sometimes turned to creative ways to find money for new weapons.

The city of Detroit filed its lawsuit against the gun
industry on April 26. But when Detroit sought to buy new Glock
.40-caliber pistols in the mid-'90s, amid a budget crisis, the city
looked to sell the 9,000 guns it had in its inventory, says Jannuzzo.
"Those were old guns, dating back to when Teddy Roosevelt charged up
San Juan Hill," he says. Detroit didn't swap its inventory, however,
as New Orleans, Boston and Alameda County did. According to
Jannuzzo, Detroit put out word that the inventory was for sale, and
then accepted the highest bid, from a private gun dealership
in northern Vermont. Then, with that money, Detroit purchased its
new weapons from Glock. A spokesman for the Detroit Police
Department could neither confirm nor deny where the funding came from, though he did say the department uses relatively new .40-caliber Glock pistols.

Just a few weeks ago, on May 25, San Francisco filed its lawsuit against the gun industry on behalf of several jurisdictions, including Berkeley, Sacramento and nearby San Mateo and Alameda counties.

According to Jannuzzo, however, just last year the Alameda County Sheriff's Department traded 500 9 mm Glocks for roughly the same number of Sigs. "About two years ago we did have the Glocks and we did trade them for Sig Sauers," said Deputy Sheriff R. Glen, who added he didn't know the process by which the guns were traded.

This stands in marked contrast with the San Francisco Police Department, which destroys all of its old weapons. "I got the guy right here who cuts them up with a saw, puts them inside wrecked cars and watches them go through a conveyor belt and get shredded," said San Francisco Police Officer Charlie Lyons of the property clerk's division.

But by far the most extreme example of this practice can be seen in the Big Easy. New Orleans, it should be noted, isn't just one of some 20-odd cities and counties to sue gun manufacturers and distributors. When it filed its suit last October, New Orleans was the first city to do so -- which Mayor Marc Morial is fond of reminding voters and reporters and fellow mayors and anyone within earshot.

The New Orleans gun swap was similarly groundbreaking, says Doug Kiesler, who brokered the deal. He calls it "the largest confiscated deal ever to happen in the U.S."

(Morial refused comment; a spokesman said that his office was investigating the deal with Glock and would make no comments until that investigation was concluded.)

Rafael Goyeneche, the president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission of New Orleans, a private watchdog group, says he was offended when he heard of the mayor's double-dealing. "In many cases, police officers had put their lives on the line in order to get those guns," Goyeneche says. "To put them back out there through commerce we felt was really the wrong message."

Especially when you consider Morial's own rhetoric. "We have been so focused here in New Orleans on getting guns off the street and protecting our citizens," he said at the press conference announcing the Oct. 30 lawsuit.

Something about New Orleans' gun policy seems markedly out of focus, of course, and not just the surface irony of its putting more guns on the street while trying to "get guns off the street."

The New Orleans suit, for instance, takes a consumerist approach to the issue of guns, arguing that the industry has the technology to make its guns safer, but it refuses to do so. The guns should have locks, the lawsuit states, and the guns should be making use of the high-tech options that use fingerprint ID and computer-chip technology to make sure that no one but the approved user can pull the trigger.

"Guns are sold without the means to prevent their use by unauthorized users, without advance warning which would prevent such shootings by alerting users of the risks of guns, and of the importance of proper storage of guns, and without other safety features," the suit reads.

Gun dealer Kiesler observes that "one of the reasons they said they were going to sue us was that we weren't providing gun locks." But on the 8,000 guns the city sent to Kiesler's company in Indiana, he says, only two were equipped with locks.

To hear Jannuzzo tell it, there's little difference between what Glock does and what New Orleans did. "We're an importer," he says, explaining that the Georgia office of Glock assembles, test-fires and conducts all warranty work on Glock firearms, but the guns are actually manufactured in Austria. "We distribute our guns to make money; [Morial] did it to save money. What's the difference?"

"That was kind of hypocritical," says Paul Bolton, of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "To say that 'guns are bad and terrible, guns are unsafe,' and then they turn around and instead of destroying they sell them -- it does seem to lean in that direction, of saying one thing in a lawsuit and then turning around and doing another thing."

The story first came out during a Jan. 27 confrontation between Jannuzzo and Morial on NBC's "Today" show. After a discussion of the New Orleans lawsuit, Jannuzzo -- in a last-minute snarky aside -- mentioned the gun swap.

Morial, for his part, tried to justify the deal by mentioning that, as part of the agreement, Glock had "agreed not to sell them in Louisiana."

And that was, in fact, part of the deal. Morial was apparently fine with these guns returning to the streets, as long as none of the streets had a Louisiana ZIP code.

Still, even that minimal pledge means little in reality. The April 8 New Orleans Times-Picayune contained an ad from a local gun shop advertising the sale of Beretta 9 mms formerly belonging to members of the New Orleans Police Department.

"Own a piece of New Orleans history," the ad said, "All are original duty weapons and are numbered and stamped N.O.P.D." The guns came with two 15-round "pre-ban clips."

Goyeneche says that the gun swap -- even with the Not-in-my-bayou promise not to resell in Louisiana -- was a joke. "Some of the weapons resurfaced at gun shops in the New Orleans area," he says. "They were sold from Kiesler to someone in Texas, who sold them to a shop in New Orleans. That's the folly of thinking you can stop these weapons from reentering your community."

Kiesler says that the five or so gun distributors that broker these deals offer different trade-in values for the guns depending on to whom they're permitted to resell them. "Say it's a Smith & Wesson model 686 revolver, which is a very popular gun," he explains. "We pay $200 if we can sell them to any lawful buyer. Now, New Orleans put in this thing with Glock so that the weapons could not be sold in Louisiana, so they would have gotten probably $175 on trade. Then the next level is if you can only sell the guns to other police departments, that would drop the value to $100."

After taking heat from the local press on this issue, Morial suspended the gun swap; according to Jannuzzo, New Orleans still owes Glock around 1,500 to 2,000 guns.

"Let's get to the bottom of it," Morial said in a news conference he called when local criticism of the gun swap grew deafening. "Were any weapons that should not have been traded, in fact, traded?" he asked. In March, Morial told the Times-Picayune, "Do you know whose idea [the gun swap] was? The Police Foundation's. But when the controversy came, they hid and left me to defend a controversy that basically started at the Police Department."

But the gun swap had all been done according to an agreement that Morial signed on Feb. 5, 1998. "It is our understanding your representatives [have] determined, based on a preliminary inspection, that we have a sufficient number of confiscated firearms to make this an even exchange, resulting in no monetary obligation to the City of New Orleans," reads the document, which bears the signatures of both Morial and Richard J. Pennington, the New Orleans superintendent of police.

Meanwhile, the practice continues.

In 1997, the New Hampshire State Police signed a contract with Smith & Wesson to trade its 9 mms for .45s, a deal worth about $236,000, according to the state police. "It saved the taxpayers an enormous amount of money," says Sgt. Patrick Pouirier. The concern that the guns might fall into the wrong hands "is always there," he adds, "but Smith & Wesson is only going to sell them to a dealer, and the dealer is only going to sell them to a qualified person. And now we've got top-quality firearms so we can protect citizens of New Hampshire. And I guess it's good advertising [for Smith & Wesson] to have a state police agency carrying their weapons."

Like free Nike shoes for NCAA basketball teams.

In the last few months, the Charleston, W.Va., Police Department traded 175 or so Smith & Wesson service pistols for 200 Glocks. "We had to make a decision on what to do, ethically," says Maj. Pat Epperhart: "The other option was to destroy them. But without getting into the ethical arguments, we did it." Bottom line, says Epperhart. "If it had not been for the swap program we would not have been able to afford new weapons."

New Jersey's Bergen County Sheriff's Department and the Alaska State Troopers have also recently engaged in gun swaps. And according to a Glock document, the following law enforcement agencies are not only trading old law enforcement weapons but confiscated criminal weapons as well: Alabama State Troopers; the Mobile, Ala., and Biloxi, Miss., police departments; the Dayton and Lima police departments in Ohio; the Clayton County Sheriff's Department in Georgia; the Gary, Ind., Police Department; Virginia's Mecklenberg County Sheriff's Department; the Oklahoma City Police Department and Washington state's Yakima County Sheriff's Department.

One big difference between the above law enforcement agencies and those of New Orleans, Boston, Detroit and Alameda County: The former are, of course, not suing the gun industry for marketing an unsafe product; the latter group is.

The New Orleans gun swap has caused more problems than just a local embarrassment for Morial. In one instance, as the Times-Picayune reported in February, a 9 mm Beretta used in a January 1997 shootout had accidentally been traded to Glock through Kiesler, which was only able to recover the gun's barrel and slide.

What's more, Goyeneche says that the gun industry has an interesting strategy in the works in the event that any of the swapped firearms turn up at the scene of a crime.

"I've heard that the defendants are going to [name as a] third-party the city of New Orleans, so the city will be named as a defendant," Goyeneche says.

New Orleans suing New Orleans. It's easy to see a certain poetic justice in that.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Gun Control Guns