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Assault Weapons and the Police Viewpoint

Excerpted from The Assault Weapon Panic (247K). Morgan and Kopel, Independence Institute, 1991.

The Police Viewpoint

Although police statistics are the most reliable source of information about actual criminal use of "assault weapons," another potential source of information is police officers.

To a person who acquired all his information from publications like Newsweek, it would be clear that the police unanimously (and desperately) want "assault weapon" prohibition. And in fact, most major city police chiefs do support some kind of restrictive legislation. But even though many media consider the viewpoints of big-city chiefs to represent the viewpoint of all law enforcement, chiefs do not speak for rank-and-file officers any more than Lee Iacocca speaks for all the auto workers.

Police firearms examiners (who catalogue and study all crime guns seized by their department) tell a very different story from the politically-minded chiefs. All seven of the firearms examiners in Dade County (Miami), Florida, have stated that the use of "assault weapons" in shootings in the county has been declining throughout the last decade. [87] According to George R. Wilson, the chief of the firearms section of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police, drug dealers most commonly use sophisticated nine millimeter pistols. [88] Lieutenant Reginald Smith, a spokesman for the District's police department stated, that "assault weapons" were seen by his department "occasionally, but it's rare. The vast majority of weapons we see are revolvers or pistols." [89] Detective Jimmy L. Trahin of the Los Angeles Police Department's Firearms/Forensics Ballistics Unit testified before Congress that he did not consider "assault weapons" to be the weapons of choice of L.A. criminals. [90] (V.G. Gunises, whose SEY YES organization in South Central Los Angeles works to help former gang members, pointed out that most Los Angeles gang killings involve handguns. [91] ) Lieutenant James Moran, the commander of the New York City Police Department Ballistics Unit, told reporters that NYPD experience was quite different from some press claims. "A rifle is not what is usually used by the criminals. They'll have handguns or sawed off shotguns. . . . These drug dealers are more inclined to use the 9 mm pistol than go to a cumbersome AK-47 rifle." [92]

One reason that the firearms examiners have not been heard in the prohibition debate is the some politicians have deliberately avoided asking them for their opinion. An internal memorandum from the California Attorney General's office revealed that as the Roberti-Roos "assault weapon" prohibition was being rushed through the California legislature, Senator Roberti and Attorney General Van de Kamp made a conscious decision: "Information on assault weapons would not be sought from forensic laboratories as it was unlikely to support the theses on which the legislation would be based." [93]

Some police chiefs have attempted to suppress dissenting voices in their department. For example, in San Jose, former police chief Joseph McNamara wrote fund-raising letters for Handgun Control, Inc., on official city stationary, and claimed to represent what "every police officer" believed. In 1989, one of McNamara's officers, a firearms instructor named Leroy Pyle, was subpoenaed by the California legislature and legally required to testify before that body. Officer Pyle did so, on his own time, and out of uniform. The next day, Pyle was suspended from duty, and McNamara attempted to fire him. [94] In Cincinnati, Lieutenant Harry Thomas has been harassed for speaking out (on his own time and out of uniform) against the gun prohibition policies favored by the police hierarchy.

To counter the statements of pro-rights rank-and-file officers such as the firearms examiners or Leroy Pyle, Handgun Control, Inc. often points to the Fraternal Order of Police. The FOP is the largest rank-and-file police organization in the country; its head, Dewey Stokes, supports "assault weapon" control, and Stokes was recently re-elected to his position despite a challenge from a pro-gun officer. [95]

Handgun Control's respect for the views of the FOP appears, however, to be a sometimes thing. In New Jersey, the state chapter of the FOP opposed Governor Florio's severe "assault weapon" ban (which even applied to BB guns). National FOP President Dewey Stokes backed up the New Jersey chapter, because the New Jersey ban was so extreme. Nevertheless, Handgun Control pushed for (and won) the draconian New Jersey ban, claiming all the while to be responding to the cries for help from law enforcement.

While the largest rank-and-file police organization, the FOP supports "assault weapon" control (at least for controls less severe than New Jersey's), the second-largest rank-and-file organization, the American Federation of Police, opposes such controls. Unfortunately, neither organization has polled its membership on the subject. (FOP head Stokes has been repeatedly asked to conduct a poll, and has refused.)

What limited polling of law enforcement has been done does not support the claims of Handgun Control, Inc., that all the police want "assault weapon" prohibition. The Florida chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police polled its membership, and found 75% opposed to an "assault weapon" ban. The most recent poll of police opinion was carried out by Law Enforcement Technology magazine in March 1991. The results were reported in the July/August 1991 issue: "75% do not favor gun control legislation ... with street officers opposing it by as much as 85 %." In particular, 78.7% opposed a ban on "assault weapons." (About 37 % of top management supported a ban, and about 11% of street officers.) [96]

Every spring the National Association of Chiefs of Police (NACOP) conducts a nationwide survey of command-rank police officers (not just top management or chiefs). The survey includes all command-rank officers, including those who do not belong to NACOP. Ninety-five percent said that they believed a citizen should have the right to purchase any type of firearm for sport or self-defense.

Neither the Law Enforcement Technology nor the NACOP surveys may be statistically precise, since the surveys were compiled from respondents who voluntarily mailed in a reply. But at the very least, the surveys indicate that Handgun Control, Inc's claim to have the near-unanimous support of the law enforcement community is false.

In sum, while "assault weapons" may appear menacing, both local and national crime statistics do not indicate that the so-called "assault rifles" are a serious crime or drug problem.


87. Florida Assault Weapon Commission Report (Tallahassee: Florida Dept. of State, 1990), at 156-57.

88. Wall St. J., April 7, 1989, at A12, col. 3.

89. Wash. Post, March 6, 1989, at B1, col. 6.

90. SENATE REPORT, supra, note 6, at 18.

91. L.A. Times, Feb. 8, 1989, at I20, col. 4.

92. N.Y. Times, Feb. 5, 1989, at E26, col. 5.

93. Memorandum to Patrick Kenady, Assistant Attorney General, February 14, 1991, at 2.

94. The formal pretext for suspending Pyle was that he had appeared (not in uniform) in a video explaining the difference between automatics and semiautomatics, and in that video had stated that he was a San Jose police officer, but had not expressly stated that his views were not the official views of his department. The rather severe discipline meted out to Pyle seemed odd in light of the fact that Chief McNamara himself wrote political fundraising letters for Handgun Control, Inc. on official city stationary.

95. One percent of the approximately 225,000 Fraternal Order of Police members attended the convention, and Stokes won the vote 68% of the attendees. It might be that delegates to the police conventions, like delegates to NRA conventions, or to Democratic or Republican conventions, hold views more extreme than held by the membership as a whole.

96. Two thousand police officers participated in the Law Enforcement Technology magazine survey, only a few hundred less than voted at the Fraternal Order of Police convention. Because participation in the Law Enforcement Technology poll or attendance at the FOP convention were both affirmative acts of a non-random sample, neither the Law Enforcement Technology poll nor the FOP convention vote is necessarily a statistically valid sample of police opinion.

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