By Meghann Evans
FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — Two vintage firearms have been gathering dust in the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office armory, relics from an era when gangsters ruled many a street and cinema, factories paid their employees in cash and Bonnie and Clyde captured the public eye.
The 1928 Thompson fully automatic submachine guns — commonly referred to as Tommy guns — were gifts to the sheriff's office but have gone unfired for as long as modern-day department leaders can remember.
Though no longer practical in the field, these collector's items still may serve a purpose.
Chief Deputy Brad Stanley presented a proposal to the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners last Thursday to exchange the two guns and drum magazines for 88 new Bushmaster rifles, a trade valued at about $60,000.
Stanley said the sheriff's office distributed a request for proposals to 23 class III firearms dealers, and Craig's Firearm Supply made the best offer.
"We're able to take two firearms that have no current applicable use to the sheriff's office and exchange those for 88 rifles that will be deployed to officers on the street who don't have them today, at no cost to the county," Stanley said.
The best scenario is that each officer is equipped with a long gun, a sidearm and a Taser, Stanley said.
"We want to provide our officers with the best equipment and the means to protect themselves. Heaven forbid we have to use any of them," he said.
Not much is known about the history of these two Thompson guns, but Stanley said they are believed to have been a gift from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
Sheriff's office documents show that on Nov. 25, 1968, then Sheriff Ernie Shore signed forms to register the guns with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division — now the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In the box asking for the date the firearms were acquired, the sheriff's department simply put down "Unknown, before 1936."
Sheriff Bill Schatzman said the story he heard was that years ago, the Reynolds tobacco company paid its employees with cash, and the guards on the cash truck were equipped with the Thompson guns. The transition to paychecks made the guns obsolete, so they were donated to the sheriff's office.
"They've been sitting in the vault for years now," Schatzman said.
This was the same story that Commissioner Bill Whiteheart shared during the briefing on Thursday, saying he had heard it from older employees of Reynolds. He said the wisdom of the company was to deter theft with "the most powerful, dynamic weapon known to society in that day."
Commissioner Dave Plyler asked several questions and said after the meeting that he had no clue that the sheriff's office had these guns.
"That was just absolutely a shock," he said.
He is fine with the trade and said the guns are illegal for the public to use and should be for the sheriff's office as well.
"It came from a different time," Plyler said.
Schatzman said the firearms became a subject of interest when the sheriff's office prepared for its move to the new Forsyth County Public Safety Center and went through inventory.
He is quite familiar with the Thompson submachine gun, since he had to qualify with it during training for his career in the FBI. He said leaders eventually determined that it was not something that should be used on the streets to enforce the law, so hundreds of the guns were destroyed.
"Because of the stigma attached to the Tommy gun and the organized crime and the bad guys back in the early days, it was determined that these weapons were not applicable to modern day," Schatzman said.
He recalls that the 45-caliber gun was heavy, but "it didn't shoot all that badly."
"I'm sensitive to history and its necessity for the county ... but I think the benefit derived exceeds the historical value," Schatzman said of the trade.
"If they can be converted to save the taxpayers the cost of ... the rifles, and if the sheriff's department needs those rifles to protect, defend and carry on law enforcement in Forsyth County, then it's logical and makes sense and is an appropriate and wise utilization of a resource that is no longer practical to own," Whiteheart said.
The sheriff's office also hopes to exchange 14 Smith & Wesson revolvers and a Kimber frame for 176 new Glock 45-caliber magazines, valued at $3,000.
The commissioners will vote on the property exchanges at their Jan. 13 meeting.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2014 Winston-Salem Journal