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February 20, 2007
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Police needing heavier firepower to face weapons on streets

By Kevin Johnson
USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Law enforcement agencies across the country have been upgrading their firepower to deal with what they say is the increasing presence of high-powered weapons on the streets.

Scott Knight, chairman of the Firearms Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, says an informal survey of about 20 departments revealed that since 2004 all of the agencies have either added weapons to officers' patrol units or have replaced existing weaponry with military-style arms.

Knight, police chief in Chaska, Minn., says the upgrades have occurred since a national ban on certain assault weapons expired in September 2004. The ban, passed in 1994, in part prohibited domestic gunmakers from producing semi-automatic weapons and ammunition dispensers holding more than 10 rounds.

"This (weapons upgrade) is being done with an eye to the absolute knowledge that more higher-caliber weapons are on the street since the expiration of the ban," Knight said. He said his own department of about 20 officers is in the midst of determining whether to upgrade its weapons.

Ron Stucker, criminal investigations chief of the Orange County Sheriff's Department in Florida, says the department has been rearming many of its deputies with assault weapons in the past two years.

Stucker says deputies are now "frequently" encountering assault weapons in local robberies and during simple traffic stops. Weapons seizures in Orlando have increased overall by 26% since 2004.

It was not immediately clear whether assault weapons were driving the increase in weapons seizures or were directly linked to the county's record number of homicides in 2006, Stucker says.

In Houston, where homicides were up as much as 25% in 2006 over the previous year, Police Chief Harold Hurtt says the AK-47 assault rifle has become "kind of a weapon of choice" for warring gangs, major drug distributors and immigrant smugglers in a city that has become a major transit point for criminals.

"The reality on the street is that many of these weapons are readily available," says Hurtt, whose department began upgrading its weaponry with assault-style arms about three years ago before he arrived from Phoenix.

Last year, because of the escalation of violence and firepower on the street, Hurtt says he ordered patrol officers to wear body armor. Wearing armor had long been a matter of personal choice for officers.

The chief also is considering a proposal from officers to put 12-gauge shotguns back inside their patrol cars so they can be more accessible.

He said shotguns were moved to the car trunks when the cabs became crowded with laptop computers and other equipment.

Paul Erhardt, a spokesman for major gun manufacturer Sigarms, says the 2001 terrorist attacks, the violence following Hurricane Katrina and other high-profile incidents involving weapons contributed more to law enforcement's interest in rearming officers than any concerns raised by the expiring assault weapons ban. Erhardt's company outfits about 40% of the statewide law enforcement agencies in the USA.

Copyright 2007 Gannett Company, Inc.
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