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In 'arms race,' police seek bigger guns

The Associated Press

BOISE -- The 30-year-old woman jumped from her disabled SUV holding a gun to her head to keep police back. Officers moved in close enough to fire a stun gun, but it bounced off her heavy coat and didn’t stop her.

Then investigators say she tried opening the door of another vehicle stopped along the highway, pointing her handgun at the two nearest deputies. Threatened with deadly force, they fired their assault rifles and Sarah Marie Stanfield of Boise fell to the ground dead.

Along with nonlethal devices like stun guns, an increasing number of rank-and-file patrol officers across the U.S. have started carrying high-powered assault rifles.

Law enforcement officials say it's part of a trend that has accelerated in the last year because of more shootouts with guns, standoffs in which police were outgunned, rising officer fatalities in 2007 and mass shootings of civilians where heavily armed "active shooters" kill until being killed.

"If you get into a firefight, you want to be the winner," said Scott Knight, police chief for Chaska, Minn., and chairman of the firearms committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "Our departments are moving to those weapons out of necessity across the country."

Chaska is a town of about 24,000 residents 25 miles southwest of Minneapolis, and earlier this month Knight ordered the department's first 10 assault rifles, each with two 30-round magazines.

Only patchwork information is available on how many other law enforcement agencies are outfitting sheriff's deputies and patrol officers with assault rifles, the kind of firepower once reserved for specialized SWAT teams. But from Chaska to the city of Miami to college campuses in Arizona, agencies are acquiring AR-15s or M-4s, both close relatives of the military's M-16.

All three weapons fire .223-caliber bullets. While the M-16 can fire as an automatic, the M-4 and AR-15 are generally configured to fire one round with each squeeze of the trigger.

The rifles can carry clips that hold 30 rounds, can fire bullets with enough velocity to pierce some types of body armor and have greater accuracy at longer range than handguns. Police say the guns are more accurate then a handgun in life-and-death situations.

Law enforcement officials see another benefit: Many officers are former soldiers familiar with the M-16 who can make an easy transition to police assault rifles, which cost about $900 to $1,500.

In Miami, Police Chief John Timoney late last year authorized his patrol officers to carry AR-15s because of a rise in assault rifle use by criminals.

The chief said AK-47s have become a "gun of choice" for criminals.

"My police officer who was killed (in January), that was an AK-47 bought by an 18-year-old," said Timoney, whose agency now has about 50 AR-15s and expects to eventually get 150 more. "This is a national problem. Police agencies all over the U.S. are going to bigger weapons."

In 2007, according to preliminary numbers compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 69 officers were shot to death, an increase from 52 in 2006 and the most in five years. Last year included six shootings where two or more officers were killed in the same event, said spokesman Kevin Morison.

"There just seems to be a more brazen, cold-blooded killer out there," he said. "Officers being shot multiple times and multiple officers being shot in the same incident. That's fueling a lot of concern among law enforcement professionals."

"Police officers need to be able to defend themselves and the rest of us, and they need the weapons to do so," said Peter Hamm, spokesman for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "In a lot of departments across the country, officers are more and more finding military style assault weapons in the hands of bad guys."

Law enforcement officials say the trend toward issuing assault rifles to regular patrol officers started in Los Angeles after a 1997 shootout following a botched bank robbery. There, two heavily armed men wore body armor that stopped bullets fired by the standard-issue 9 mm Beretta handguns carried by police, 11 of whom were injured along with six civilians. The two bank robbers were eventually killed. The Los Angeles Police Department now issues AR-15s.

Two years later came Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where two teens killed 13 people and wounded two dozen others before both committing suicide, forcing police to rethink a strategy based on securing areas and waiting for negotiators and SWAT teams.

The new strategy played out last month in Oregon's Linn County, south of Portland, when 51-year-old Robert Earl Thompson used a shotgun to take 16-year-old high school sophomore Nicole Street hostage at a gas station. A sheriff's sergeant used his AR-15 to kill Thompson within a few minutes of arriving.

"The people we protect expect us to go in and resolve that situation and save that hostage," said Linn County Sheriff Tim Mueller, who is still building the department's arsenal of AR-15s.

While officers in the field can react more quickly than SWAT teams, law enforcement officials say that's of little use if patrol officers are outgunned when they arrive. That concern has increased based on past shootings where assailants carried multiple weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

Last April, a Virginia Tech student armed with two handguns fired 174 rounds in just a little more than nine minutes, killing 32 people and then himself when police stormed the stairs of the building.



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