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CASHING IN ON GUNS

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To feed their cash-starved budgets, cities with some of California's worst murder rates are selling rather than destroying guns confiscated by police - a practice that is drawing fire from public health experts and others working to curb inner-city violence.

Inglewood, where shootings accounted for 42 homicides last year, is the latest city putting confiscated weaponry back on the market. Compton started doing it in 1989. Santa Ana has been selling seized firearms since 1986."As a physician who sincerely cares about the survival of our children and our society, I am extremely dismayed to learn that the city of Inglewood or any other government would actively participate in returning weapons that had once been confiscated back into society," says Dr. Reed Tuckson, president of Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles. "This is a sad situation."

Although a growing number of cities are selling seized weapons to raise cash, the little-known practice is neither new nor confined to inner-city communities.

Hawthorne has been reselling its confiscated weapons for at least a decade. The city of Ventura started doing the same in 1990, and Alhambra did it for the first time in 1992. Fullerton also sells its firearms, as do Santa Monica and Pasadena, although police officials in those cities insist that only antique and collectible firearms are resold.

The city of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, however, have firm policies against selling confiscated weaponry. Reselling weapons would only exacerbate the already high level of violence on the streets, says Sheriff's Lt. Jeff Springs. "It's all speculation on our part, but I think we can all draw some conclusions. It's better to take the guns off the street."

For the most part, the firearms are sold each July to licensed dealers throughout the country by Roger Ernst & Associates, a Modesto, Calif., auction house that specializes in property confiscated by police.

According to an Inglewood Police Department memo, more than 100 California law enforcement agencies send seized firearms to Ernst's firm.

Ernst, who ardently courts law enforcement agencies for business, declined to discuss his dealings. "I really don't want to talk to anyone in the media about firearms," he said. "It's a political handball and I really don't care to play."

Officials in cities selling firearms say that before sending their guns to the auction block, they cull and destroy notorious and illegal weapons, including assault rifles, cheap handguns - commonly called Saturday night specials - and guns involved in "sensational" murders.

Only "collectible" firearms and "high-cost" weapons are resold, they say. But the definitions of what guns fall into these categories vary from department to department. And the ad hoc restrictions do not appear to prevent a large number of weapons - ranging from handguns to rifles and shotguns - from re-entering the marketplace.

Supporters of the practice argue that confiscated weapons offer cities a useful source of cash in tough economic times. Inglewood could earn $50,000 from the sale of 600 confiscated weapons in fiscal 1993, its police department memo said.

"Cities are doing things they have to do to make ends meet," said Inglewood Police Sgt. Phil Stahl, who oversees confiscated weaponry.

However, public health experts and others concerned about high homicide rates among inner-city youths say that they are appalled by the gun sales. They point to a study published in June in the Journal of the American Medical Association that says gunfire is killing black men at a greater rate in Los Angeles County than anywhere in the nation except Washington, D.C.

"There are simply too many guns in our society," said Tuckson of Charles Drew University, who is also one of the nation's leading black public health officials. "I am particularly adamant about that because it is the children of my community that are getting access to them."

Compton Councilwoman Patricia Moore, who says she was unaware that her city sold firearms, called the weapons sales "madness."

"We're adding fuel to the fire. We're making guns available that we say shouldn't be on the streets," she said. "It's appalling that we can't think more logically than this."

The question of whether cities should sell confiscated firearms is a controversial one among police.

Joseph D. McNamara, who put a stop to seized gun sales when he took over as police chief in San Jose, Calif., more than 15 years ago, says that the country's homicide rate is argument enough to prohibit the practice.

"When you hold up to the public what's going on, they'll see the sleaziness," said McNamara, now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "Thirty-three thousand Americans a year die by gunfire. No civilized society, even one in the midst of a civil war, has that many people dying."

Officials in cities reselling weapons insist that there are adequate safeguards preventing the guns from getting into the hands of criminals. They also point out that the seized firearms cannot be auctioned off to just anybody.

"These are going to go through persons who are licensed gun dealers both in and out of our state," said Inglewood Police Chief Oliver Thompson. "They will go through persons who will ensure that (the) weapons will be handled the way they ought to be handled."

McNamara, however, is skeptical of such claims. "The gun dealers don't care who gets their guns," he said. "Guns that are legitimately manufactured end up being bought in flea markets."