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St. Louis police sell surplus weapons, including Tommy guns, for $1.2 million

St. Louis police sell surplus weapons, including Tommy guns, for $1.2 million


ST. LOUIS • The St. Louis Police Department is selling a stash of guns that bring to mind Prohibition-era gangsters for cash to put new a handgun in every officer’s holster, plus arm the department with a number of AR-15 rifles.

The rifles and about 1,525 new 9 mm Beretta handguns will be paid for largely by the sale of 27 Thompson submachine guns, some dating to the 1920s. The proceeds from the vintage weapons will cover about half of the new arsenal — the first shipment of which is expected to arrive in August. The sale of the Berettas currently used by officers and other surplus weapons will make up the rest.

St. Louis decommissioned its Thompson submachine guns about 60 years ago. They have been stored in a basement bunker inside the police academy ever since. The guns, more commonly known as Tommy guns, were often the weapon of choice among gangsters during the Roaring ’20s and the 1930s, but they were also carried by lawmen of the time. In later years, FBI agents carried them.

Chesterfield-based Police Trades is the broker for the $1.2 million deal, which was signed in January by then-Chief Sam Dotson. Raymond Reynolds, the president of Police Trades and a retired St. Louis police lieutenant, is somewhat of a history buff with an affection for the iconic guns. He said he found original paperwork showing that the department had paid about $125 a piece for the submachine guns.

The department’s new handguns will cost $450 each, said Carol Shepard, the police department’s purchasing procurement manager. The department’s current Beretta handguns are more than 10 years old, and becoming obsolete, making replacement parts nearly impossible to come by, she said. One of them failed to fire during a training exercise, Shepard added.

“The original reason to sell the weapons was to purchase new duty weapons, and we did so well on the sale, we will be able to purchase rifles as well, by our own actions without using any budget money,” Shepard said. “That was the most important thing for us. We made our own money to take care of our own problem.”

Once additional equipment is purchased for the new handguns, Shepard said there will be about $350,000 left over to buy a number of AR-15 rifles for the department.

Interim Chief Lawrence O’Toole has said rifles will be assigned only to a certain number of officers per district. The department will have a policy regarding how and when the rifles can be used to avoid unnecessary or inappropriate shows of force and avoid escalating tension in the community, O’Toole has said.

Difficult to auction

The department had discussed auctioning the Tommy guns in May 2014, but only those who hold a federal license can buy such weapons. Obtaining a permit can take up to a year. An applicant must pass a background check, pay a $200 federal tax and notify the local police chief of the purchase.

That requirement severely limits the market, Shepard said.

In addition, the ATF must approve the transfer of the Tommy guns — a process that can take 90 days, Reynolds said.

A local dealer appraised the department’s collection in 2014 at $770,000. It includes rare 1921 and 1927 Colts and a model made in 1942.

Kentucky-based Midwest Distributors will pay $22,000 for each of the department’s 27 Tommy guns, which makes up the bulk of the $618,500 the company is spending to buy the department’s surplus weapons.

A second company, Minneapolis-based Bill Hicks & Co., will buy 1,748 Beretta handguns that have served as the department’s duty weapons for about $221 apiece. The same company will buy a number of 223 carbine rifles and some other guns from the department, for a total of about $597,000.

Reynolds said police firearms are in high demand because they usually are well-maintained and only fired during training exercises.

“But at some point it costs more (to the city) to maintain them than the value they will receive for selling them,” Reynolds said.

Once the companies buy the department’s surplus weapons, they will be sold only to those who pass background checks. Reynolds’ company will allow St. Louis police officers to buy back their duty weapons as personal weapons if they so desire.

The contract between Reynolds and the police department has been awaiting approval from the city counselor’s office. The comptroller’s office also must approve it. Once the contract is final, the department will contact Police Trades and start transferring the weapons, Shepard said.

The department isn’t letting go of all of its nostalgic Tommy guns. It is keeping two of them to be displayed inside the crime lab, she said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the type of approval a buyer must get from local law enforcement before purchasing highly regulated firearms. 

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Christine Byers is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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