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Gun's critics take aim at "hair trigger'

The weapon a Tampa police officer was using when he accidentally shot himself last week, inflicting a life-threatening wound, is a controversial handgun that has been involved in several accidental, fatal shootings. To some, the Austrian-made 9mm Glock 17 is a lifesaver for police officers. It can fire 17 shots without having to be reloaded, putting officers on fairly equal footing with drug dealers, who often carry high-tech weapons.

To others, the handgun is a hazard. Critics say it has an overly sensitive trigger _ sometimes called a "hair trigger" _ and has been known to fire without warning. Because of the gun's unpredictability, several Florida law enforcement agencies refuse to allow their officers to use it.

Two weeks ago, Officer Douglas E. Maxwell, a member of the Tampa department's "quad squad," a unit that fights street drug crimes, was trying to arrest a suspect in the Ponce de Leon Courts public housing complex.

As he approached a 16-year-old boy suspected of dealing in heroin and cocaine, the boy resisted and the two ended up in a scuffle. Maxwell had his gun, a Glock, out as he tried to subdue the boy.

The details of what happened next are not yet clear _ but, according to Chief A.C. McLane, Maxwell was holding the boy with one arm and at the same time was trying to put his revolver back into his waistband.

At that point the gun fired. No one knows exactly why the gun fired, whether the trigger got snagged on something or whether the suspect knocked the gun.

In any event, a bullet tore through Maxwell's groin, shattering when it hit bone and narrowly missing his femoral artery.

"This is nothing to scoff at. I've seen people die from this injury," said Dr. Catherine L. Carrubba of Tampa General Hospital.

But despite the seriousness of the injury and the history of accidental Glock shootings, Tampa police officials say they are not considering banning the pistol from their department.

"This is the first time we've ever had this happen," said Vernon Schlechty, the department's range master and chief firearm instructor. "This could have happened with any gun, not just this particular gun."

Why Metro-Dade banned the Glock

Metro-Dade police officers almost carried the Glock. When the department wanted to issue its officers a 9mm semiautomatic, officials did extensive studies on several different types, said Lt. Grace O'Donnell of the department's training bureau.

They stuck the guns in buckets of sand, put them in the freezer and tested them under high-stress situations.

"Originally we approved the Glock," she said.

It is a durable, lightweight, sturdy gun. It is easy to train people to use a Glock, the least expensive 9mm on the market.

"Don't get me wrong. It's a very good gun," she said. "Until we found out about these shootings."

Studies done by the FBI showed that while all guns will fire accidentally at times, the Glock does so more often than most, O'Donnell said. Joining the Orange County Sheriff's Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Metro-Dade Police Department decided against the Glock.

In Florida, the Glock has been involved in at least two accidental fatal shootings.

A Jacksonville sheriff's deputy shot and killed a teen-ager he was trying to handcuff.

A Miami Police Department sergeant shot and killed a 24-year-old man after a brief chase. The man had surrendered to police, gotten out of his car and placed his hands on the hood. The sergeant placed his gun against the suspect's head, and police maintain that the suspect bumped the gun, causing it to fire. Miami officers still use the Glock; Metro-Dade officers do not.

The problem with the Glock, critics say, is that it takes less pressure to pull the trigger. For example, it takes about 12 pounds of pressure to pull the trigger on a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun. On a Glock, it can take as little as 5 pounds.

O'Donnell said the trigger on a Glock is pulled a shorter distance than on other 9mm handguns, again making it easier to fire.

"We decided, if you're going to pull that trigger, it better be deliberate," she said. The more difficult it is to pull the trigger, the more the officer is thinking about what he is doing, she explained.

"Also, you have to be concerned about liability," O'Donnell said. For us, especially here in Miami, you have to be concerned."

"We know it's a good gun'

In the Tampa Bay area, officers with the Tampa police, Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, the St. Petersburg police and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Department are authorized to carry Glocks.

It is preferred, Schlechty said, because it feels most like the old .38-caliber Smith & Wesson and is easier to train officers to use. With other 9mm semiautomatics, the user must manually put the safety latches on and off, which means time lost in an emergency.

The greatest advantage, officers say, is the firing power. With the .38-caliber, the officer usually has to reload after six rounds. With the Glock, the officer has about three times the firing power.

In Tampa, officers must take 56 hours of basic firearms training. If they have been carrying the .38-caliber and want to switch to the 9mm, they must take an additional 17 { hours of training and then qualify on the shooting range, Schlechty said.

To combat the so-called hair trigger, officers are taught never to put their fingers on the trigger unless they are in a dangerous situation, Schlechty said.

About a quarter of the Tampa department's officers carry the Glock. Another quarter carry other types of 9mm weapons, and half still carry the Smith & Wesson, Schlechty said.

Officers have been able to carry the Glock since 1987, when it was first introduced in this country. Those who elected to carry them had to buy the gun themselves. The department has begun to issue Glocks to all new officers.

"We know it's a good gun," Schlechty said. "By the end of the year, 90 percent or more will be carrying the Glock."

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