The issues with the Adams Arms rifles began almost immediately.
The first batch of AR-15s ordered from the Odessa-based manufacturer by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office had some trigger problems, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. Then, in later batches, a few rifles switched on their own from semi-automatic to fully automatic fire.
The sheriff warned the company: Give us a refund or inspect every rifle and put it in writing that they’re functional.
Then came the final straw. A deputy went to shoot one of the rifles at the range and when she pulled the trigger, nothing happened.
“The AR-15 became nothing more than a club or a stick,” Gualtieri said.
Deputies traced the defect to the manufacturer. The sheriff had seen enough.
He took 309 Adams Arms rifles out of service last month, ordered replacements from a different manufacturer, and meantime reshuffled the remaining rifles.
Gualtieri is seeking a refund of just over $300,000 from the company.
Another Tampa Bay area agency, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, also has Adams Arms rifles.
A spokesman said Friday that the office hadn’t found any issues with its weapons but was still reviewing the problems that Pinellas flagged.
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The progression of problems the Pinellas sheriff experienced raises questions about how the office decided to go with the boutique manufacturer in the first place.
The Adams Arms purchases didn’t go through a competitive bid process, the standard practice in government for purchases over a designated threshold where an agency solicits proposals from potential vendors and ranks them against each other.
Competitive bidding isn’t required by law for sheriffs, independent constitutional officers in Florida who are subject to rules different from those governing local governments.
Still, experts say competitive bidding is still considered best practice for keeping the process transparent.
Instead, Gualtieri relied on a memo from a training deputy that cited internet research.
“It came to me," the sheriff said. “It had been evaluated. It had been vetted.”
A representative from Adams Arms, established in 2007, said the company stands by its products.
Officials first heard about problems from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in July and began working with the agency immediately, said Jason East, president of Adams Arms Holdings, which took over the company this year after the previous owner defaulted on a $5.1 million debt.
Company officials offered to inspect and test all of the rifles, but Gualtieri declined.
Whether the manufacturer voluntarily refunds the money hasn’t been decided yet, East said. If not, Gualtieri plans to sue, he said.
“We are committed to the law enforcement community and the mission that they serve,” East said. “We would still like to continue to work with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office as well as any other agency that runs our rifles today.”
Pinellas started buying rifles in or around 2006, Gualtieri said, originally from Rock River Arms, an Illinois-based manufacturer founded in 1993.
In February 2014, then-Deputy Matthew Seymour wrote a memo recommending Adams Arms. Seymour said the Adams Arms rifle was almost identical to the Rock River gun but featured an operating system that made it “a cleaner, cooler and more reliable running weapon.”
He compared Adams Arms to nine other brands, including giants such as Bushmaster and Ruger. In his comparison, he cited the manufacturer’s websites, online gun forums and Wikipedia.
“The idea to switch from Rock River to Adams Arms was pushed from the bottom up,” Gualtieri said.
Gualtieri signed off on the purchase in April 2014. The first order was for 18 rifles at a cost of about $881 each.
Also included in the Pinellas deputy’s memo was a recommendation from a Pasco corporal, who said the agency was happy with the customer service at Adams Arms and found that the guns “operate flawlessly.”
Pasco County Sheriff’s spokesman Kevin Doll emphasized that the recommendation was from deputy to deputy and not an official recommendation by the Sheriff’s Office.
The Pasco agency didn’t go through a competitive bid process, either.
In a statement to the Times, Sheriff Chris Nocco said he chose Adams Arms because the company quoted cheaper prices than competitors and the weapons worked well during field testing.
Another consideration was that Adams Arms is local, Nocco said, making maintenance and repairs more convenient. Gualtieri also found this an advantage.
The Pasco sheriff has another tie to Adams Arms: Nocco’s predecessor, Bob White, works as a law enforcement adviser for the company.
White said in an interview Friday he had no involvement with purchases at Adams Arms or the Sheriff’s Office and didn’t start working with the company until September 2014, after Pinellas and Pasco started buying its rifles.
White defended Adams Arms, saying every manufacturer has its hiccups and calling the Pinellas problems an unfortunate fluke.
“If Adams Arms was making substandard rifles,” White said, “I would distance myself as fast as you can say gone.”