RALEIGH, N.C. — Little more than a year after buying 150 collector-grade handguns, officials at the N.C. Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement say the $1,055 pistols were so unreliable they had to get rid of them.
ALE director John Ledford said the Kimber pistols repeatedly suffered such problems as rounds jamming during training exercises, broken sights and the weapon's safety button sometimes falling off. He made a deal with a local firearms dealer to swap the pricey pistols for less expensive handguns without spending any additional money.
"Failure of a weapon during training is problematic enough, but if any of these types of failures occurred during a life-and-death situation the result could be loss of life to a sworn member of the division or an innocent civilian," Ledford wrote in a November memo to justify the new weapons. "During violent encounters with armed suspects, reliability and speed are paramount."
Responsible for conducting background checks on ABC permit applicants and catching bootleggers, ALE is among the smallest of the state-run law enforcement agencies. Currently, there are just 112 full-time agents statewide. Another 22 retired ALE personnel serve as "reserve agents." They will also be issued new service pistols.
ALE agents rarely get into shootouts, but it has happened. An agent was shot and killed in the line of duty in 1994.
Crime Control Secretary Reuben Young, who supervises Ledford, agreed that the new pistols were needed.
"The Kimbers were unreliable as a whole and had numerous problems involving the malfunctioning of the weapon," Young said last week in a written statement. "They needed to be replaced as their use had become a safety issue for the officers and a liability issue for the department."
The Kimber .45-caliber 1911 pistols were bought under former director Bill Chandler, who abruptly retired in Sept. 2009, days after McClatchy detailed the purchase and revealed that two assault rifles issued to ALE agents were missing. Other issues included stolen pistols and an agent who accidentally shot himself.
Special pistols ordered
An avid gun buff and collector, Chandler ordered Kimbers with special sights and the ALE seal carved into their handles, spending $158,250 provided to the agency through federal seizures involving alcohol, drugs and illegal gambling. The purchase was also approved by Chandler's supervisor, Gerald Rudisill, the chief deputy secretary of Crime Control.
Similar pistols are used by elite Special Forces soldiers and the U.S. Olympic rapid-fire target shooting team, according to Kimber's website.
The Kimbers replaced Sig Sauer handguns bought in 2003 and 2005 for about $685 each. The Sig pistols, which Chandler said were worn out, were declared "surplus" and sold to agents for $326.
A review of Internal ALE records going back three decades shows the agency has bought all new firearms every few years. The old guns are then typically sold to ALE staff, usually for less than half the price the state originally paid.
Records show that since 2000, the agency has sold at least 373 pistols and shotguns back to its own agents. Some agents have bought as many as six discounted weapons in the last decade.
Service weapons at $1
As with state troopers and SBI agents, a state law also allows retiring ALE personnel to buy their last service weapon at a price set at the discretion of the agency. Historically, that price has been $1.
Chandler, the former director, bought his ALE Kimber for $1 when he retired in 2009. Records show he also bought a Sig pistol for $250 in 2003, a Remington shotgun for $92 in 2006, and another Sig pistol for $320 in 2009.
Records show that Ledford, the current director, bought a Sig pistol from ALE for $250 in 2003, while he was sheriff of Madison County. Having been an ALE agent in the 1990s, Ledford was listed as a reserve agent while he was sheriff.
Since the Kimbers were issued to agents in the fall of 2009, Ledford said his agents documented 289 malfunctions with the pistols during training exercises. Many agents chose to carry personal weapons instead, Ledford wrote in a memo Nov. 8 to Young.
In an effort to fix the problems, Ledford contacted Ralph Karanian, the chief operating officer of Kimber America of Elmsford, N.Y. Karanian promised to fix the problems and the company replaced a key spring on the pistols, according to the memo. Agents also fired as many as 1,500 rounds with each pistol on the suggestion they needed to be "broken in."
But with the manufacturer's warranty expiring at the end of 2010, Chandler wrote Young that the best solution was to trade in the troublesome Kimbers for new Sig Sauer 220 pistols similar to what the agency had previously.
With Young's approval, Ledford negotiated a deal to trade in the department's Kimber pistols to a Raleigh firearms dealer in exchange for 150 new Sigs valued at $718 each.
Karanian declined to be interviewed about the specific malfunctions ALE experienced with its Kimbers.
"Kimber stands solidly behind every product with unwavering warranty service," Karanian said, according to a written release by a company spokesman.
Faith in Kimber
Chandler, the former director, says he hasn't had any problems with his Kimber service weapon.
"I have no qualms about carrying the weapon," said Chandler, who is a reserve ALE agent.
State Sen. Ed Jones, a retired state trooper, said he was concerned about how often ALE was buying new weapons. In his 30-year career with the Highway Patrol, Jones said, he was issued three pistols.
"I want officer safety to be foremost, but a weapon ought to last more than a year and a half," said Jones, a Democrat from Enfield. "Even the sorriest weapon ought to last that long."
Assault rifles traded
In addition to the new pistols, ALE agents have been issued new assault rifles after leaders determined their $1,495 Swiss-made Sig Sauer rifles, bought in 2006, weren't up to snuff, either.
Records show Ledford arranged a deal in July to trade in the agency's 120 Sig Sauer 552 assault rifles, which were bought in 2006 at a cost of $179,400. Ledford said last week that the trade-in was necessary because the 2006 rifles had been discontinued and spare parts were not available.
In exchange, a Greensboro firearms dealer provided the agency 120 Bushmaster M4 assault rifles valued at $1,270 each. ALE also got special Eotech 512 "holographic" sights that make a red dot appear on a target, valued at $439 each.
Because guns were being traded for guns, Ledford said, he did not have to follow state rules on bidding.
Ledford, who has already been issued a Bushmaster assault rifle and a new Sig pistol, said he expects the current batch of guns to last for several years.
"These are really no-frills guns, no ALE emblems or seals on them or anything," Ledford said. "We are hopeful these will be quality products, and we believe they are. The Sig handgun is the same model carried by the Secret Service."