TSA handgun contract draws ire of firearms makers

Through a series of missteps, the Transportation Security Administration has run afoul of the world's leading gun manufacturers in an attempt to award a three-year, $5 million contract for the semiautomatic handguns it plans to give commercial airline pilots to defend their cockpits.

The agency drew the heaviest fire after it appeared to bow to pressure from the office of Rep. J. D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., to drop a possible deal with the Austrian gunmaker Glock and focus instead on buying guns from venerable Smith & Wesson, an American-owned firm based in Hayworth's district.

Only after vigorous protests last month by Beretta, an Italian handgun supplier to the U.S. military, and other firms did TSA drop narrowly drawn contract specifications favorable to Smith & Wesson and open up the competition industry-wide.

The troubles over the handgun contract have renewed questions in Congress over the agency's contracting practices, particularly its apparent tendency to avoid competitive bidding for its contracts. House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Martin Olav Sabo, D-Minn., already has asked GAO to look into more than 90 sole-source contracts valued at over $50 million that have been awarded by TSA since its inception a little over a year ago.

These contracts "could easily and should have been competed to safeguard federal tax dollars," Sabo said last month. He declined comment Tuesday on TSA's attempt to buy handguns, except to say through his spokesman that he remains "concerned about sole-source contracts and mismanagement" at the agency.

TSA spokesman Robert Johnson defended the agency's actions Tuesday, saying, "Everything we've done has been done by the book."

"When warranted, we'll make adjustments in a manner that is fair to all," he said when asked about complaints from potential bidders. "We have our top people ... managing it so taxpayers will get the best deal."

The agency has been under intense pressure from Congress to accelerate the training and arming of commercial pilots under the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act enacted last November. The so-called Federal Flight Deck Officers program, which allows pilots to volunteer for firearms training and become certified law enforcement officers, took off in April when TSA put the first 44 pilots through a six-day training course in Georgia and gave them .40 caliber semiautomatic pistols made by Glock.

The next classes were to have started earlier this month, but gun industry sources said the procurement troubles contributed to a delay. TSA recently announced weekly classes would resume this weekend in Georgia, but came under attack in Congress last week for failing to consult key lawmakers in deciding to move all training to a single remote site in the New Mexico desert after Labor Day.

According to several industry sources who spoke with CongressDaily on the condition they or their firms would not be named because of the still-pending contract award, TSA bought Glocks for the first training class through an open-ended contract between the Austrian firm and the Secret Service.

TSA officials then began looking for another federal contract with Glock on which they could piggyback for larger, extended purchases, these sources said. Although TSA officials initially favored buying revolvers-which trainers recommended as being easier to maintain and use in the confined space of a cockpit, sources said-they decided late last year that a .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun should be the pilots' standard firearm-in particular, a law enforcement model capable of firing a magazine of 12 or more hollow-point bullets.

The decision caught Smith & Wesson by surprise, which was preparing to offer TSA its line of revolvers. Company executives met with TSA officials in January and, according to one well-informed source, "waved the flag a bit" to argue that Smith & Wesson, which reverted from British to American ownership two years ago, should have a fair shot at supplying the guns-in-cockpits program.

Then Glocks were handed out to the first class of pilots in April, so Smith & Wesson executives visited Hayworth's office to complain that TSA might not seek open competition for a long-term handgun contract. That, they argued, would shut out the only U.S.-owned manufacturer of .40-caliber pistols who was seeking to participate in the competition.

A Hayworth spokesman confirmed the meeting took place, adding that the issue was handled "at the staff level."

"We called over [to TSA] to express our concern about the initial [procurement] process," Hayworth spokesman Larry Van Hoose said.

Soon afterward, TSA announced it was soliciting bids for handguns "under full and open competition." Van Hoose observed, "That's all Smith & Wesson wanted."

But the kind of gun TSA described in its solicitation on May 22 was so specific-it must have, for example, a "completely concealed hammer" without a "spur," a minimum 12-round magazine of a certain size with the "spring tension" of 10 coils, and an ability to fire 10,000 rounds without breaking down-that many potential bidders cried foul. Among them were Beretta, SigArms and other handgun suppliers to U.S. military services and law enforcement agencies. Some pointed out that federal air marshals who work for TSA aboard commercial airliners carry SigArms pistols with visible hammers.

The agency also invoked an arcane "Buy American" executive order that made guns from Italian (Beretta), Austrian (Glock) or other foreign firms ineligible, but exempted Russian- and Chinese-made weapons. Adding to the firestorm was TSA's insistence that the first 200 guns from an initial order of up to 2,400 be delivered by July 1, a date that has slipped several times.

"There is no gun company in the world that can deliver 200 guns by [the latest deadline of] July 9th, with only a few weeks notice, unless they had prior knowledge of the contract award," protested an unidentified company in an exchange of questions and answers that TSA posted on the the FedBizOpps Web site for potential bidders. "It normally takes 45 to 90 days to make and deliver guns once an order is received. This is the industry standard," the protester wrote.

TSA wants to buy as many as 9,600 guns over the life of the contract, which would expire Sept. 30, 2006. With .40 caliber pistols costing about $500 each in the commercial market, the contract may be worth $4.8 million to the winner, although industry sources said the bragging rights may prove more valuable to a company's business than the revenues.

On June 12, Beretta filed a motion with a federal mediator to suspend the contracting process, citing "a range of restrictive and ... strange and inexplicable requirements" for the handguns.

The specifications may have been written "to thwart congressional intent" that TSA train and arm airline pilots, or were "so narrowly tailored" so that only one firearm could qualify, Jeffrey Reh, general counsel at Beretta's U.S. headquarters in Accokeek, Md., charged in the motion.

Reh sent copies of the motion to House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., whose panel oversees TSA, and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., in whose district Beretta is based, but aides to the lawmakers said neither of them intervened in the dispute.

Later that afternoon, TSA abruptly announced it was dropping all of its controversial requirements, deleting those for the concealed hammer and magazine coils, cutting the initial delivery to 50 guns and waiving the "Buy American" provision.

"When we filed our protest, the TSA was very prompt in meeting with us," Reh said in an interview this week. "At this point, we're satisfied."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec