Agents, firearms makers and Congress members are nervous about a new deal to outfit the Homeland Security Department with sidearms.

At 7.1 inches from barrel to grip and just under two pounds, the .357-caliber Sig pistol is one of the smallest weapons in the U.S. war on terrorism. But if terrorists make it on board an airplane, a Sig wielded by a federal air marshal could thwart a hijacking. The .357 fires a faster bullet than the pistol used by agents from the old Customs Service, the Glock 9 mm semiautomatic. The subcompact version of the 9 mm-known as the "Baby Glock"-is more than an inch shorter than the .40-caliber pistol, made by Heckler & Koch, the weapon of choice of agents from the now defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Those [INS] guys carry cannons," says a former Customs agent. "I wear my gun on my ankle. Do I want to carry a freakin' cannon on my leg?"

It's a timely question, because agents from Customs, INS and the Air Marshals are now in the same agency, the Homeland Security Department's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau. And they're about to get new handguns. Since February, the world's top gun makers have been in a shootout for the right to sell handguns to ICE. In August, after extensive testing at federal armories in Pennsylvania and Georgia, ICE will pick one or more of them to arm its more than 12,000 law enforcement officers. In a novel arrangement, other agencies in the department also will be allowed to buy pistols through the ICE contract. Up to 45,000 gun carriers could get new weapons.

"This is the largest pistol procurement in the history of U.S. law enforcement," says Wayne Weber, a manager with the German firearms giant Heckler & Koch, one of the top-tier firms competing for the five-year, $25 million contract. Besides H&K, Austrian gun manufacturer Glock, Italy's Beretta, and two American-based manufacturers, Smith & Wesson and SigArms Inc., acknowledge vying for the pact. "We believe that most of the companies will lower their price to land such a large, important contract," says an executive with another of the gun manufacturers, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the ongoing procurement.

With so many different officers to arm, ICE and its Homeland Security overseers want to maximize their buying options. They are looking for a family of firearms-a .40-caliber, a .357-caliber and a 9 mm-in full/compact and subcompact form (subcompacts are popular with officers who have smaller hands and those who work undercover). While Homeland Security eventually might prod some of its agencies to use the same gun, officials say the procurement is not designed to force consolidation. "Each agency has mission-driven requirements, so what's good for one is not always good for another," says Thomas Trotto, director of ICE's National Firearms and Tactical Training Unit.

The procurement has caught the eye of rank-and-file officers. Buying handguns is not like buying paper clips; it's about as wrenching as procurement gets. "People use this item to protect their own lives," says the gun company executive. "It's a very emotional issue." At some Homeland Security agencies, including ICE, veteran INS and Customs officer are being merged-and possibly forced to use the same weapon.

At ICE, former INS and Customs criminal investigators carry different guns, even though some of them now work the same cases. Agents from both camps wonder whether the bureau will use the procurement to switch its 6,000 agents to a common pistol: the Glock 9 mm used by Customs veterans, or the .40-caliber H&K carried by INS agents. "A lot of people feel this is the turning point," says a former Customs agent. "A lot of INS people want to stay with the .40 [caliber]. A lot of Customs people want to stay with the 9 mm. It's like, which agency are we going to placate?"

At Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection bureau, INS and Customs inspectors are being merged into a single corps. Inspectors now train together, wear the same uniforms and earn the same salary. But they still carry different firearms. CBP will use the procurement to help pick a standard weapon, says Christiana Halsey, the agency's acting assistant commissioner for public affairs. "Hopefully, once the [procurement] testing is done, they will all be receiving the same weapon," she says.

At ICE firing ranges, Trotto is putting the pistols through one of the most rigorous testing regimens ever devised, gun manufacturers say. With the help of dozens of officers from CBP, the Coast Guard and the Secret Service, Trotto's team will fire ten thousand rounds with each model. The guns get beat up; they are put in a 200-degree oven for eight hours and dropped on concrete. They are dunked in salt water and sprayed with sand. "We put the [guns] through the wringer to find out what their real performance capabilities are," says Trotto.

ICE acquisition officials promise a fair, open competition. "We're not going to let this be a political decision," says Soraya Correa, ICE's director of procurement. Trotto and Correa know their acquisition is being scrutinized, and not just by officers in the field. They work in the shadow of a gun procurement by the Transportation Security Administration last year during which the agency reversed itself several times-at one point it appeared to stack the solicitation toward Smith & Wesson-before selecting H&K. As reported by National Journal's CongressDaily, TSA's actions raised the ire of Congress and the world's premier gun makers, who now are keeping close watch on ICE.

Anxious Agents

Put a group of gun experts in a room, and the debate over the best caliber and manufacturer will rage late into the night. "It's like Ford versus Chevy engines at NASCAR," says Trotto. "Everyone has their favorite." Most rank-and-file officers come to favor certain guns, sometimes for very personal reasons. For CBP's Halsey, a gun collector who prefers Glocks, it's the way the safety is joined to the trigger. Guns can become part of an agent's persona. Bonni Tischler, who retired in 2002 as the highest-ranking female executive in Customs history, was known for her golden gun, a tiny five-shot revolver.

Inside ICE, the gun procurement has stirred debate about "stopping power"-a pistol's ability to neutralize an enemy with a single shot. While stopping power is a function of several factors, including bullet design, some former INS agents are concerned that Customs' 9 mm comes up short. As a veteran INS firearms instructor puts it, "The real issue with any firearms decision is whether or not the agency wants to put its agents at risk and regress to a 9 mm weapon that provides less stopping power." "So why not bring a bazooka to work?" asks a former Customs agent. "We're not trained to kill. We're trained to shoot until aggressive action stops." Other Customs veterans note they can load more rounds in their 9 mm than INS agents can fit in their .40-calibers.

Some ICE agents are restive because the agency has yet to pick a standard firearm, which they see as just one more example of the agency's slow decision-making. In January, a group of INS veterans was so frustrated by ICE's pace in promoting INS agents from the GS-12 to the GS-13 level, the rank of their counterparts in Customs, that they contemplated suing the agency. The agents contacted a Washington law firm, Woodley and McGillivary, to explore the possibility of a class-action lawsuit against ICE, according to e-mails obtained by Government Executive. (No lawsuit was filed, and INS agents were promoted to GS-13 rank in May.) A long-running effort to change the name of the agency to Investigations and Criminal Enforcement, as opposed to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also has been held up. "There is now a good chance that a name change to Investigations and Criminal Enforcement will become a reality before too long," wrote John Clark, ICE's director for investigations, in a Dec. 15, 2003, e-mail to senior field officials. Six months later, the name change still was on hold, and agents still lack ICE badges.

Gun tester Trotto, who also heads working groups drafting ICE policies on firearms and the use of force-neither of which had been issued by late May-says ICE is being deliberate, getting feedback from each of its units, including the Federal Protective Service, which ICE inherited from the General Services Administration. "We pick the best of everything and decide what we want the policy to be," he says. "It's been a very positive process." As an example of a decision ICE has made, he cites a new policy to have all agents carry batons, as INS agents did before joining DHS.

Asked whether all ICE agents will switch to the same weapon, Trotto suggests consolidation is likely. "I would say that as firearms are replaced, that you will probably see them coming together," he says. Other sources say ICE plans to let its agents continue to use 9 mm and .40-caliber pistols until they need to be replaced. At that point, agents would receive the new ICE firearm. Postponing a decision would let ICE base its firearm selection on the diagnostic tests being conducted by Trotto. "You'll never please everyone," he says. "But if [agents] have a respect for our process, and know that we looked at this empirically, we'll be better off."

Under the Gun

ICE's gun procurement has its roots in a buying strategy developed by Gregory Rothwell, Homeland Security's procurement chief. Shortly after arriving at the department in July 2003, Rothwell set up more than a dozen commodity councils, interagency groups that review how the department buys common items, from uniforms to computers. Last September, the weapons and ammunition council began to meet, and officials quickly decided that ICE would head the pistol acquisition because of its testing facilities. Not all Homeland Security agencies will necessarily buy guns through the ICE contract. "[The contract] doesn't mean everybody has to dump their [pistol] inventory," says Correa. "There are other [pistol] contracts out there at other bureaus." Within ICE, the air marshals are unlikely to order many weapons at first, because their .357 Sig pistols are relatively new, sources say.

The procurement hinges on robust competition-a tall order according to some observers, who note that the history of federal handgun procurements is rife with bid protests and allegations of favoritism. "The 'gun' people usually have a favorite and write the [specifications] to favor that favorite in some specific way," says the gun company executive. "They usually try to write the [specifications] to sound like they are making it a level playing field, but there is always something in there that gives their favorite an edge."

If they detect bias, gun manufacturers are not shy about contacting Congress. Already, legislators have weighed in on the ICE procurement. In March, House Small Business Committee Chairman Donald Manzullo, R-Ill., and Rep. Jeb Bradley, R-N.H., whose district includes the headquarters of SigArms, expressed concern that the solicitation lacked protections for U.S. manufacturers, known as Buy American provisions. At a March 10 meeting with the congressmen, Rothwell assured them the omission was a mistake, say two congressional aides present at the session. A Buy American clause quickly was added to the solicitation. "DHS has been willing to work with us," says an aide with the House Small Business Committee. "Working with TSA was much more difficult than working with DHS at this point."

Despite congressional entreaties, Homeland Security and ICE have not committed to making multiple awards, which would let the department buy pistols from two or more manufacturers. If ICE makes a single award to a gun maker without a U.S. manufacturing base, Manzullo and Bradley worry that U.S. firearms manufacturing jobs could be lost. But "You don't make multiple awards just for the sake of having competition later," says Correa, though she adds that ICE could make multiple awards if Trotto's testing shows that two or more bids are roughly even.

Correa became ICE's procurement chief in late March, and gun manufacturers credit her with opening communications with them. Relations with gun companies got off to a rocky start in February, when firms attending a pre-proposal conference in Altoona, Pa., were told they could not ask questions of ICE officials present. "I tell them not to be afraid to ask questions," says Correa. "You just have to be fair and balanced to make sure they all have the same information at the same time." But outreach can't smooth away every issue. By late May, one manufacturer had lodged a protest with the General Accounting Office over the procurement. "I'm not surprised by it, given the nature of the procurement itself and the companies involved," says Correa. She emphasizes that ICE will stick to its solicitation and evaluate all proposals fairly: "I am very sensitive to making sure we do the right thing."