Police Department Gun Sales: A Complex Issue

Before we get to the meat of the story, consider this question for a moment:

Why would a police department be selling firearms?

I’ve pondered it myself, and the only viable answer I could come up with is that they would sell firearms to raise funds for the department. In many a cash-strapped municipality, police departments truly are in dire need of funding. Detroit and Chicago are just two of the most glaring examples of this, but traditionally those departments need funds in order to fund assets such as weapons, body armor, cruisers and, most obviously, more officers.  

If a department were to rely partially on the sale of firearms to, say, fund new cruisers or better technology in the existing cruisers, I can’t blame them. Cars cost more than guns, and every dollar counts. Such fundraising is, in fact, the reason given by those who advocate for the procedure of law enforcement agencies selling guns at auctions and through other federally-licensed dealers, adding that those buyers are going to purchase a gun somehow, whether from Dick’s sporting goods, a black market dealer, or a private dealer. So why shouldn’t the police departments raise a buck to fight those who commit crime?

It’s a fair question, but – and this is especially true in a climate in which politicians and other authority figures lecture gun-owning and gun-selling Americans on the need for greater background checks and regulations – one could reasonably expect that any firearm sold by a police department would be put only in the hands of the most well-vetted, trustworthy of citizens.

That assumption, that a police department would not be so derelict as to not properly vet the recipients of firearms it sold, is what makes a story recently published by the AP a bit perplexing. Even if one endorses the fundraising rationale for re-selling guns, how could it be the case that more than twelve of those weapons in one state alone would end up playing roles in criminal investigations?

As it turns out, the police are only as trustworthy as the federally-licensed seller whom they turn the firearms over to, and that seller is only as trustworthy as the buyer or the person who chooses to steal the gun. That’s the reality with gun sales in general.

With that said, governmental agencies – and this is primarily at higher levels than state PD – don’t have the best record when it comes to who they sell those guns back to, or how well they track those weapons once they are out of officials’ custody. But again, the police chain of firearms custody ends at the dealer, whose chain of custody ends at the buyer, etc. We can’t babysit each and every gun sold, we can only do our best to ensure the buyer passes the background check. If that is the case, there seems that little grievance can be had with the process.

Unfortunately, that’s not always proven to be the case.

We know that mismanagement of firearms happened on a much larger scale at the federal level under President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder’s direct supervision. Little did we know, weapons were being doled out on the state level as well, though in a more legal manner, which does make a difference in how we view the very different issues.

The AP estimates that at least 6,000 guns have been sold by Washington law enforcement since 2010 alone. That’s only one state’s police department, and that is just a conservative estimate of their sales, because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives keeps no master list of firearms sold via police departments, forcing AP reporters to do their own research and records requests. This lack of a list to provide statistics on re-sold weapons potentially used in the commission of a crime is what, more than anything else, allows for suspicion of how well-founded the practice is.

Additionally, the AP report only covers guns used in subsequent crimes within the state of Washington, not out of state. The AP previously reported that these re-sold firearm caches are primarily comprised of guns that have been previously seized under the guise of conducting criminal investigations, only to be re-sold to the public.

This re-selling of seized firearms is legal in ‘most states’, but some in law enforcement have come to a realization: in general, law enforcement should not be putting firearms back into circulation, as officers are put at risk daily in part because of the already massive store of weapons in the marketplace.

“We didn’t want to be the agency that sold the gun to somebody who uses it in another crime,” said Capt. Jeff Schneider of the Yakima Police Department, which sold guns until about a decade ago but now melts them down. He added: “While there is almost an unlimited supply of firearms out there, we don’t need to make the problem worse.” (AP)

It’s darkly ironic, considering that more than twelve re-sold weapons have been used in crimes, with that figure likely being far higher nationwide. Cops seized many of those guns only to sell them right back, allowing them to eventually be accessed by those who would go on to engage in nefarious activity. While federal agencies are mandated to destroy firearms unless they are being used as evidence by the agency itself, that is not the case at the state level.

Gun advocates argue that it’s the person, not the weapon, that is the problem. Level-headed people can’t help but acknowledge there is some veracity to the claim. This isn’t a complete indictment of law enforcement selling weapons to people they believed were law-abiding in order to purchase body armor for officers. But the AP report’s newsworthiness comes from the fact that at least 13 of those who purchased firearms, re-sold those firearms, or stole those firearms from legal owners who got them from Washington state police departments were ultimately ill-intended. Some should have never possessed a firearm in the first place.

‘In 2010, a mentally ill man ambushed and wounded two Pentagon police officers with a handgun sold by Memphis, Tennessee, police. Also that year, a Las Vegas court security officer was killed by a man with a shotgun sold by a Memphis-area sheriff’s office. And in 2015, an unstable man walked into City Hall in New Hope, Minnesota, and wounded two officers with a shotgun sold by the Duluth Police Department.’ (AP)

Admittedly, mental illness is often difficult, if not impossible, to detect during the span it takes to vet somebody for fitness in owning a firearm. But the optics of a police department being directly involved in the arming of such people remain ugly. Though federally licensed firearms dealers serve as middle-men in the sales, the link to the police is inextricable, and in the worst cases that link cannot help but cause a certain level of cognitive dissonance.

Many of the cases stemming from the re-sale of weapons once in the possession of police are shocking, but before reading some, know that one cannot take these cases as deciding evidence in this complex issue.

‘The Washington State Patrol traded a batch of crime guns with a firearms dealer in June 2010. The batch included a Lorcin L380 semi-automatic pistol. In April 2015, a gang member shot at a car carrying a couple and their year-old daughter. One of the bullets hit the child in the head and killed her.’

The gun that was used in the crime was the same Lorcin L380 semi-auto pistol sold by Washington State police.

‘The Aberdeen Police Department traded a JC Higgins .22-caliber rifle with a firearms dealer in February 2011. In April 2015, the Yakima Police Department responded to a domestic violence assault involving a JC Higgins .22-caliber rifle with the same serial number.

In October 2015, Kent police searched a suspected drug house and arrested several people wanted on felony warrants. They found a .22 caliber rifle — the JC Higgins rifle sold by the Aberdeen police.’

This weapon was re-sold twice to people who would ultimately prove dangerous. And then there are those cases where the owners should never have owned weapons in the first place. Not just because they would ultimately be proven to engage in crime, but because they had already been convicted or prohibited from ownership at the time of sale.

‘The Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office sold a Hi Point 9mm pistol in March 2014. In October 2015, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office responded to a 911 call from a woman who said she heard what she thought was a gunshot and went outside to find her daughter’s intoxicated boyfriend passed out on the front porch. When deputies arrived, they found a handgun, the Hi Point 9 mm pistol, on the ground next to the man. It was the gun sold by the Kitsap sheriff’s office. A search found that the man was a convicted felon who wasn’t permitted to have a gun.’

Even when guns are sold legally, as should be allowed, there is a chance they fall into the wrong hands eventually. It’s an inescapable and, in many respects, irrelevant fact. But it is a fact.

‘The Washington State Patrol traded a Lorcin L380 semi-automatic pistol with a firearms dealer in June 2010. In May 2015, the Kent Police Department was investigating a 911 call and encountered four people outside the house. One of the men was prohibited from having a gun, but they found he was carrying a handgun, the Lorcin L380 semi-automatic pistol sold by the State Patrol.’

Either these guns were sold illegally – a fact which incriminates the federally-licensed salesman more than the police – or they were re-sold by disreputable parties, stolen, or possessed through some other means. But, the fact, misleading as it may be, remains: these weapons were in police possession, and were turned back over to the public by the police. This is not the end of the debate, however.

In general, any additional funding for police departments is a good thing. Weapons sales seem like a logical answer, and by all accounts those sales are subject to the same rules and regulations as any other weapon. It’s not a clear-cut issue of right or wrong, do or don’t do. But the reality must be considered, and some departments have considered that, even if they lose some additional funding, they are going to avoid a conflict of interest by any means, melting seized guns down without exception.

For departments that need the money, the practice seems more acceptable. Perhaps that’s a hypocritical stance, but it seems a realistic one. An argument can also be made that those departments tend to, in the majority of cases, be located in cities where criminality is greater, increasing the likelihood that re-sold gun directly or eventually fall into the hands of criminals. To counter this sentiment, it stands that law-abiding citizens who can pass background checks need guns to defend themselves more than those in cities with less crime.

Again, the issue is not a clear-cut one, but one that we must acknowledge. For better or worse, the practice of police departments re-selling guns will, in some cases, be directly linked to crime. Whether this is an acceptable risk for more police funding is the ultimate question.

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