The Kel-Tec PF-9 pistol, which retails for about $300, is one of the cheapest American-made guns available on the civilian market. In used condition, these are junk guns, Saturday night specials. But last week, George Zimmerman listed his in an online auction with a starting bid of $5,000. This was the gun he used in 2012 to shoot and kill Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager.
These macabre sales actually happen all the time in the United States. Most of the 116,000 Americans who are shot each year (32,000 fatally) receive barely a mention in local news—the perpetrators aren’t notorious, and their guns don’t become collector’s items. But neither are they removed from the market. In fact, thousands of Americans buy used guns every year—legally—with no idea those weapons were used to take someone’s life. A recent spate of laws, supported by the National Rifle Association, aims to keep it that way.
In the past eight years, 11 states have passed NRA-backed laws encouraging or requiring police to resell confiscated guns. The legislation is consistent with the guns-everywhere strategy the lobbying arm of the NRA has advanced at every level of government since the late 1990s—more guns in the hands of more people in more places. Dealers buy them in bulk from police departments and sell them to the public with no disclosure that such weapons were once used in robberies, assaults or homicides. In some notable cases, these guns are used to commit new crimes. Even so, efforts to expand these laws to other states are underway.
On television, cop dramas depict cavernous evidence rooms, where conscientious detectives might indulge their second thoughts about an old case and reexamine the murder weapon, still neatly tagged and boxed after for years. (Indeed, a few crime guns do sit forever in police custody, such as the .38-caliber revolver Mark David Chapman used to shoot John Lennon.) Generally, though, after guns have served their evidentiary purposes, they are either resold, destroyed or returned to the owners. (Immediately following his trial and a not-guilty verdict, Zimmerman’s lawyers announced that he was requesting the gun be returned to him, saying he feared for his safety and felt he needed to rearm himself.)
It’s never been a uniform or a perfect system. Law-enforcement agencies routinely sell seized property (such as automobiles) but destroy contraband (such as narcotics). What to do with weapons has always been a trickier issue. Back in 1992, Margaret Weigel’s gun was confiscated after her boyfriend used it to barricade himself in an apartment and threaten suicide. She demanded the gun back, and Baltimore police grudgingly obliged. Her boyfriend soon got hold of it again and killed her, then himself. After that, the weapon might still have made it back into civilian hands, depending on which law-enforcement agency seized it. At that time, Baltimore County Police routinely destroyed crime guns, whereas Maryland State Police resold them to dealers (a practice they discontinued a year later).
But this patchwork of inconsistent policies is something gun rights advocates have been trying to simplify of late—by prohibiting the destruction of crime guns.
Kentucky set an example in 1998, passing the first law prohibiting firearm destruction. This preceded the wave of 11 states that passed similar legislation between 2009 and 2014. The laws are particular to guns—other weapons, such as knives, don’t usually have enough value to make the resale effort cost-effective, and there’s no law mandating the preservation of knives or nunchucks or clubs or brass knuckles or baseball bats. In the Kentucky State Police Confiscated Weapons Sale, for example, the only weapons you’ll find on the auction spreadsheets are firearms.
This year, the Nebraska Legislature introduced a bill (now indefinitely postponed), that would have required the sale of forfeited guns in police custody, except in the rare circumstance that a firearm had an obvious defect that made it unsafe to fire. First to testify in support was Katie Spohn, a paid lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. “The NRA supports LB769 because it eliminates the wasteful and expensive practice of destroying firearms that could be recirculated through licensed dealers to the retail market,” Spohn said. “The NRA further supports LB769 because the proceeds from these firearms auctions would go to support our local schools.”
It’s a curious model: The more crime there is in a community, the more guns the police can seize and resell, and the better the state can compensate public schoolteachers. But it’s becoming a reliable stream of municipal revenue around the country, Spohn explained. “Police departments and other public agencies routinely sell forfeited property to the law-abiding public, including firearms.”
So how’s that working out?
Through a contract with an online auction house, the Duluth Police Department in Minnesota sold three confiscated guns to Raymond Kmetz, a man with a long history of mental illness who had previously attacked a police officer with a bulldozer. Kmetz purchased the guns online, using his own name, but he knew he wouldn’t pass a background check. So he sent another man to pick them up. That straw buyer handed the guns over to Kmetz, who used them to attack New Hope City Hall, where he shot two police officers.
Meanwhile, guns released from the custody of Tennessee law enforcement agencies have also been used in multiple shootings—one at a Pentagon security checkpoint (leaving one dead, two injured), and another at a courthouse in Las Vegas (leaving two dead and one injured). Former Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton Jr. expressed reservations about the city’s practice of selling guns or trading them for other equipment, but said the program had saved the city millions of dollars. (That is, if you don’t factor in the economic impact of gun violence itself, which runs at least $580,000 per victim. Memphis has the fourth-highest rate of gun homicide in the U.S.)
In San Francisco, a former felon named Rudy Corpuz Jr. has an entirely different attitude about the aftermarket for guns. “If we get one gun off the street, we’re winning,” he said. “That one gun right there, potentially, can save a whole community.” Corpuz is now executive director of United Playaz, a violence-prevention group that has hosted several gun buyback events in San Francisco (in partnership with local police, who destroy guns surrendered by members of the community). To fund the buybacks, United Playaz solicited contributions from Silicon Valley tech magnates, and from medical marijuana dispensaries. People who voluntarily surrender a handgun get $100 cash, or $200 for a rifle—often less than the street value. “It’s about, honestly, just getting rid of a gun, so it won’t ever harm or hurt anybody no more,” Corpuz said. “I know some people are trying to get extra money, but more importantly, I think more people wanted to get it off the streets and out of the hands of anybody, period. Where it can be destroyed.”
“You’d be surprised who turns in guns,” Corpuz added. He related a story about one elderly woman who showed up at his buyback with nearly 30 guns—her late husband’s collection. “I used to break into people’s houses,” Corpuz said. “Imagine if I broke into her house. I would have had 30 guns. Me and my gang. Me and my crew.”
It’s hard to know exactly who participates in gun buybacks and what motivates them. Generally, it’s a “no questions asked” arrangement, to encourage people to turn in illegal guns without fear of arrest. “We’ve done voluntary surveys of people at gun buybacks,” explains Ian Johnstone, founder of GunXGun, a violence-prevention nonprofit that partnered with Corpuz. “What we’ve learned is that north of 20 percent of people that are participating in the buybacks never wanted the gun in the first place, and it just happened to be in their possession.” That set includes thousands of Americans who inherit guns every year that were used in a relative’s suicide. Those unwanted guns can sit around indefinitely as an unpleasant reminder. “That’s the unfortunate nature of guns. They don’t go bad. They just sit there. They last and they present this everlasting threat until they are taken out of circulation.”
Critics of gun buybacks have compared the effort to draining the ocean with a bucket. (Recent buyback events in San Francisco, for example, have taken in just a few hundred guns.) Lawmakers in Arizona reiterated doubts about the crime-prevention merits of gun buybacks when they passed a bill in 2013 requiring municipalities to resell any guns turned in through buyback programs, instead of melting them down. In a spectacular display of cognitive dissonance, sponsors of the bill argued that the guns being turned in were worthless, broken junk that could never be used in a crime and that the guns were too valuable to be destroyed and instead should be sold to generate revenue.
It’s true: In a nation with hundreds of millions of guns, we’ll never get rid of all of them. But with legislation like this, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to really get rid of even one.