published Sunday, August 14th, 2011

Tennessee law could lead to police selling firearms seized in crimes

Some of Metro Nashville Police Department's seized firearms.
Some of Metro Nashville Police Department's seized firearms.
Photo by The Tennessean /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Deep inside the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office is a vault containing racks and racks of hundreds of seized guns.

For the most part, they just sit there.

“These are already crowded evidence areas, they crowd them up,” said Sheriff Terry Ashe.

But efforts are afoot to force authorities to sell seized guns to the public instead of letting police departments destroy them, trade them for service weapons or stockpile them.

The effort exposes a long-standing dispute among law enforcement, gun dealers and gun-rights advocates. While police say they don’t want to see more guns on the streets — particularly guns already used in crimes — gun supporters say that police should sell them to law-abiding citizens not only on principle, but also as a way to raise additional revenue for police departments.

A law enacted last year makes it illegal for police in Tennessee to destroy guns they seize. Some states, such as Kentucky, have been auctioning such firearms for years, bringing in an estimated half-million dollars annually. Most police departments in the Nashville area, however, hoard the guns, unwilling to sell them to the public, to the dismay of some legislators.

Officials with the Chattanooga Police Department and the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office say both departments store the guns they seize.

Janice Atkinson, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said Hamilton County has “no plan currently to destroy or sell any seized firearm. All weapons are housed and secured in property and evidence [rooms] pending court dispositions.”

Last week, neither Chattanooga agency could provide the number of guns seized last year or the number held in storage.

“Guns don’t pull their own trigger,” said state Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville. He sponsored a bill in the last legislative session to force authorities to sell seized weapons to the public. “There’s nothing wrong with them; they’re functional. This would just put it in law-abiding people’s hands.”

Though his bill failed, Campfield said it “most definitely” will be pushed during the next session.

That prospect worries Jacci McGee-Russell. Her son, Marcus, 19, was shot and killed in 2008 during a robbery at a gas station where he worked.

“You’re putting back on the street guns that may have killed somebody,” she said. “Whether the crime has been solved or not, I think they should be destroyed. There are too many guns available to potential criminals.”

At stake are thousands of firearms used in crimes, millions of dollars in possible revenue and an unusual tension between lawmakers — some of whom are usually allies to law enforcement — and police.

“It is this police department’s firm position that guns used in the commission of crime should not be returned to the streets through auction or other means where they stand the chance of again falling into the hands of criminals,” said Don Aaron, spokesman for Metro Nashville police.

Aaron estimates the agency hauls in 150 to 200 firearms each month in crime-related seizures, but declined to provide the total number of guns the agency has stockpiled. Ashe estimates his evidence lockup has “hundreds” of firearms, a handful of which he’ll trade for police service weapons, the rest he stockpiles.

New law says police can’t destroy guns

Last year, Tennessee passed a National Rifle Association-backed law that banned police departments from destroying guns seized from crimes. Sponsors said the public should get access to departments’ vast stockpiles of usable firearms.

On March 4, 2010, the day after former Gov. Phil Bredesen signed the law, John Patrick Bedell walked into the Pentagon and shot two police officers. Bedell was killed by return fire. Both officers survived.

One of the guns he used, a 9 mm Ruger, was exchanged by the Memphis Police Department with a dealer in 2008 for a police service weapon and eventually ended up in Bedell’s hands.

That prospect terrifies authorities.

“We don’t want more weapons on the street. We don’t want to be the ones providing them,” said Williamson County sheriff’s spokesman Hugh Tharpe, whose agency has been warehousing firearms since it cannot destroy them. “If we could either destroy them or turn them in to state or federal governments so they could give us money for them, that’s what we’d like to see.”

Kevin Cecil, a gun owner from Arrington, said a gun’s history is irrelevant.

“A gun is an inanimate object, incapable of action in and of itself. A ‘crime gun’ sold to a buyer that undergoes a standard background check poses no more risk of being used in a crime than any other gun,” he said. “The police sell the cars seized in drug raids, and cars are used more often in crimes than guns are.”

Many agencies, such as the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office, have engaged in limited exchanges with a handful of gun dealers for service weapons. The move means taxpayers won’t have to pay for deputies’ and officers’ firearms.

But Campfield said some departments have cherry-picked dealers, enriching a few while amassing massive arsenals.

“We had some people who were only allowing licensed gun dealers to bid at these auctions instead of regular people. The intent was for regular people to get the guns, not just the dealers,” he said.

“There’s some people that have stockpiles and stockpiles and stockpiles of them,” Campfield said.

Curtis Dodson, owner of The Armory in Lebanon, said he hasn’t seen that favoritism in Wilson County, but has seen it elsewhere.

“It’s absolutely not fair,” Dodson said. “I think if anything, it should be opened up publicly.”

Gun sales could provide revenue

There’s also money to be made with seized guns. Campfield said that a Knoxville business, Powell Auction & Realty, approached him, frustrated that police weren’t opening up gun exchanges and sales beyond a small group of dealers. That became part of the motivation for his bill.

“He said, ‘Hey, they’re getting 10 cents to the dollar, but if they were to open them up ...,’” Campfield said. “They’re more or less dealing them to their friends, and they’re making a fortune on them.”

It also could provide a new revenue stream for police who are continually battling to protect their budgets from cuts in the current economic climate. Kentucky, for example, holds auctions every other month and auctions seized guns to licensed firearms dealers to benefit local police departments. It has generated an estimated $500,000 each year from those auctions.

“The obvious answer, seeing that all levels of government are perpetually looking for more revenue, is to sell them at public auction, just like seized cars, boats, etc.,” said Greg Herbert, a gun owner from Lafayette, Tenn. “A confiscated gun wouldn’t pose any more danger if sold than would a new gun sold in a gun store. Destroying them would be just another example of government waste.”

Times Free Press staff writer Pam Sohn contributed to this report.

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memphisexile said...

This is so stupid. The Supreme Court in recent decisions has done what they should and verified the Constitution by ruling in decisions from the D.C. circuit and I think a case from Chicago that Americans have a right to keep and own not just guns, but specifically handguns. The NRA has nothing to do anymore, so they get dumba$$ laws like the police not being able to destroy guns passed. How the heck does stopping police from destroying guns seized from criminals advance the rights of gun owners? What responsible gun owner in their right mind would want to own a gun used in a crime anyway? Let the police do their job. If they think destroying guns seized from criminals is a good idea I defer to their judgment. And before anyone jumps on me, I am a gun owner.

August 14, 2011 at 1:03 a.m.
smadave said...

I think its a good source of revenue during tough economic times. The money could be used to buy new vests for the officers. I dont see the point in destroying the weapons. I also dont understand why so many people are opposed to having a gun used in a crime...its purely psychological. What's the difference? Its a gun folks...its just a gun!

August 14, 2011 at 10:03 a.m.
NorthChatter said...

I come from a family of (NRA card carrying) hunters, but I also have a number of friends in law enforcement and I defer to the police on this matter...

“It is this police department’s firm position that guns used in the commission of crime should not be returned to the streets through auction or other means where they stand the chance of again falling into the hands of criminals,” said Don Aaron, spokesman for Metro Nashville police.

I get that some revenue could be generated, I realize that the "weapon" didn't commit the the crime, but still, if someone I knew had been killed, I would hate knowing that the weapon might be used again someday (and even more horrified to think the weapon might be used to commit another crime, like the case mentioned in the story above)

Plus, it is not like we have a shortage of weapons in this country.

August 14, 2011 at 10:04 a.m.
NorthChatter said...

And on another matter, I must point out that it is absurd to push through a law to force police departments to sell the weapons.

Just what this state/country needs...more pointless laws on the books. Individual police departments/county governments should be able to decide on their own what they want to do with their seized weapons.

August 14, 2011 at 10:09 a.m.
RevStraylight said...

As far as "Saturday Night Specials" go, I agree. However, punks will use any gun they can come across to commit crimes...and sometimes, that means antique, historic, or collector guns. It would be a shame to see a Colt Single Action Army or a Vietnam issue 1911 melted down... The guns didn't commit the crimes...the "people" did. I'm all about the opportunity for a discount.

August 14, 2011 at 11:13 a.m.
macropetala8 said...

Off the subject, somewhat. But did anyone hear about a young man(don't know the racial or ethnic background) set to graduate from Chattanooga State dying after being tasered by local police during a traffic stop of some? The story is circling around quite a bit, but there's been nothing in the news about it. We're just curious if it is true or not and, if true, why nothing has been in any of the media about it.

August 14, 2011 at 11:30 a.m.
LibDem said...

We hire people to enforce the law whose judgement about law enforcement we don't trust. Who's the doofus? I say turn the guns over to Taco Bell. Those guys know how to use handcuffs and can use the guns to get dates.

August 14, 2011 at 2:55 p.m.
hambone said...

I have long contended that the gun manufacturers control the NRA.

I can't see them welcoming the competition from police departments!

August 14, 2011 at 3:40 p.m.
EaTn said...

Our govt shouldn't be in the gun business, therefore all confiscated guns should be destroyed. Let the gun manufacturers and sellers supply the demand and create more jobs to pay more taxes to allow law enforcement purchase their guns.

August 14, 2011 at 3:58 p.m.
MasterChefLen said...

Sell the guns and get the revenue.

August 14, 2011 at 4:33 p.m.
BobbyBruce said...

I like this story. Is it because it is from the Tennessean? I don't know. They can use the revanue to actually patrol the streets of Chattanooga, TN.

  • I want money I want lots of money In fact I want so much money Give me your money Just give me money
August 14, 2011 at 7:49 p.m.
amnestiUSAF84 said...

I think this idea sets a bad precedent TN will come to regret.

August 14, 2011 at 10:02 p.m.
riverstronghold said...

Firearms are used in fewer crimes, including homicides, than vehicles, but we don't attach such major emotional weight to that hunk of metal. The idea of blaming the weapon for the crime is misguided. Some folks would rob with a toy rocket model in their pocket -- should those be melted down too when they are used, or should a poor kid get a toy? As William Burroughs said, "the power of death is in the hand of anyone who can lift a frying pan"

Also - why destroy anything of value when so many are struggling financially and our overall economy is so challenged? Reduce, re-use, recycle is a pretty good set of principles. If our people can be trusted with firearms, why reduce their availability and increase their cost? Shouldn't poor people be able to defend their families as well?

Certainly weapons should be taken from those who misuse them, and they must be secured. They shouldn't be sold by our government to mexican drug cartels so they can't be used by those cartels to kill our federal agents. But the general law abiding community should not suffer further from the impacts of the actions of the criminally violent, least of all by reducing the availability of legal and effective means to defend themselves and their families from the thugs and slugs of society.

August 15, 2011 at 7:41 a.m.
gator said...

Jacci McGee-Russell said “You’re putting back on the street guns that may have killed somebody.”

When will people learn that LAW ABIDING CITIZENS with PERMITS is NOT THE SAME THING as "putting guns on the streets"? No, Jacci, those guns will most likely end up PROTECTING a citizen from being killed like your son. I'm sincerely sorry for your loss, but forcing more people to become victims will not bring him back.

August 15, 2011 at 8:58 a.m.
macropetala8 said...

When will people learn that LAW ABIDING CITIZENS with PERMITS is NOT THE SAME THING as "putting guns on the streets"?

Law Abiding Citizens with PERMITS or would have been allowed permits if requested have committed murder/suicide. Gone on a few shooting masscre Jared Loughner. Even trained cops have gone off the deep and murdered their spouses. So who really gets to define law abiding citizens? And who gets to keep check that law abiding citizens REMAIN law abiding?

August 15, 2011 at 8:13 p.m.
bikerdad said...

do guns being sold need to have serial numbers? aren't most guns untraceable when they are used in crime? If police department need money, they can always sell the gun parts for scrap metal

August 15, 2011 at 8:17 p.m.
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