POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 29, 2010:
Happiness Is a Sold Gun?
The KPMG report's gun resale proposal is imaginative but not met with entirely open arms
As a former police officer, veteran city councilor and member of the steering committee advising the newly created Management Review Office on which recommendations to pursue in regard to a recently completed third-party analysis of the more than 1,500 services the city provides, Rick Westcott might be in a unique position when it comes to considering a proposal that the Tulsa Police Department begin selling the weapons it confiscates rather than destroying them.
Still, he's a little hesitant to stake out a position on the issue.
"Boy, that's a loaded question," he said, pausing to chuckle at his pun.
Like a lot of other people, Westcott found himself eagerly awaiting the release of a report from the independent firm KPMG earlier this month that identified and examined every service the city provides, then made recommendations about which of those services could be eliminated, altered or perhaps combined with other services.
Now, as the details of that 282-page report have begun to emerge, not all the recommendations are being greeted with open arms -- not even the ones that likely would save the city money at a time when every penny counts.
Take the recommendation on page 202, for instance, which is included under the heading "Itemized Strategic Opportunities." The study indicates the city should consider selling the firearms that police confiscate to official/certified gun dealers through the city auction process. The report indicates the city spends $80,000 a year destroying the weapons now, and that expenditure likely could be turned into a profit if the weapons were sold.
But the idea of returning confiscated firearms -- weapons that have been used in the execution of criminal activity or for whom their owner could not be determined -- to circulation is a controversial one.
"I think our existing policy has probably worked very well for the last 15 or 20 years," Westcott said. "I would need to take a look at that before I would want it to be changed. That's not something the city ought to be making money on, selling handguns, and I have not seen the need to change our existing policy."
Capt. Jonathan Brooks of the Tulsa Police Department said 6,885 weapons that officers have confiscated since 2005 have been destroyed, and the department still has an inventory of "thousands" of firearms in its property room. Those guns are being held until the entire court process in which they are involved has been adjudicated, Brooks said, something that can take several years in some instances.
But once that happens and the proper paperwork is received, he said, any firearm that can't be returned to a valid owner is targeted for elimination. Working with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the weapons are transported to a location where they are destroyed. Neither agency contracts with a third-party agency to perform that task, he said.
"Our only cost at that point is to and from the destination where the destruction takes place," he said.
Brooks said the department generally destroys firearms every four months or so.
"If we only did it once per year, we'd have to transport over 1,000 guns, and that can be difficult," he said.
The guns are melted to ensure they don't wind up back in circulation, he said.
"There's no other way to completely destroy a firearm other than to have it melted down so it can't be reassembled," he said. "We can cut them up, but there are people who can reassemble them or put them back together."
The goal of the program, he said, is a simple one.
"It's just to get them off the streets and out of the hands of criminals or people who don't need them," he said. "It's not our intention to take weapons from law-abiding citizens exercising their constitutional right to bear arms."
Westcott acknowledged the possibility that the issue could turn into a Second Amendment debate.
"But I don't know that that should be relevant to this conversation," he said. "This is just a matter of policy for the city. We want to do what we lawfully, legally can to get guns off the streets. But we have to be careful we're not interfering with a person's right to own weapons. I say that as somebody who's probably got three or four guns in my house."
Tulsa police have been destroying seized firearms at least since then-chief Drew Diamond left office in 1991, Brooks said, noting that the chief had reversed the department's policy of selling the weapons at some point during his tenure.
The captain said this is the first time the issue has arisen again since he joined the department, though the department's policy regarding the selling of other property it confiscates has been examined from time to time. He acknowledged that firearms are different from those items.
"If we find a gun and a car at the same time, we sell the car but destroy the weapon, although they are both property," he said.
The only other seized property the department destroys, he said, is illegal drugs. The time period for the disposal of those materials often is not as lengthy as it is for firearms, he said, because the courts allow the department to document the entire amount and then keep samples of it, rather than store the entire amount, which could be problematic in some cases, he said.
Even if the city changes its policy to allow for the sale of confiscated weapons, not every firearm that police seize would be eligible for resale, Brooks said, most notably those that have been altered to make them more dangerous, such as sawed-off shotguns or semi-automatic weapons that have been converted to automatic status.
But Brooks said the department occasionally seizes firearms that would be good candidates for resale.
"Last year or the year before, we destroyed some antiques," he said. "These are weapons that don't have operational value anymore but would have served well in a museum. Those guns would have brought several thousand dollars. We're talking about flint-lock guns that are not going to be used in an armed robbery."
But the vast majority of firearms the department confiscates don't fall into that category, he said.
"Those are a little bit rare and farther in between," he said. "Most of them are small, cheap handguns that cost less than $100. We see a lot of those."
Departments across the country deal with their confiscated weapons in different ways, according to a quick Internet survey. A recent Los Angeles Times dispatch announced the destruction of more than 8,300 confiscated firearms by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department that were to be melted and made into rebar that would be used to provide upgrades to freeway overpasses. But a Kentucky State Police Web site was advertising a March 30-31 sale of confiscated handguns, with the proceeds being used to purchase body armor and other equipment for officers.
In at least one instance, a confiscated firearm that went back into circulation was used in the execution of high-profile crime.
According to a March 15 Washington Post story, a 9mm handgun that had been seized by the Memphis Police Department five years ago subsequently was traded to a licensed gun distributor in Georgia. The weapon then wound up at a gun show in Las Vegas last year, where it was sold to a private individual, who sold it to another private individual.
After that, the gun somehow wound up in the hands of 36-year-old John Patrick Bedell, who used it to shoot two Pentagon police officers on March 4. Bedell wounded the two officers before three others shot and killed him, according to media reports.
Brooks said he would be researching how other departments handle confiscated weapons in the weeks to come as the Management Review Office begins to act on some of the KPMG recommendations.
"When it comes to auctioning off weapons from a law enforcement perspective, we'll have certain recommendations if the city chooses to go down that route," he said.
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