Published September 20, 2002
NEW YORK – An Arizona mayor's proposal for disposing of confiscated guns has touched off a debate on ownership rules and the redistribution of weapons back into society.
Mesa, Ariz. Mayor Keno Hawker has proposed that the city sell confiscated firearms to gun dealers via auctions. Handguns, rifles and other impounded guns would be auctioned to licensed dealers. Guns valued at less than $100 would be destroyed.
"It gives an opportunity for law-abiding citizens to hopefully purchase firearms at a lower price and I see nothing wrong with law-abiding citizens owning firearms," said Maria Heil, spokeswoman for the gun rights group, Second Amendment Sisters.
But while the mayor may have gun rights groups and some new city council members on his side, critics, including Hawker's own deputy, say the ethical and legal dilemmas are too large to overlook.
"I still think the philosophical issue is an important one and the liability issue is one that people cannot ignore," said Mesa Vice Mayor Dennis Kavanaugh. "I think it’s just the wrong message."
In 1998, the City Council got rid of an ordinance that allowed exactly what Hawker is promoting and instead created options for town police to give confiscated weapons to other law enforcement agencies or to museums if they have any cultural or historical significance.
But this past spring’s elections brought in several new city council members who have warmed to the auction option. They have asked the city staff to review liability issues to consider bringing back the old practice.
According to federal law, no legal impediments exist to re-selling confiscated firearms as long as a licensed dealer is involved.
"There’s certainly nothing wrong with it by federal law," said Jim Crandall, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, but, he added, the re-sale of weapons by cities could create problems.
"It becomes a symbolic act and philosophical problems come up," he said, for instance, if a gun sold by the city is later used in a crime.
Police often are hesitant for that very reason. They fear that selling guns to dealers means the guns could turn back up in the hands of criminals.
"They don’t like to have to do it in case the gun ends up back on the streets, ends up being used against one of their own and also I think because victims of these guns wouldn’t want to see them back on the street," said Nancy Hwa, spokeswoman for The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Still, financial incentives may be too strong to ignore.
Although Mesa’s last gun auction, held in 1997, only brought in about $32,000, many cities may look to this option -- instead of destroying the guns -- as a way to give their beleaguered budgets a boost, especially when destroying guns costs money.
"This is actually a prevalent practice, selling back illegal firearms to make money for the city," said Kelly Whitley, spokeswoman for the National Rifle Administration.
That way, local police "can have the latest and greatest, which helps defray costs to cities," Heil said. "It’s definitely better than destroying them."
But budget constraints shouldn't be the sole criterion, Hwa cautioned.
"We understand they do have budget constraints they’re all working under and we think it’s a shame they have to resort to doing that," Hwa said.
Kavanaugh said that he and other city officials opposing the auction idea are being targeted by pro-gun groups as being "anti-Second Amendment," referring to the constitutional amendment giving Americans the right to bear arms.
But Kavanaugh said his position "is not anti-Second Amendment or anti-self-defense or anything like that." He said he just thinks there are plenty other legitimate avenues people can take if they want to purchase a gun.
Kavanaugh may not find much solace with one route currently available to buyers and sellers. Web sites such as www.gunshowauction.com and www.gunbroker.com, which are similar to online auction site e-Bay, act as a go-between for buyers and sellers.
People post ads for guns they want to sell on the Web site. Potential buyers locate a licensed dealer in his or her home state.
Similar to live auctions, in the online auction market, the gun gets shipped to the dealer, who does the paperwork and background check, then transfers ownership to the buyer. And carrier services that deliver the guns – UPS and Fed Ex – won’t even ship the guns without copies of the dealer’s license.
"The system is very safe," said Steve Urvin CEO of GB Holdings, Inc., which runs www.gunbroker.com. There’s a "misconception you can just go and order a gun and have it show up in a brown box on your front door. It doesn’t work like that."