A new law sets up a state-sponsored sales channel for police agencies to dispose of confiscated or unclaimed firearms while still allowing authorities the option of destroying guns used in notorious crimes.

Under the old firearms disposal law, law enforcement agencies either sold the held guns themselves or destroyed them, said Tom Ross, Bountiful police chief and president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association.

Agencies still can opt to sell guns themselves, with the approval of a city or county governing body, but the updated law’s primary purpose was to stop the destruction. 

“A constituent came to me and said, ‘Are your aware police departments are destroying guns?’” said Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem. “I thought that was kind of silly, for a perfectly good firearm to be destroyed.”

Ross said some of Utah’s smaller departments historically ended up destroying unclaimed guns, mostly as a convenience. The new law simplifies the process and most departments welcome it, he said.

Apparently, no one tracks statewide sales of confiscated and unclaimed firearms, so Ross said he was not sure whether it’s a significant sum.

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Firearms seized in drug raids by Davis Metro Narcotics Strike Force

Some of the guns seized by the Davis Metro Narcotics Strike Force in 2016 and 2017. Local police defend the use of civil asset forfeiture to seize drug dealers' ill-gotten gains. But Utah legislators and civil libertarians have been calling for more transparency to eliminate any asset seizure abuses against people who are never charged or convicted.

The law requires the Utah Department of Public Safety to contract with a federally licensed gun dealer to accept firearms from law enforcement agencies and re-sell them on the open market. After the dealer’s expenses are paid, the revenue will be donated to non-profit agencies that help the families of fallen officers.

“Having a way to take it to a dealer the state has approved distances us from profiting from it,” Ross said. “We don’t have to handle any money and it made it easy for us.”

Departments are free to continue to sell firearms to licensed dealers themselves as long as an intended public purpose is identified and endorsed by the agency’s governing body, such as a city council or county commission.

Daw said the law addresses concerns voiced by some lawmakers that guns used in especially notorious crimes might be sold as “murderabilia.” An agency worried about such an outcome still can destroy the weapon.

“There may be those rare cases that a crime is so heinous it’s important to have an ability to not have to sell the firearm,” Daw said. “We don't want to promote some kind of copycat or collection type of thing.”

Using a state-sponsored dealer also helps, Ross said.

“We expect it to be more anonymous, more unknown,” he said. “If you come and buy a gun locally, it’s easier to tie it to a crime, but the state dealer is not going to say, ‘This gun came from Bountiful.’ It makes it very difficult to tie it back to a specific crime.”

Police end up with guns in numerous ways, Ross said, including crime scene confiscations, firearms held as evidence, guns found and turned in to police, and weapons used in suicides. Family members of suicides usually do not want the weapon back.

Guns cannot be disposed of until after they’re no longer needed for evidence or any claims for them have been resolved

Ross said the chiefs association was willing to reach a balance in Daw’s bill because “we understand the fundamental argument, do you punish the gun or punish the individual who uses the gun?”

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Las Vegas Shooting Weapons-1

Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, demonstrates how a little-known device called a "bump stock" works when attached to a semi-automatic rifle at the Gun Vault store and shooting range Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, in South Jordan, Utah.

A frequent supporter of Second Amendment-related bills, the Utah Shooting Sports Council, backed Daw’s bill.

“We just don’t think it’s a great idea to destroy firearms,” said Clark Aposhian, council chairman, during a House committee hearing in 2017. “It is an inanimate object. Despite whatever incident it was used in, it is not guilty itself of anything. There is no supernatural or ethereal energy about that.”

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.

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