Seattle's police department made headlines last month when it held a gun buyback event where citizens surrendered more than 700 firearms in exchange for Amazon.com gift cards.
SPD's policy is to destroy the guns it collects through the program, removing unwanted weapons from the hands of private citizens where they might otherwise be stolen, lost, used in a crime, or accidentally discharged.
But not all police agencies destroy guns seized by police or turned in by private citizens.
A KING 5 investigation of records filed with the State Treasurer’s Office showed that police departments in Hoquiam, Fife and Auburn sold seized firearms in the six-month period that ended in March 2012. Sheriff’s Departments in Whatcom, Thurston, Kitsap and Pierce counties also sold seized firearms in the same period.
The Washington State Patrol (WSP) also sells hundreds of guns.
An invoice from May 10, 2012, shows that a law enforcement supply company -- G.W., Inc. -- gave WSP $42,200 in credit for 211 “confiscated guns.” WSP can use the credit to buy new equipment, guns and ammo.
State Patrol spokesman Robert Calkins said the trade-ins are a good deal for taxpayers.
“If we can get some value for them, as opposed to asking the taxpayer to buy this with cash, we’re doing them a favor,” he said.
But KING 5’s investigation found that law enforcement agencies also sell the types of firearms that police themselves don’t like to face on the streets.
- Records show that the Thurston County Drug Task Force sold a Norinco SKS military-style rifle and a Romarm AK-47 in a batch of 44 guns traded with a firearms dealer.
- The Kitsap County Sheriff’s office sold an Intratec 9mm, which used to be on the list of assault weapons banned in the United States.
- WSP sold an “Interordinance (sic.), assault rifle w/scope and case and 2 magazines” and an “SKS, assualt (sic.) rifle.”
WSP said it does not distinguish between firearms when it puts its crime guns out for bid.
“We draw a fairly bright line at legal versus illegal weapons, and the only modification from that is if a weapon was used in a high-profile crime. We’re not gonna put a trophy back on the street for someone,” Calkins said.
Most police agencies trade crime guns for equipment from federally licensed firearms dealers. The dealers are required to conduct background checks before they sell a gun to any member of the public.
But that doesn’t mean that the crime guns don’t end up back in a criminal’s hands.
Federal court records from one local case show crime guns that were once in police custody ended up at eight separate crime scenes, including a robbery and two assaults.
Those guns were purchased by former Bremerton police detective Roy Alloway. Federal prosecutors say he purchased cheap handguns, those often favored by criminals, from a licensed firearms dealer that was buying the guns from police agencies.
Alloway admitting to turning around and selling the guns for big profits at local guns shows. He sold more than 700 guns, raking in $150,000, without the required firearms license. He didn’t conduct background checks on the people to whom he sold the guns.
Alloway is now in a federal prison in Colorado serving a sentence for the illegal sale of firearms.
Surrender's choice: Destroy or sell
The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office held a gun take back event in January one week before Seattle did.
“Because of the unfortunate incident that happened in Newtown, we got an extraordinary amount of calls,” said Thurston Co. Sheriff John Snaza. He said people wanted a way to safely and responsibly get rid of unwanted weapons.
Unlike Seattle, all the guns collected by Thurston Co.'s Sheriff's Department aren’t necessarily headed for destruction, since the county offered citizens a choice about what would happen with their firearms.
“They are given two choices, to either have it destroyed or to allow the sheriff’s department to use it as credits to purchase duty weapons or duty ammunition,” said Snaza.
Snaza said the department has long had a policy to trade guns for credit with a federally licensed firearms dealer who will conduct a background check for sales on any gun to the public.
“You hope those weapons are sold to responsible individuals,” said Snaza.
The unique case of WSP
There’s one law enforcement agency that’s required to sell all of the guns in its possession -- the Washington State Patrol.
Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 9.41.098 says the guns WSP seizes “must be auctioned for traded to licensed dealers.” The law is at least 20 years old.
KING 5 asked state Sen. Adam Kline (D-Seattle) about the law, and he responded by drafting a bill that would lift the requirement for the patrol to sell all its guns.
He’s particularly troubled that they are required to sell what are generally viewed as assault weapons.
“We should not be putting those back in circulation,” said Kline. “Yes, it’s legal. But as a legislature we have to look at it in policy terms. Do we want to allow that to continue to be our policy? I don’t know. I don’t.”
But to get a hearing, Kline’s bill will have to win the approval of the Chair of the Senate’s Law and Justice Committee, Sen. Mike Padden (R-Spokane).
Padden told KING 5 he supports the sale of legal guns by police agencies, citing the resulting revenue or credit.
He said he will have to look at Kline’s bill before deciding if it will be heard before the committee.