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.