AP Exclusive: Should police sell guns? Some chiefs say no
SEATTLE (AP) — Kyle Juhl made one last attempt to patch things up with his fiancée, then took his ring back, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger as she and her mother ran from the apartment. The bullet went through a wall and narrowly missed a neighbor’s head as she bent to pick up her little boy.
The Smith & Wesson 9 mm that Juhl used to kill himself in Yakima in 2014 was familiar to law enforcement: The Washington State Patrol had seized it years earlier while investigating a crime and then arranged its sale back to the public. It eventually fell into Juhl’s hands, illegally.
Of the nearly 6,000 firearms used in crimes and then sold by Washington law enforcement agencies since 2010, more than a dozen later became evidence in new investigations, according to a yearlong analysis by The Associated Press that used hundreds of public records to match up serial numbers.
The weapons were used to threaten people, seized at gang hangouts, discovered in drug houses, possessed illegally by convicted felons, hidden in a stolen car, and taken from a man who was suffering a mental health crisis and was committed because of what his father said was erratic behavior.
Some law enforcement officials say the selling of seized firearms by police departments — a longtime practice allowed by most states — raises money to purchase needed crime-fighting equipment, and if it were abandoned, people would just buy guns somewhere else. But others argue police shouldn’t be doing anything to put weapons back on the street.
“We didn’t want to be the agency that sold the gun to somebody who uses it in another crime,” said Capt. Jeff Schneider of the Yakima Police Department, which used to sell confiscated guns but now melts them down. “While there is almost an unlimited supply of firearms out there, we don’t need to make the problem worse.”
Washington, like most states, lets law enforcement agencies decide whether to destroy, sell or trade crime-scene firearms. The law is stricter for the State Patrol, which is required to auction off or trade most such guns. But safety concerns have prompted the agency to push back.
The State Patrol hasn’t sold any weapons since 2014 and at one point accumulated more than 400 in the hope the Legislature would change the law and let the agency destroy them. Democratic Rep. Tana Senn of Bellevue is sponsoring such a bill.
“I know many of the police chiefs in my district chose not to sell but rather to destroy, and in their own words, ‘It’s so we can sleep at night,’” Senn told a legislative committee.
National Rifle Association spokesman Tom Kwieciak opposes the plan.
“The police chiefs maybe could sleep better if they went out and apprehended the criminals behind the guns and didn’t worry about destroying perfectly legal firearms that are no more easy to purchase than a brand-new firearm at a firearms dealer,” he said.
Federal agencies must destroy seized firearms unless they are needed as evidence or being used by the agency. But a growing number of states are moving in the opposite direction, prohibiting agencies from destroying confiscated guns. A North Dakota bill passed in 2015 says proceeds from sales must be returned to its counties’ general funds. North Carolina’s 2013 “save the gun” law lets agencies keep the money “for law enforcement purposes.”
Phyllis Holcomb, a manager with the Kentucky State Police, which oversees Kentucky’s gun sale program, said such transactions have been instrumental in equipping law enforcement personnel with personal body armor and other equipment.
Sheriff Will Reichardt of Skagit County, Washington, said he sells only handguns or rifles that can be used by sportsmen or people wanting to protect their homes.
“These guns are going to be out there,” he said. “If I destroy them all, I’m just helping Remington or Winchester’s bottom line.”
But the International Association of Chiefs of Police says confiscated guns should be destroyed because putting them back in circulation “increases the availability of firearms which could be used again to kill or injure additional police officers and citizens.”
Such tragedies have happened throughout the U.S.
In 2010, a mentally ill man ambushed and wounded two Pentagon police officers with a handgun sold by Memphis, Tennessee, police. Also that year, a Las Vegas court security officer was killed by a man with a shotgun sold by a Memphis-area sheriff’s office. And in 2015, a man walked into the New Hope, Minnesota, City Hall and wounded two officers with a shotgun that had been sold by the Duluth Police Department. The department has since stopped selling guns and now destroys them.
Oregon law says police can sell, keep or destroy forfeited firearms, but prosecutors in Portland make sure they never return to the streets.
“My office has taken the position that firearms connected to a crime should be destroyed,” said Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Jeffrey Lowe.
The Seattle Police Department and King County Sheriff’s Office don’t sell crime-scene weapons; they melt them down at a foundry.
“The company gets to keep the melted steel, and we don’t have to pay for the service,” said Cindi West, a Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman.
The weapons sold back to the public in Washington include Colt, Glock and Ruger pistols, 12-gauge shotguns, .22-caliber rifles and assault weapons such as AR-15 and SKS rifles. All such sales are handled through federally licensed firearms dealers, including auction houses, pawnshops and sporting goods stores. Buyers must pass an FBI background check.
The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office sells its confiscated guns through an auction house in Post Falls, Idaho. Toppenish police trade firearms with the Bowlby’s Gun & Pawn Shop in Yakima.
The Aberdeen Police Department sells its confiscated guns through Johnny’s Auction House in Rochester, Washington, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Seattle. On a recent Friday night, auction owner John West launched into his rapid-fire bid calling to a packed room, selling necklaces and coins. Before he offered up the first gun for sale, he had a warning.
“Straight up,” he told the crowd, “if you cannot possess a firearm and you can’t pass a background check, just don’t even bother bidding.”
The auction handles gun sales for a half-dozen police departments with the aim to “get the force what they need to do their job,” he said.
Some of the Aberdeen police forfeited guns ended up in the wrong places.
They sold a Lorcin pistol in 2011. In 2016, Kent police found it under the front seat of a car stolen by three juveniles. A.22-caliber rifle sold in 2011 was found in 2015 by the Kent police SWAT team during a raid of a drug house. The man who was staying in the bedroom where the rifle was found was a felon and prohibited from having guns.
When the AP told Aberdeen Police Lt. Kevin Darst that it found instances when a gun they sold was used in a new crime, he said he wasn’t concerned.
“The criminals can get a gun anytime they want one,” he said. “I don’t see us selling them as a contributing factor in officer safety.”
Identifying guns sold by law enforcement and matching them to new crimes required extensive research. There is no master list of guns sold by police, so creating that list involved dozens of public records requests to individual agencies. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives keeps track of crime guns but refused to release information from its database, so the AP collected databases from individual agencies and compared them with the sold guns.
One of the guns that ended up in a new police report was a .22-caliber pistol sold by Longview police in 2016. In 2017, a drunken Jesse Brown and a friend “loaded up three different firearms,” headed to a house and threatened two young men they believed were selling drugs, police said.
Brown’s son, James, told officers his father used to brag about controlling Thurston County with violence, and when he got drunk that night, “he just wanted to relive the glory days where he was kicking down doors and pointing guns at people.” Jesse Brown was charged with felony harassment; threats to kill. The gun he carried was the one sold by Longview police.
Longview Police Chief Jim Duscha said he accepts some guns may be used in new crimes, because “if they’re going to get a weapon, they’re going to get a weapon.” Selling guns generates money used for drug investigations, he said.
The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office sold a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun for $160 in 2014. On a cold winter night last year, two girls, ages 12 and 14, ran from their father’s Tacoma house without shoes or jackets after he threatened to “put a hole” in his girlfriend and beat up one of the daughters for not knowing where his gun was, authorities said. The man was arrested on domestic violence and drunken driving charges. Police found the shotgun in the bathtub.
For years, the State Patrol traded confiscated firearms to dealers for other gear. The dealers would sell the guns to the public. In one exchange in 2013, the State Patrol traded 159 weapons and got a credit of $27,420, which it used to buy handguns.
The AP investigation found three guns sold by the State Patrol were later involved in new police investigations.
A pistol sold in 2010 was found by Kent police in 2015 on a man who was prohibited from having guns. The same year, a Lorcin semi-automatic pistol the State Patrol sold was found while Kent police were investigating a man who fired into a car carrying a couple and their 1-year-old daughter, who was killed. The Lorcin was found in a “gang house” frequented by the shooter, police said.
The weapon Juhl used to kill himself was in a batch the State Patrol traded in 2012. It was purchased by a man in Yakima, who sold it to someone else, who then sold it on Craigslist. Juhl’s girlfriend told police that’s where he got it.
Juhl, 24, was not legally permitted to own or possess a gun. He received a bad-conduct discharge from the Army after serving time in prison for using the drug ecstasy and going AWOL for two months in 2010. The Army said they sent his criminal record to the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information System. But when a detective searched the FBI’s database, he didn’t find that information.
Problems with military criminal records not reaching federal databases enabled the gunman who slaughtered more than two dozen people in a Texas church Nov. 5 to obtain the weapons he used.
Juhl nearly took two lives when he killed himself.
In the bathroom next door, Adriana Dehonor, a mother of two boys, ages 1 and 2, was leaning over when she heard something whiz over her head and felt plaster hit her arm. She looked up and saw one hole in the tile and another on the opposite side of the room. She climbed up on the edge of the bathtub and peeked through the hole. Juhl was lying in a pool of blood.