The Chicago Police Department throws out about $2 million every year. It’s money that is forfeited by the city when police destroy the guns they seize rather than sell them to licensed firearms dealers. The decision is made for emotional, political and ideological reasons.
Getting guns “off the street”
Nearly every Monday morning this year, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy has held a press conference to update the public on how many guns they’ve confiscated in Chicago, and the number right now is more than 5,500 guns.
According to annual reports published by Chicago police, the department often seizes and recovers more than 10,000 guns a year. What happens to those guns? They’re destroyed.
A Chicago police spokesman says they never sell any of the guns they recover, but some municipalities do sell evidence guns.
A quiet town
St. Charles is a suburb 40 miles west of Chicago. The police station sits on the east bank of the Fox River. It’s a low building with large overhangs designed in a kind of Frank Lloyd Wright style but utilitarian. Police Chief James Lamkin walks me down a couple long, low hallways to the evidence room at the back of the station. Lamkin jokes about a huge jar of pretzels the evidence tech keeps on the counter so officers can munch while they’re submitting evidence.
Lamkin points past the pretzels. “There’s a vault in behind this area back here where evidence is collected and it’s retained until cases are done with in court,” said Lamkin in an August interview with WBEZ.
Earlier this year Lamkin took 15 guns that had been stored in this evidence room and he sold them to a local firearms dealer. He didn’t do it on his own. He had the approval of the city council. He says it wasn’t a controversial issue, but he thinks that’s because gun violence is such a rarity in St. Charles.
“I don’t even know when was the last time there was a shooting here, maybe one in the last 20 years,” said Lamkin.
“We did consider the fact at one point that we could just destroy them; however, I think that with the initiatives that we’ve had in recent years in the city in trying to generate revenue, to us this was revenue,” said Lamkin.
St. Charles sold 15 firearms: handguns, revolvers, and a couple shotguns for a total of $3,200. That’s about $200 per gun. If Chicago did the same thing and got $200 for each of the 10,000 guns it confiscates, the city could be netting an extra $2 million a year.
Two million dollars could fund a couple sports programs or after school activities. You could rebuild a park, hire CeaseFire workers or a handful of extra cops.
“Some law enforcement will argue that any gun removed from the street is one less gun that has the potential to be on the street. We’re not putting them out on the street. We’re putting them with gun dealers. Yeah, I suppose you could say you got one less gun out there but that just creates an opportunity for a gun manufacturer to make one more gun,” said Lamkin.
St. Charles is of course much different than Chicago, and Lamkin says he understands why Chicago doesn’t sell seized firearms. Lamkin says each community should be able to decide for itself what to do with confiscated guns. John Becker disagrees.
Some states prohibiting the destruction of guns
John Becker is a legislator in Ohio who says he carries a concealed firearm. He represents a district just outside Cincinnati and watches the Cincinnati news.
“So you know I occasionally see the weapons room on T.V. in Cincinnati, and they’ll show all these rifles and handguns and shotguns on this table that are on the way to the blast furnace or the scrap yard or wherever they’re going, and I find myself shouting at the T.V. set, it’s like ‘you idiots! You could be selling these things and getting money for the department,” Becker said in a recent phone interview.
Becker is sponsoring a bill that would prohibit police departments from destroying otherwise useable guns. A similar bill was recently signed into law in North Carolina. In Illinois, Richard Pearson with the State Rifle Association says he would be in favor of similar legislation here, but he says there’s currently no plans for such a law.
Representative Becker in Ohio is new in the state house and he says no one was pushing him to tackle this issue. “This is just something that has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time,” said Becker. “It’s irked me, where you know you hear of law enforcement complaining how they need more money, and then perfectly good firearms they could be selling to make money for the department, they scrap them. So they’re costing the taxpayers money and I’m looking to save money for the taxpayers.”
Just saying no to guns
I’ve talked to a number of gun control advocates who are happy the city of Chicago destroys seized guns, but their views seem rooted in a general aversion to firearms. It seems like a knee-jerk reaction of some sort. They couldn’t point to any benefits the city gets other than ‘it’s one less gun on the streets.’
According to several researchers I talked to, including Phil Cook, one of the country’s most respected gun policy researchers, there’s no evidence to show that police departments get any advantage from destroying guns instead of selling them. Cook says no one has studied that question.
So given there’s no clear benefit and there’s a clear cost of about $2 million a year, why does the Chicago Police Department destroy the guns it seizes?
“I think this is more an idealogical issue than it is a symbolic issue,” said Tom Diaz, author of the book Making a Killing: The business of guns in America.
Diaz has spent the last 15 years trying to understand the gun debate in America. He says this issue of police departments destroying firearms simply exposes a deep ideological divide in this country.
“On one end are people who think we should just get rid of guns, so anytime there’s an opportunity to grind up, cut up, destroy guns, that’s what they want on the theory that, fewer guns, better for society,” said Diaz. And on the other side are people who think more guns, more safety.
I originally sought out Diaz because of his knowledge of the gun industry. It seemed to me that if anyone benefits when police departments destroy guns it’s gun manufacturers. When you decrease supply you increase demand, right?
Drop in the ocean
Theoretically Diaz says that could be true, but he says it’s not really going to impact the bottom line for gun makers because the market is just so huge. “However many firearms one might hypothetically, say Chicago Police department, or any other police department, are going to sell, is going to be the proverbial drop in the ocean,” said Diaz.
In 2010, 8.5 million guns were either manufactured or imported into the U.S. That’s according to numbers kept by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Chicago police officers risk their lives trying to get 10,000 of those guns off the streets every year. Ten thousand out of 8.5 million. A proverbial drop in the ocean indeed.