RALEIGH — Police and sheriff’s departments across North Carolina are asking their attorneys to review a new law that prohibits them from destroying seized or confiscated firearms in their evidence vaults.
The legislation gives police departments and sheriff’s offices three options for dealing with functioning weapons that aren’t being returned to their owners: make them available for sale at public auctions by federally licensed firearms dealers, use them for training purposes, or transfer them to a museum or historical society.
Many law enforcement officials say they only recently learned about the new statute, which took effect Sept. 1.
“We didn’t have a good heads up about it,” Cary police Capt. Tracy Jernigan said. “We are waiting to get a legal opinion from our lawyers.”
The Durham County Sheriff’s Office also doesn’t know yet exactly what the law means for the department, spokesman Paul Sherwin said.
“There are still many unanswered questions about the new law,” Sherwin said. “Our legal department is reviewing it and our procedures to make sure we are in compliance.”
The law passed the state legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory in June. It covers guns used as evidence in criminal court cases and returned to police, weapons that police have confiscated, and guns that someone voluntarily turned in to police.
Police are able to destroy weapons that do not have legible serial numbers or are deemed unsafe “because of wear, damage, age or modification,” according to the bill, which was approved by a wide majority of Democratic legislators and all of the legislature’s Republicans.
‘Why not recycle?’
The bill’s chief sponsor in the Senate, Andrew Brock, a Republican who represents Davie, Iredell and Rowan counties, said Friday he does not expect the sale of firearms to generate “a lot of revenue” for police departments, but said it would be welcome.
In addition, Brock said, the public is simply better served if the weapons are recycled instead of destroyed.
“If you have something of value, why not recycle it?” he asked.
The new statute also will affect gun buyback programs, Brock said. Police can continue to sponsor the programs, in which law enforcement agencies and community groups buy guns to get them off the street, but the weapons may end up back in the public sphere.
The law garnered the support of the National Rifle Association, which in May urged its members to contact legislators to oppose efforts to water down the bill “in a way that will allow any discretion by judges or law enforcement to destroy lawful functioning firearms.”
NRA officials were not available for comment.
The law will mean changes for many law enforcement agencies. Many use a cutting saw or cutting torch to cut seized weapons into parts, and then sell the pieces to metal salvage dealers.
Sherwin said the Durham Sheriff’s Office “for many years” either destroyed seized weapons or returned them to their rightful owners.
“It has not been our practice to sell them,” he said. “We have retained a few for training purposes, but not very many.”
Sherwin said the law will “create some additional hoops” that his office will have to jump through to dispose of the weapons.
“We already have hundreds locked away in evidence vaults, and the new law may result in us having to keep even more,” he said. “It’s already a difficult process to dispose of weapons. We must ensure that the (court) case has concluded, check with the district attorney’s office, request a court order from a judge, and then either return the weapon back to its owner or destroy it. We currently have weapons in our possession dating back to cases from the early 2000s.”
Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison said though his office will no longer be able to destroy unclaimed weapons, as it has in the past, he thinks the law will make it easier to dispose of them.
“It spells out things a little better,” Harrison said. “The way we’re looking at it, we can sell the guns now and use the money to buy equipment and office supplies.”
Jernigan said Cary police have destroyed seized, confiscated and unclaimed firearms twice a year, usually 50 to 75 guns a year.
“Our town officials feel that it is better to destroy them rather than re-circulate them,” Jernigan said.
Brock said critics who think it safer if there are fewer guns on the streets are misinformed.
“The data shows more guns means a better behaved society,” he said. “Gun bans don’t work. Bad guys aren’t going to pay attention to gun bans.”