Last spring's gun buyback was the largest in Arizona history. Pro-gun advocates want to know: Where did all those guns go?
It was like a chess match – or perhaps, given the subject, like a firefight. Emboldened by support from the business community and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, coupled with widespread media coverage, Arizonans for Gun Safety held its most successful gun buyback program yet – three consecutive Saturdays last May yielded 1,945 guns, the largest gun buyback in Arizona history.
As in previous buybacks, AGS partnered with the Phoenix Police Department to collect and process the guns. Police recorded serial numbers and screened for firearms reported missing, stolen or involved in criminal activity. All guns cleared of those labels were to be destroyed by a private – and confidential – contractor hired by the police department.
But before AGS could liquidate the guns, Gov. Jan Brewer gave them a reprieve, preemptively signing a law on April 29 prohibiting cities and counties from destroying surrendered weapons. Instead, the law – backed by the Republican-controlled Arizona State Legislature and propelled by the pro-gun Arizona Citizens Defense League – directs them to sell or trade the guns to licensed firearms dealers. It put pressure on the AGS and police department to carry out their plans before the law went into effect on September 13.
Nearly a year later, the question remains: What happened to all those guns?
"We were able to process all weapons to determine if [they] had been used in some previous incident," says Sgt. Steve Martos, a spokesperson for the Phoenix Police Department who helped run the buyback in May. "One of those that did come back was used in a crime – [an] aggravated assault, a shooting where someone was injured. We had four different weapons that were reported stolen, so we return[ed] those guns back to their owners. All the remaining weapons were destroyed in late August, early September."
In other words, they snuck under their gun-destruction deadline.
Martos is tight-lipped about where and how exactly the weapons were disposed of, but he will say they were melted down by the aforementioned contractor. Reactions from the pro-control AGS and the pro-gun ACDL are predictably dissimilar. AGS lauds the buyback as a triumph.
"[Phoenix Police Commander Mike Kurtenbach] and I felt before the program that if we brought in 1,000 firearms, we would be extremely pleased. But when it was all said and done, we brought in close to 2,000," says Hildy Saizow, president of Arizonans for Gun Safety. "The community really supported it, saw the need for it, and I think they really felt it was a major public service and so they participated."
Saizow says this was the first time a buyback received substantial support from the business community. Bashas' provided $100 gift cards (for each firearm) at a discount, purchased with anonymous donations amounting to $200,000. "This was the first time that I have seen the business community step up and say, 'We want to be involved in and support, with money and other resources, gun violence prevention.'"
As for Arizona Citizens Defense League, co-founder and communications coordinator Charles Heller decries the buyback as a waste of time and resources. The police department logged 75 hours of overtime to destroy the guns before the legislation went into effect, which amounted to about $10,000 in pay. Add the cost of the guns, and Heller says "it's a straight-up good governance issue."
"Every gun you destroy is money that you're flushing down the toilet. You've got a tangible asset. The government's job is to manage the assets of the state, in this case, or of the city, or of the county, to put things to their highest and best use," Heller says. "The highest and best use of an asset is not destroying it. It would be like Monet saying, 'I don't want anyone to enjoy this painting, so I'm going to burn it.'"
Whether the legislation proves to be a checkmate or merely a check for future buybacks remains to be seen. "We could find a way," Saizow says. "The problem [now] is the police can't be involved."
Martos says future police participation in buybacks without the goal of gun destruction "might actually defeat the purpose," turning them into middlemen in the firearms market. "As a law-enforcement agency, I don't know if we would become involved with that."