Calif. cities are criticized for auctioning off guns

December 20, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- To meet their cash-starved budgets, cities with some of California's highest murder rates are selling rather than destroying guns confiscated by police. The policy is drawing criticism from public health experts and others who are working to curb violence.

Inglewood, a Los Angeles suburb where shootings accounted for 42 homicides last year, is the latest city to put confiscated guns back on the market. Compton began doing so in 1989. Santa Ana has been selling seized firearms since 1986.

"As a physician who sincerely cares about the survival of our children and our society, I am extremely dismayed to learn that the city of Inglewood or any other government would actively participate in returning weapons that had once been confiscated back into society," said Dr. Reed Tuckson, president of Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles. "This is a sad situation."

Although more cities are selling seized weapons to raise cash, the little-known policy is neither new nor confined to inner-city communities.

Hawthorne has been reselling its confiscated weapons for at least a decade. Ventura began doing so in 1990, Alhambra this year. Fullerton also sells its firearms, as do Santa Monica and Pasadena, although police officials in the latter two cities say that only antique and collectible firearms are resold.

Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, however, bar the sale of confiscated weaponry. Reselling weapons, said Lt. Jeff Springs of the Sheriff's Information Bureau, would increase street violence.

"It's all speculation on our part, but I think we can all draw some conclusions," he said. "It's better to take the guns off the street."

Most of the guns are sold each July to licensed dealers nationwide by Roger Ernst & Associates, an auction house in Modesto, Calif., that specializes in property confiscated by police.

According to the Inglewood Police Department, more than 100 California law enforcement agencies send seized guns to Mr. Ernst's firm. Mr. Ernst, who courts law enforcement agencies for business, declined to discuss his dealings.

Officials in cities that sell guns say that before sending the guns to the auction block, they cull and destroy notorious and illegal weapons, including assault rifles, cheap handguns -- commonly called Saturday night specials -- and guns involved in "sensational" murders.

Only "collectible" firearms and "high-cost" weapons are resold, they say. But the definitions of which guns fall into these categories vary among departments. And the ad hoc restrictions do not appear to prevent many weapons -- ranging from handguns to rifles and shotguns -- from re-entering the marketplace.

Supporters of the policy argue that confiscated weapons offer cities a useful source of cash in tough economic times. Inglewood could earn $50,000 from the sale of 600 confiscated weapons in the 1992-93 fiscal year, its Police Department said.

"Cities are doing things they have to do to make ends meet," said police Sgt. Phil Stahl of Inglewood, who oversees confiscated weaponry.

But public health experts and others concerned about homicides among inner-city youths say they are appalled by the gun sales. They cite a study published in June in the Journal of the American Medical Association that says gunfire is killing black men at a greater rate in Los Angeles County than anywhere else except Washington.

"There are simply too many guns in our society," said Dr. Tuckson of Charles Drew University, a leading black public health official. . . . It is the children of my community that are getting access to them."

Joseph D. McNamara, who ended the sale of seized guns when he became police chief in San Jose, Calif., more than 15 years ago, says the country's homicide rate is argument enough to ban such sales.

"When you hold up to the public what's going on, they'll see the sleaziness," said Mr. McNamara, now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

"Thirty-three thousand Americans a year die by gunfire. No civilized society, even one in the midst of a civil war, has that many people dying."

Officials in cities that resell weapons insist that there are adequate safeguards to prevent the guns from falling into hands of criminals. They also point out that the seized firearms cannot be auctioned off to just anybody.

"These are going to go through persons who are licensed gun dealers both in and out of our state," said Inglewood Police Chief Oliver Thompson. "They will go through persons who will ensure that weapons will be handled the way they ought to be handled."

Mr. McNamara is skeptical. "The gun dealers don't care who gets their guns," he said. "Guns that are legitimately manufactured end up being bought in flea markets."

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