North Carolina law makes it illegal for police to destroy guns

Wilmington, N.C., police Cpl. Ray Metcalf left, works with Cpl. Lacey Locklear, Officer Scott Bramley and property technician Casey Ludlum at a gun buyback Aug. 24. Click the image for more pictures from the buyback. Matt Born / StarNews

North Carolina this week became the third state to forbid law enforcement from destroying unclaimed firearms and weapons collected in gun buybacks.

In many states, weapons seized in criminal investigations or buybacks are destroyed — recycled or shredded into tiny pieces of metal — unless they're evidence in a crime or useful for law enforcement purposes, like officer training.

Other states allow authorities to sell them to federally licensed firearms dealers for resale, as long as they're in safe working order. That usually has to happen with the approval of a judge, as was the case in North Carolina — until now.

In a measure strongly backed by the National Rifle Association, the North Carolina Legislature overwhelmingly voted in June — 48-1 in the Senate and 96-16 in the House — to strip judges of the power to decide what law enforcement agencies can do with seized firearms. 

And it went even further — requiring those agencies to post notices of unclaimed firearms so their owners can retrieve them. If they're not claimed within 30 days, they must be sold or kept by the state.

Kentucky has had such a law on the books since the 1990s, and Arizona followed suit earlier this year. Similar legislation is under consideration in Ohio. 

"Firearms are property. When law enforcement agencies destroy firearms, they are destroying assets," Ohio state Rep. John Becker, a Republican who represents Union Gap, said in introducing the measure in June.

"At a time when budgets are tight, it makes no more sense to destroy firearms than it does to destroy office furniture, vehicles, computers or other assets that are generally sold or auctioned off when they are no longer needed," he said.

That echoes one of the NRA's arguments: that resales to the public "help recover public funds when budgets are strained." 

The NRA also argues that programs to buy back guns and destroy them don't work, pointing to a 2005 report by the National Institutes of Health (.pdf) that concluded that "there is empirical evidence that gun turn in programs are ineffective," because guns recovered in buybacks aren't "the same guns as those most often used in homicides and suicides."

Gun buybacks are still among the most popular ways for authorities to get firearms off the streets, however. One last week in Wilmington, N.C., was so popular that the organizer, a local church, ran out of money, and yet people still kept coming to turn in their weapons for free, NBC station WECT of Wilmington reported.

"Basically, I want to get it destroyed," Eli Gutierrez of Wilmington told the Wilmington Star-News after he showed up to turn in his .38-caliber pistol.

So would Wilmington police, said Linda Rawley, a spokeswoman for the department, who told WUNC radio: "It's always been safest for us to be able to destroy them.

"But we will follow the law, and we will make sure that we abide by whatever is necessary," she said.

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