On January 4th, 66-year-old Johnny L. Wicks opened fire outside a Las Vegas courthouse, killing a security guard and wounding a U.S. marshal. His weapon? A Mossberg 500 shotgun confiscated by the Shelby County Sheriff's Office several years ago.
The sheriff's office traded the gun, along with about 1,000 other confiscated weapons, to a registered gun dealer in 2005 in exchange for new service weapons, a year before Sheriff Mark Luttrell instituted a policy to destroy all confiscated guns.
But a new state law that went into effect March 3rd requires the sheriff's office to reverse that policy and resale or trade any guns taken from criminals. With the new law, the only weapons that can be destroyed are those that are damaged in some way.
"We felt it was a little more appropriate and a little safer for us to follow the destruction path," Luttrell says. "But the laws have changed, and we'll certainly abide by them."
The sheriff's office seized 348 weapons in 2009, all of which were melted down by an authorized smelter. Now local law enforcement agencies will be required to sell the weapons to a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms-approved vendor.
"An authorized dealer has certain guidelines and restrictions they have to be following," Luttrell says. "You just have to count on them to follow the law."
The law won't be as much of a change for the Memphis Police Department (MPD). The MPD seized approximately 4,000 guns last year, about 1,000 of which were traded to licensed gun dealers in exchange for service weapons. Another 1,100 were retained for law enforcement use, which is still legal under the new law. The rest were destroyed by the MPD, because they were deemed inoperable or unsafe.
"We destroyed some in the past in which we questioned the safety, but now we'll have to make certain the gun isn't safe before it's destroyed," says MPD spokesperson Karen Rudolph.
The MPD policy backfired after a gun traded in 2008 wound up in the hands of John Patrick Bedell, the man behind a March 4th shooting at the Pentagon. Bedell purchased the gun at a Las Vegas gun show, despite having been sent a letter from California authorities in January prohibiting him from buying a gun due to his history of severe psychiatric problems.
The Pentagon shooting occurred only one day after Governor Phil Bredesen signed the new state gun resale law.
"We've got to rely on the system to work," Luttrell says. "That means that every person who touches that weapon is going to handle it in a legal, responsible way. You have to hope that with every step of the process, people will be doing what's legally mandated."