Want To Get Rid Of A Gun In Arizona? Law Enforcement, Nonprofits Offer Different Options

By Mariana Dale
Published: Tuesday, November 7, 2017 - 6:55am
Updated: Wednesday, February 21, 2018 - 11:56am

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The fate of a surrendered firearm in Arizona depends on which option you choose.

There are some things you don’t put in the trash — paint thinner, chemicals, an old car.

That’s where hazardous waste drop-offs or scrapyards come in. But where do unwanted guns go?

A Phoenix man made headlines when he publicly handed over his guns to the Phoenix Police Department in the wake of the deadly mass shooting in Las Vegas.

There’s a patchwork of gun dealers, nonprofits and law enforcement agencies that will take guns, but the fate of the firearm depends on which you choose.

Gun Turn-Ins Come And Gone

In 1999, Maria and Forest Brown were getting ready for the birth of their first son in Tempe.

“I thought it was just a great opportunity to do a little house cleaning at the same time we were baby proofing,” Maria Brown said.

One thing she wanted out of the house was her father’s .22-caliber pistol. It wasn’t sentimental, and her husband, Forest, said it jammed all the time.

“It was a piece of junk," he said.

So the couple shopped for an event where they could turn the gun in and have it destroyed. One fall Saturday, they swapped the pistol for a $50 grocery store gift card.

"This seemed like a good way to get rid of it," Forest Brown told The Arizona Republic back then. He was approached by a gun advocate who tried to buy the gun out of destruction.

Brown said no, but it’s not because he hates firearms.

“I spent five years in the Army, so I’m pretty comfortable with guns,” Brown said. “I mean, I’ve literally slept with an M16 when I was in the field.”

He still owns two, though they’ve been in a gun locker with trigger locks for years. Brown said the turn-in was convenient.

“Honestly, if you bring it up now, I don’t know what you would do if you wanted to get rid of a gun,” Brown said.

The gun buybacks and turn-ins were often sponsored by cities, police departments or political figures. The firearms were usually checked against criminal records to make sure they hadn’t been used in a crime or stolen.

Those largely ended with the passage of a 2013 Arizona law that prevents municipalities from destroying working firearms in their possession.

“This has nothing to do with guns,” said Charles Heller, a spokesman for the Arizona Citizens Defense League, which supported the legislation. “It has to do with horrible financial management, horrible.”

He argued the firearms are an asset to the city if sold for profit.

Tucson tried to challenge the state law in court, but ended its policy of destroying guns in its possession in September.

Without the incentive of taking guns off the streets, large-scale turn-ins have all but disappeared. Officials have to sell the guns through a federally-licensed dealer.

Sierra Auction Management, Inc., a private company, contracts with the cities of Mesa and Phoenix to sell firearms that are either surrendered to the department, found or otherwise no longer needed. Sierra sells the guns in large lots online.

In a statement, Mark Feuerer, Sierra president, said the company records all transactions and conducts criminal background checks on the people who buy their guns.

It’s unlikely any Valley city has seen a financial windfall since the law passed.

For example, in Mesa over the last five years about a dozen guns come in through voluntary surrender annually.

“What we see really normally is we have someone where a loved one passed away, they had firearms now either the spouse or next of kin who is left with the property does not want them, does not know what to do with them,” said Mesa Police Sgt. Diana Williams.

Non-functioning firearms are destroyed, and the others end up at Sierra Auction.

Williams said if you want to give up a gun to your local police department, authorities prefer that you didn’t show up at the station.

“Let us come to you,” Williams said. “Give us a call, let us know what you want to surrender in regards to firearms, how many do you have, what types of firearms are they, are they loaded, are they not.”

Selling Your Firearm

Heller, with the Arizona Citizens Defense League, said the free market is the solution for unwanted firearms.

“You could sell it, sell it to someone who wants it and could take good care of it,” Heller said.

Arizona state law does not require private gun sellers to conduct background checks. It does prohibit knowingly “selling or transferring a deadly weapon to a prohibited possessor.”

RELATED: Read a personal essay from a certified firearms instructor

“Just like anything else, you want to make sure you document it well,” said Brandon Johnson, with shop AZ Guns.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives provides a form to record transactions

Johnson said many gun shops will facilitate the transfer of firearm ownership in addition to making cash offers for firearms.

A licensed shop requires a National Instant Criminal Background Check System (often abbreviated as NICS) check for buyers.

“With the power of Google today, you can do a fair amount of legwork on your own,” Johnson said. That includes researching a gun’s value and reading seller reviews.

“They should not make you feel stupid for not knowing the answer,” Johnson said. “It’s every gun shop’s job to be an ambassador to outdoor sports.”

‘A Heavy Responsibility’

If you want your gun destroyed, not sold, that’s difficult.

After combing the internet and talking to gun enthusiasts and dealers, KJZZ found only one group that openly advertises a turn-in program in the state, the Arizona Firearm Injury Prevention Coalition.

“We didn’t do it to make a big splash or to make publicity, or to influence politicians,” said member Terry Allison. "We did it because we felt there was a need for people to give us firearms that they did not want in their home.”

The group started collecting unwanted guns in the 1990s. They work with police to make sure the gun doesn’t have any criminal ties and then dispose of the gun per the owner’s request.

They work with a private gunsmith who destroys the guns. Allison said that’s a rare choice.

Usually, the group sells the gun through a firearm dealer and uses the funds to pay for gun locks, safety seminars and suicide prevention programs.

“We’re trying to make a difference in areas where we can make a difference,” Allison said. 

He said participants have included former military men and people responsible for the possessions of family members after they die.

“Hopefully it gives people an option they wouldn’t otherwise have,” Allison said.

Allison describes his background as pro-gun, but now he’s not sure if he believes in the label anymore.

“I’m pro-freedom,” Allison said. “I still believe in the right to keep and bear arms, but I have recognized over the years what a heavy responsibility that is too.”

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