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Confiscated guns get melted down

The Herald Palladium,

Lansing, MI

Contributed photo Berrien County sheriff's Deputy Jason Haskins shows some of the firearms currently held by the department pending destruction by state police. Law enforcement agencies routinely end up with guns that were used in crimes or forfeited for other reasons.

Get convicted of a crime that involves a firearm in Michigan and your gun will likely end up with Lowell Nash.

A technician for the state police in , Nash heads the confiscated weapons unit, which destroys pistols, rifles and shotguns by the truckload.

Guns forfeited by their owners arrive regularly, delivered to the unit by law enforcement agencies complying with court orders or for other reasons.

Nash said the unit receives 10,000 to 12,000 guns every year to melt in a blast furnace. Only guns requested by police departments for their own use are spared.

"Other than that, they all go in the pot," Nash said.

The guns run the gamut from cheaply made revolvers and sawed-off shotguns to high-quality sporting guns and semi-automatic pistols.

"We get them from all over the state, from federal agencies, railroad police," Nash said.

While police agencies in some states routinely sell or trade guns obtained through criminal investigations, Michigan law limits the practice.

Guns seized by police in criminal cases in Memphis, Tenn., were sold to gun dealers and ended up being used in the high-profile police shootings March 4 at the Pentagon and on Jan. 4 at the federal courthouse in Las Vegas.

Tennessee is one of 24 states that have adopted laws loosening restrictions on confiscated weapons, in part as the result of pressure from pro-gun groups.

The Associated Press reported that on the same day a man wounded two police officers outside the Pentagon before being shot dead, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen signed a law that stripped police of the option of destroying confiscated guns unless they're unsafe.

Michigan law requires guns used in any assaultive offense ranging from domestic violence to homicide to be forfeited to the state and turned over to the director of the state police for disposal.

The law defines disposal as destroying the guns, selling them at public auction, or any other method prescribed by the director.

According to Nash, it has been state police policy for 60 years to not sell any guns sent to the unit.

Police agencies can fill out paperwork to acquire firearms for use by their officers. But there are limits - only one duty weapon and one off-duty weapon per officer, and one shotgun and one rifle per vehicle.

The idea is to prevent police departments from turning the procedure into a money-making operation.

Police departments that acquire guns from the state police must agree to keep them for at least five years. The departments can then keep the guns or dispose of them through a licensed gun dealer.

Nash said the confiscated weapons unit usually gets more pistols than long guns.

When enough guns accumulate to fill the unit's truck, about 350 rifles and shotguns, they go to the blast furnace.

The state police policy makes an exception for guns that have historical value. They can be given to a museum.

"If we get Daniel Boone's gun in, we're not going to destroy it," Nash said.

State police First Lt. Michael Brown, commander of the Niles post, said judges nearly always order forfeiture of guns used in criminal cases.

Those cases include not only assaults, but possession of a firearm while committing any felony, and being ineligible to possess a gun because of a prior felony conviction.

Berrien County sheriff's Detective Sgt. Robert Boyce, field supervisor of the Narcotics Unit, said guns are routinely confiscated by police enforcing drug laws and other statutes.

The road patrol and Narcotics Unit seized 105 firearms in 2008 and 113 in 2009. Of the guns confiscated last year, 93 were turned over to the state police for destruction.

The department now possesses 168 firearms in the process of being turned in, Boyce said. Over the past three years, the department obtained 10 firearms for its use. The guns were forfeited through the court system.

Smaller police departments can use the method to acquire firearms that might otherwise not be affordable.

Chief Gary Ruhl of the Baroda-Lake Township Police Department said confiscated semi-automatic pistols are being used to equip the nine-officer reserve unit.

"It saves us a ton of money," he said. "We've saved the taxpayers about $3,800."

Ruhl said the department never keeps guns forfeited to it but turns them over to the state police for destruction.

Berrien Springs-Oronoko Township Police Chief Milt Agay said the department acquired confiscated AR-15 rifles from the state police, saving thousands of dollars.

There is no charge to acquire the guns, he said, but the department must maintain records as long as it owns a gun.

Some years ago, Agay said, the department had possession of firearms that were not needed. They were turned over to a licensed firearm dealer as the law allows, and proceeds were returned to the department, less the dealer's cost.

Police occasionally acquire guns that were not used in crimes, Agay said. Citizens turn in guns they no longer want, and in some cases the owners of found guns cannot be located.

"There are specific policies and different state laws that control what happens to abandoned or lost property," he said.

Individual departments decide, according to their policies, what to do with those guns.

Strong state laws controlling confiscated firearms may keep down the number of guns on the street, but won't prevent a determined lawbreaker from acquiring a firearm, he said.

"The bad guy's going to get a gun if he wants a gun," Agay said.

Berrien County Prosecutor Arthur Cotter said a gun must be involved in a crime for a judge to order its forfeiture. In some cases the judge has discretion to decide what will happen to a firearm, he said.

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