Arizona Police To Destroy Guns Before Law Changes

Arizona has passed a law making it illegal for cities to destroy guns bought in buy-back programs. The new law kicks in this summer, and requires cities to sell the guns that are turned in.

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Gun owners voluntarily turned in about 900 weapons to Phoenix police over the past two weekends. Those guns will be destroyed - this time. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton says the idea of the gun buyback program is to reduce gun violence and improve safety. But under a new Arizona law which takes effect later this year, law enforcement officials will have to put surrendered weapons back on the street. NPR's Ted Robbins explains.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: A line of cars and pickup trucks wound its way through the Betania Presbyterian Church parking lot in Central Phoenix. Phoenix police officers took weapons from trunks and backseats while other officers sitting under a tent catalogued the guns.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Shotgun?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Twelve-gauge, yeah.

ROBBINS: For each gun turned in, Sergeant James Hester handed the driver a reward.

SERGEANT JAMES HESTER: Four weapons is four $100 gift cards to Food City, Basha's or AJ's.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I appreciate it.

HESTER: Thank you. Have a great morning.

ROBBINS: The turnout was so good, the grocery gift cards were gone an hour after the event began.

HESTER: This is our last gift card here, so I need more gift cards.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: That's it.

ROBBINS: It may also be the last gun buyback of its kind for the Phoenix Police Department. A law just passed by the Republican-led Arizona legislature and signed by Republican Governor Jan Brewer prohibits local law enforcement from destroying guns. Instead, they have to be sold to licensed firearms dealers. The law was passed after a similar buyback in Tucson riled up gun rights supporters. NRA national board member and lobbyist Todd Rathner helped write the change in the law. He objects to police buybacks, calling them ineffective, a waste of taxpayer money.

TODD RATHNER: We're using police resources to do something that does not impact crime. We're using police resources to do things other than enforce the law.

ROBBINS: Retired paramedic Mac MacDonald brought a Tec-9 handgun to get it away from his grandkids, out of his house, and out of circulation. If he wanted to sell it, he says he would have.

MAC MACDONALD: I wouldn't leave it if they weren't going to destroy it. And I think what the legislature did was just stupid.

ROBBINS: Nothing in the new Arizona law prevents private organizations from holding gun buybacks and destroying the weapons. The problem with that, says Phoenix Police Sergeant Steve Martos, is it's not as safe and police would not be able to trace stolen firearms or guns used in crimes.

SERGEANT STEVE MARTOS: Obviously, we wouldn't necessarily be too thrilled about that from the standpoint of we want to collect this evidence. I mean, we think it's important for us and for victims of gun crimes.

ROBBINS: Some private groups say they may hire off-duty officers for future buybacks. And some police departments are awaiting opinions on whether they can trace weapons without actually taking legal possession of them. The NRA's Todd Rathner says if gun control activists keep trying to involve police, he'll keep getting the law tightened.

RATHNER: Look, the bottom line is we're not going anywhere and were not going to stop what we're doing on the pro-Second Amendment side.

ROBBINS: The Phoenix gift cards were paid for with a $100,000 anonymous donation. The buyback was organized by Arizonans for Gun Safety. Its president, Hildy Saizow, says right now, she's focused on finding more money for gift cards.

HILDY SAIZOW: We're going to fundraise. We're going to see what we can do and we're going to try to, you know, be available next week as we promised.

ROBBINS: That would be the last of three scheduled gun buybacks in Phoenix and the last under current Arizona law. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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