In the course of their duties, Chicago police come into possession of all sorts of contraband: jewelry, video games, bicycles, cars. They sell the stuff through online auctions that are open to the public. They also confiscate some 10,000 firearms each year, with an estimated value of $2 million. They sell them and put the $2 million through a shredder.
Just kidding. It would be insane to shred large stacks of perfectly good money. What they actually do is destroy the guns. That way, there’s no money to destroy.
This practice comes to our attention thanks to a recent report by Robert Wildeboer of WBEZ, the local affiliate of National Public Radio. At a time when the city of Chicago has reduced the size of the police force because of budget pressures, you’d think it would not lightly forgo such a handsome sum. But it does.
There is a common assumption in Chicago that guns are the equivalent of free-roaming cobras, being lethal and unmanageable by any means except elimination. The more guns, in this view, the more murders and mayhem.
This belief persists even though nationally, the number of guns in private hands has grown steadily even as the crime rate has plunged. Guns in the hands of criminals are bound to lead to senseless bloodshed. But guns in the hands of upstanding citizens are no more likely to be abused than chainsaws or baseball bats.
Ten thousand guns may sound like a lot, until you consider that Americans own an estimated 280 million firearms and buy another eight million or so every year. So the benefits are likely to be undetectable, if not imaginary.
You don’t have to take my word for it. I emailed Philip J. Cook of Duke University, a leading scholar on guns who is not exactly a favorite of the National Rifle Association, to get his opinion. “It is hard for me to see that a decision by the Chicago Police to sell the guns that they confiscate would have any appreciable effect on availability of guns to youths and criminals,” he replied. Adding them to the supply of guns on the market “may push down prices somewhat, but given the numbers involved that effect is likely to be negligible.”
It’s not as though the cops would be peddling them to random guys with neck tattoos in crime-infested neighborhoods. The guns could be sold to licensed firearm dealers, who are required to abide by federal laws banning sales to minors and felons. If it would make anyone feel better, they could even be shipped to dealers in distant states, where they are less likely to wind up back in the city limits. The Chicago Police Department could also sell the guns itself with stricter rules than the ones licensed dealers have to follow.
Not that it really matters. If a Chicagoan wants to buy a firearm, new or used, and is legally entitled to do so, he or she can easily find a local store that will be happy to make the sale.
Adam Collins, a spokesman for the police department, says it would be out of the question to resell the guns. “Any small financial gain would not justify being part of putting more firearms out on the streets,” he told me.
Mark Iris, a Northwestern University political scientist who served as executive director of the Chicago Police Board, fears that selling guns instead of destroying them would undermine the Chicago Police Department’s efforts to get illegal guns off the streets. “By selling guns instead of scrapping them, you send a mixed message, and that could result in a non-economic price of decreased officer attention to this issue,” he says.
But does it really matter if the gun a gang member uses against an enemy was once seized by the Chicago police rather than being fresh off the assembly line? Cops, of all people, should be able to keep in mind the difference between a gun in the hands of a criminal and the same gun in the hands of a law-abiding person. They don’t need to flatten stolen vehicles to retain their vigilance against car theft.
In the end, the policy is about as effective as trying to prevent drownings by bailing out Lake Michigan with a coffee mug. But it’s a lot more expensive.