Posted on August 29, 2013 at 10:20 AM
Thursday, Aug 29 at 10:33 AM
AUSTIN, Texas -- It's a place most in the general public will never get to see.
Hidden inside an unassuming storage facility in East Austin is the Austin Police Department's confiscated firearms vault. Tucked away inside countless boxes, five decades of firearms collected by the department are individually tagged, cataloged and stored under tight security.
"We have approximately 9,500 guns in the evidence storage right now. They range from handguns to rifles, shotguns, assault weapons. The whole gamut of firearms are stored," said APD Evidence Manager James Gibbens. The vault is run under the care of APD Field Support Services Chief Ed Harris.
"Every weapon in here, whether it be a handgun or a long gun, was either confiscated during a traffic stop, during the commission of a crime, perhaps doing a search warrant for drugs and narcotics, or in many cases weapons were confiscated during domestic violence situations for safekeeping," explained Harris. "Every weapon in here was connected to a service call of same type."
The department seizes about a thousand guns a year, ranging from handguns and high powered .44 magnum revolvers to assault style weapons based on the popular AK-47 and AR-15 designs. Most are semi-automatic rifles that are legal to purchase, but are sometimes illegally modified to be fired fully automatic.
The oldest firearm in the collection is a tiny .22 revolver seized in 1969. Many of the guns that linger on the shelf are connected to unsolved murders or cases that are on appeal. Pulling out a rifle of the AK-47 design with a twelve inch metal bayonet folded into the stock, Gibbens explained many assault style weapons are turning up around criminal activity.
"It's probably more common than most people believe," Gibbens said. "It's pretty much one of the weapons of choice, it seems like with a lot of the larger criminal organizations."
Like other law enforcement agencies across Texas, APD destroys most of the guns it isn't required to keep, averaging roughly 300 a year. Of the 1,043 firearms seized in 2012, the department destroyed 240. So far this year, the department has seized 656 firearms and destroyed 32.
Now a new law taking effect September 1 will allow some of those guns to instead be sold to federally licensed firearms dealers, with the profits going back to the department. House Bill 1421
was passed during the regular session of the 83rd Texas Legislature, and amends the law regarding the disposition of certain weapons seized by law enforcement.
State Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), the bill's author, says the change could save the state as much as half a million dollars, as well as provide some extra money for local law enforcement agencies. While some law enforcement agencies already sell certain seized firearms, Perry explains the circumstances under which they do so is a legal "gray area." Once the law changes, he says agencies will have a clear legal process to follow.
"That made all the sense in the world," Perry explained. "Rather than just destroying something that had value, taking something that was probably a bad way and turning it into something positive was kind of the attitude that came out of that."
Current law allows a magistrate to either order a confiscated firearm's return to its owner, its destruction or its forfeiture to the state "for use by the law enforcement agency holding the weapon or by a county forensic laboratory designated by the magistrate." Once the law takes effect, magistrates will be allowed the additional option of ordering the weapon's sale.
The proceeds would be directed back to the law enforcement agency, and Perry says many of the agencies and magistrates in his district have expressed enthusiasm over the prospect. While acknowledging the payout may not be much, he says it could provide another tool for some agencies struggling to make ends meet.
"It could accumulate over time, and you know $25,000 is enough to possibly buy a vehicle," said Perry. "It is a revenue source. Is it a tremendous revenue source or a big one? Probably not compared to their overall budget, but anything helps in these times."
But not everyone is buying in.
"The City of Austin Police Department is in the business of taking weapons off the streets, not in the business of putting more weapons back on the streets," said Harris. "This room represents the effort of the men and women of the Austin Police Department in making this community safer by taking weapons off the streets."