PHOENIX -- In Arizona, where guns are allowed in bars and concealed weapons can be carried without a permit, state lawmakers are moving to force police to sell -- not destroy -- firearms they collect after Tucson scrapped more than 200 last month.
The city-sponsored event, in which residents exchanged guns for $50 grocery gift cards, outraged gun-rights activists who set up opposite police to buy weapons with cash. The "gun buyback" was held on the anniversary of the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson that gravely injured then-representative Gabrielle Giffords and left six others dead.
Arizona lawmakers are now advancing a measure to bar the destruction of firearms surrendered in events like those that have been held in cities from Newark, N.J., to Seattle, Wash., since the shooting at a Connecticut elementary school in December. The measure, sponsored by 16 Republicans and one Democrat, strengthens existing state law that orders seized and abandoned guns to be sold.
"Anything that diminishes the use and the utility of firearms -- anything -- is gun control," said Charles Heller, a co-founder of the 8,500-member Arizona Citizens Defense League that is among groups pushing the new legislation. "It wastes a perfectly good gun and removes it from commerce."
Tucson City Council member and Vice Mayor Steve Kozachik, who organized the buyback, said he was surprised at the backlash to the event, which he had viewed as a community service to help people get rid of unwanted firearms.
"I thought this was benign from a Second Amendment standpoint," Kozachik said about the event he organized with police and paid for with donations. "That object, to them, is a holy relic."
After being inundated by opposition to the gun buyback and panned on talk-radio shows, Kozachik said, he changed his party affiliation to Democrat from Republican. The event cost the city nothing beyond the time of staff who participated, said Sergeant Chris Widmer, a spokesman for the Tucson police.
Several gun buybacks have been held across the country after the Connecticut school shooting that killed 26 drew attention to gun violence and spurred calls for restrictions, including universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons.
Tucson is not the only place where there's been a backlash: Activists and collectors have shown up at similar events in Seattle, Dallas and elsewhere to outbid those organizing the buyback and undermine efforts to collect and destroy weapons.
"I suspect what you are seeing here is the confluence of the extreme distrust of government and the extreme love of guns," said Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore.
Vernick isn't a fan of buybacks. There's little evidence they reduce street crime and they're popular mainly because they're easier than passing meaningful gun legislation, he said. Still, Vernick doesn't think it's good public policy to force police to recirculate weapons, either.
"It seems to be odd to put cities into the role of gun sellers -- to require cities to put more guns out on the street, back out into households," Vernick said. "The goal of criminal law is to ultimately reduce crime. If you are going to then force the city to pump those guns back into the community, it does seem counterproductive."
The movement to force police to sell or auction seized guns got its start with legislation approved in Kentucky more than a decade ago. The measure was championed by the National Rifle Association, a gun lobby that says it has more than 4 million individual members. It was adopted in 2011 as model legislation by a task force of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Washington-based public policy organization that brings together corporations and lawmakers to draft bills for states.
Similar measures have adopted elsewhere, including Tennessee and Alaska.
The Arizona bill that passed the House public safety committee last week is an attempt to bolster existing laws aimed at stopping the destruction of firearms by police.
An initial measure had ambiguous wording that allowed cities to keep destroying guns, said Amanda Jacinto, a police spokeswoman in Peoria, a suburb of Phoenix that continued destroying guns until last year.
That's when lawmakers strengthened the statute with a second measure signed in April by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer. That law required guns to be sold after a court order. Several police agencies, including those in Tucson and Phoenix, continue to destroy guns not subject to a court order, according to spokesmen.
The latest measure takes out the court, directly ordering agencies to sell the guns to a federally licensed firearms dealer or trade them for law-enforcement equipment. And it takes aim specifically at gun buybacks -- which advocates for the programs have said weren't covered by the earlier measures -- by adding "surrendered" guns to the list of weapons that must be sold.
"I have been receiving thousands of emails from people complaining that this is not the proper role of government, that a buyback program isn't within the realm of government responsibility," Republican State Rep. Justin Pierce, chairman of the House Public Safety, Military and Regulatory Affairs committee, said in a hearing last week.
Heller of the Arizona Citizens Defense League said it doesn't make sense for cash-strapped municipalities to destroy valuable firearms.
"They are begging for money and they are literally flushing money down the toilet -- or down the metal cutter," Heller said.
State Rep. Chad Campbell, a Phoenix Democrat who serves as House minority leader, said it doesn't make sense to mandate what law-enforcement agencies do with the guns.
He introduced legislation to allow police to continue destroying weapons. The measure hasn't gotten a hearing and has little chance of passing in the Republican-controlled legislature.
"This has nothing to do with the Second Amendment or anyone's right to have a firearm," Campbell said in an interview. "This is symptomatic of the larger problem we have in this state and country: there is a group of individuals who are tying any kind of gun reform to an attack" on constitutional rights.
Kozachik, 59, the Tucson councilman, felt the brunt of opposition first-hand. After seeing opponents of his gun buyback holding a counter-protest with signs reading "Cash for Guns," he proposed a resolution to block gun shows on city property unless background checks are conducted for every firearm sold at the event -- which led to more blowback.
"I understand now why people in political office don't want to take on this issue," he said.
By Amanda J. Crawford