Tennessee law would require all police departments to sell their seized guns, but not every agency is happy

A variety of guns are stored in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's firearms reference vault department on March 27, 2015.


2014 // 702 2013 // 697 2012 // 609 Source: Chattanooga Police Department

photo A variety of guns are stored in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's firearms reference vault department on March 27, 2015.

Last year, Chattanooga police seized 702 contraband guns from city streets.

Officers snagged guns that were used in robberies, burglaries and homicides. Guns that were illegally possessed. Fired in gang shootings. Stolen.

Now most of those guns are sitting in storage in the police evidence room - and Chattanooga Police Department Chief Fred Fletcher wants to keep them there, under lock and key.

But a proposed change to state law would require Fletcher - and every other law enforcement agency chief in the state - to sell those seized guns back to the public in an auction every six months.

"My officers placed themselves in harm's way and used great restraint to take those firearms off the street," Fletcher said. "I'm not enthusiastic about returning guns to the same streets where my officers might have to face them again."

It's an age-old debate among Tennessee law enforcement and politicians - selling seized guns can raise money for cash-strapped departments and clear out crowded evidence rooms, but also can make guns more easily accessible for criminals.

If passed, the bill first would require officers to do everything possible to figure out if guns had been stolen from lawful owners and, if so, return them. Then departments would hold auctions, with most of the money earmarked for the municipality's general fund rather than the police department.

That's the part that worries Red Bank Police Chief Tim Christol. His department already routinely sells seized guns to a dealer through a bidding process, and the revenue from the sales is used for ammunition, guns or body armor for his officers, as required by current state law.

In the last two years, Christol estimates, the department has made about $12,000 on seized gun sales, and he said he counts on that money to help keep his officers equipped.

"It's going to have a devastating impact on a lot of the smaller agencies that were able to utilize the sale process [to raise funds] for these life-safety issues," he said. "Not being able to use those funds for that, we'll have to put it in the budget. And anytime you go to an elected body and ask for more money, even though we have a legitimate reason, people are hesitant to increase budgets right now."

But the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Doug Overbey, said he sees no reason why police shouldn't resell guns to law-abiding citizens instead of letting them sit unused on shelves.

"If it is no longer needed for a case, you might as well have a mechanism to get it back to the rightful owner or make some money for the police department," he said.

The bill authorizes departments to sell the guns only to licensed firearms collectors, dealers, importers or manufacturers, and any agency's director or chief can declare a firearm unfit for sale because of wear, damage, age or modification.

Overbey said the National Rifle Association is the driving force behind the bill.

"I had some conversation with the representative of the NRA who indicated other states had either done this or were considering it, and it seemed to make sense to me," he said.

The proposed change would build on an NRA-backed bill passed in 2010. That law forbids police departments from destroying seized guns and requires agencies to instead sell the guns or keep them indefinitely.

This new bill, labeled SB 1103 and HB 1046, is being reviewed in various legislative committees, and no date has been set for a final vote.

Contact staff reporter Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas.