It's long been a joke — but not a joking matter — that thanks to Gov. Bill Lee, state lawmakers, the National Rifle Association and the Tennessee Firearms Association, our state motto might as well be something like, "Tennessee — where we let you shoot first, and we'll ask questions later. Maybe."
As of Thursday, the Volunteer State became a permitless-carry state, meaning that most Tennesseans ages 21 and older will no longer be legally required to undergo state criminal background checks, firearms training or demonstrate firearm competency to carry a handgun either openly or concealed while in public. Already, of course, if you bought your gun in a parking lot at a gun show or from a friend, you didn't have to get a background check or training there, either. Those loopholes, along with the new permitless-carry law, make any argument that "legal" gun owners are already checked and trained clearly bogus on its face.
Meanwhile, we're all hearing that crime is rising — especially gun crime. And no wonder. There are more guns on the streets than ever.
Now, some police departments are selling guns — the same guns they confiscated during arrests and seizures.
Ads in the Times Free Press recently advertised a "Guns, Buns and 'Cue" auction Saturday "celebrating our 2nd Amendment rights" at Compass Auction behind the Police Services Center on Amnicola Highway.
Available will be a variety of guns including "law enforcement confiscated & police seizure firearms and more," according to the ads.
To be clear, Compass Managing Partner Justyn Amstutz said the company, which auctions everything from repurposed planks removed from the Walnut Street Bridge to surplus TVA equipment and for the past three years guns from law enforcement agencies, says the company is a licensed federal firearms dealer and as such must continue to require background checks for gun buyers at the auction.
Chattanooga guns seized by year
2012 - 609
2013 - 697
2014 - 702
2015 - 754
2016 - 955
2017 - 835
2018 - 989
2019 - 912
2020 - 928
2021 through May 31 - 487
Source: Chattanooga Police Department
"The open carry law that comes into effect July 1 before our auction really has no bearing on our auctions. Zero bearing on our auctions. Because any purchaser has to have a background check regardless," he said.
Also to be clear, Amstutz said Saturday's auction does not include guns from the Chattanooga Police Department — rather these seized weapons come from at least four other law enforcement departments in the Chattanooga area.
There's a reason Chattanooga isn't participating. Our former Mayor Andy Berke, former police Chief Fred Fletcher and soon-to-retire Chief David Roddy made a deliberate choice not to put those seized guns back on the streets — even after Tennessee's supermajority GOP General Assembly in 2010 passed an NRA-backed bill prohibiting police from destroying seized weapons and another NRA-backed bill in 2015 requiring police to sell them — or make room to permanently store them.
Chattanooga's Chief Fletcher made a concerted effort to fight the 2015 law, which initially would have required a sale, not storage.
"My officers placed themselves in harm's way and used great restraint to take those firearms off the street," Fletcher said as the law was being debated. "I'm not enthusiastic about returning guns to the same streets where my officers might have to face them again."
In a statement this week, Roddy added: "The Chattanooga Police Department and its officers do everything we can to address and interrupt gun crime in our city. CPD remains diligent and steadfast in minimizing the chances that a confiscated and police seized firearm could find its way into the hands of people who've already shown a propensity to inflict harm or instill fear in others."
In a state where a Tennessean dies every 7.1 hours from gun violence, and in a city that pretty much has at least one shooting a day, this is no small thing. Since 2012, Chattanooga officers have seized 7,868 guns — a rising number almost every year — and kept them off the streets.
According to a 2018 article in Police1.com, there's good reason for this: "Tragedies involving police-sold guns have happened throughout the U.S. In 2010, a mentally ill man ambushed and wounded two Pentagon police officers with a handgun sold by Memphis, Tennessee, police. Also that year, a Las Vegas court security officer was killed by a man with a shotgun sold by a Memphis-area sheriff's office. And in 2015, an unstable man walked into City Hall in New Hope, Minnesota, and wounded two officers with a shotgun sold by the Duluth Police Department."
On the other hand, some departments justify the weapons sales as budget savers. When the law was amended to allow departments to store or sell the weapons, it specified that the departments could enter into an exchange with a licensed firearms dealer for other firearms, ammunition, or body armor suitable for use by the department.
Amstutz said this week he knew Chattanooga has a new mayor and will soon have a new police chief. He mentioned that he'd like to auction the city's large store of seized weapons and said he'd recently attended a fundraiser for new Mayor Tim Kelly.
Kelly aide Ellis Smith said Thursday, "The mayor is focused on going through the practical transition of government and getting our budget before council. We haven't discussed any plans related to selling seized guns."
We hope our police department and mayor stick to their guns — no pun intended. Let's not put these confiscated weapons back on the street — not here, not anywhere.