Throughout August, The Texas Tribune will feature 31 ways Texans' lives will change because of new laws that take effect Sept. 1. Check out our story calendar for more.
For decades, weapons confiscated by police in Texas were supposed to be repurposed for law enforcement use — or else destroyed. Starting next month, Texans will be able to purchase some of them instead.
Some local police departments have already been selling certain confiscated weapons, operating under a gray area of existing law, said Edwin Walker, president of Texas Law Shield, which provides legal services to Texas gun owners.
House Bill 1421, which passed during the 2013 legislative session, formally permits law enforcement officials to sell found or unclaimed weapons to a licensed firearms dealer. They can also sell confiscated weapons that are left unclaimed after cases that were never prosecuted or did not result in a conviction. In cases that do result in a conviction, police departments maintain possession of the firearms as evidence in the event they are needed for appeals.
The new rule gives law enforcement "one more option,” said Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock and the author of the bill. “It has a fiscal impact in a positive way and it makes sense if the weapons are in good shape.”
It's still unclear how well the measure will meet its stated goal, which Walker said is allowing police to “recoup some money, to put some money back in their budget.” The police departments in large Texas cities like San Antonio, Houston and Austin, which all destroyed hundreds of guns in 2012, have said they will not participate. Some law enforcement officials said they already have department policies against selling confiscated firearms and worry about putting more weapons back onto the street.
The Waco Police Department has not yet decided if it will pursue the sale of confiscated guns, but “at first blush it is probably not something we will be willing to do just for the fact that we don’t want to put additional weapons back out there on the street that have already been confiscated or used in a crime,” said Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton, the agency's public information officer.
Those who might rely on the new law? Small, cash-strapped departments in rural Texas, some of which have already been making such resales.
In Crane County, located at the base of the Texas Panhandle and home to about 4,300 people, even two gun confiscations a year is a lot, said Andrew Aguilar, the chief deputy of the local police department. The firearms his department has seized in the past have already been sold, he said.
In many rural towns, sheriff’s sales of seized property are common sources of income, said Alice Tripp, a legislative director and lobbyist for the Texas State Rifle Association. The new law “is permissive," she said. "It simply gives them another avenue. It says who they can sell to and who the money goes to after the costs are met.”
After the law takes effect on Sept. 1, law enforcement agencies will have the green light to sell confiscated guns to a licensed weapons dealer. The proceeds will first cover outstanding court or auctioneer’s fees; the remainder will go to the police department that seized the weapon.
But Jason Knowles, the manager of Patriot Firearms in Lubbock, said he doubts the confiscated gun market will be bustling.
“The majority of firearms seized by law enforcement typically are relatively cheap and of low quality,” he said. “You don’t get a lot of high end guns in the seizure world.”
Sgt. Jason Lewis, the public information officer at the Lubbock Police Department, said his agency destroyed 56 firearms in 2012, many of them cheap, stolen guns in very poor condition.
“Every once in a while you get a something that you are like ‘Whoa, that’s too bad that you are melting that,'” he said. “For the most part, it is junk."