In this July 29, 2020, file photo, guns seized or recovered by police are seen here during a press conference at the Flint Police Department in Flint, Michigan. Credit: Jake May / The Flint Journal via AP

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A recent Bangor Daily News report on improper gun sales by the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department shone light on a seemingly counterintuitive practice — police selling firearms.

The Oxford County Sheriff’s Department sold 52 guns to a local gun dealer in 2021 without the appropriate tracking and record keeping, BDN Maine Focus editor Erin Rhoda reported.

The lack of paperwork and accountability in this instance are troubling. However, sales of forfeited firearms are legal and law enforcement agencies in Maine routinely sell guns they have properly seized. The sales can be an important source of funds for some departments.

Yet, we have to wonder why, at a time of rising gun violence, law enforcement departments would be returning guns to circulation rather than destroying them. With some exceptions, Maine law requires that machine guns and guns used in murders and homicides be destroyed. Lawmakers should consider broadening this law to require the destruction of all guns that can’t, by law, be returned to their owners.

“Maine law requires firearms used in murders and homicides to be destroyed, but other lost or forfeited firearms can be sold to a federally licensed firearms dealer or member of the public following a public notice and auction process. This concerns me — we don’t want these guns to be used to harm Mainers and our law enforcement officers,” state Sen. Anne Carney, a chair of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, told the Bangor Daily News editorial board.

Carney, a Democrat from Cape Elizabeth, sponsored a new law that toughens penalties for knowingly providing a firearm to someone who is prohibited from having one.

Under federal law, firearms that are forfeited to federal law enforcement agencies are not sold, and most are destroyed.

“The Department has concluded that the forfeiture of firearms and ammunition involved in crime constitutes a compelling law enforcement interest,” to remove them from circulation, the Department of Justice says in its 2023 Asset Forfeiture Policy Manual.

“Moreover, the federal government generally destroys forfeited firearms and ammunition and never resells them,” the manual says.

If the Department of Justice has a compelling interest in removing from circulation firearms that were used in a crime and legally seized, state and local law enforcement agencies should share that interest.

An ongoing federal case in Maine shows why. In April, a Maine woman was charged with buying dozens of guns for gang members in California. Some of the guns were purchased from the store in Auburn that bought guns from the Oxford County sheriff. One gun from the Auburn store has already been seized by police in Los Angeles, according to court records.

When guns are properly seized or forfeited by their owner, law enforcement officials have an opportunity to take them out of circulation, as many do.

Some states and larger cities routinely destroy guns that have been seized after they were used in crimes. Philadelphia melts down between 3,000 to 6,000 firearms each year. Thousands more are destroyed in Los Angeles. In New York City, melted guns are used to make manhole covers, hangers and other items. Manhole covers were made by an artist from guns seized by law enforcement agencies in Connecticut.

In Maine, decisions on whether to destroy or sell properly forfeited firearms are left to individual agencies. The Bangor Police Department destroys seized firearms after an extensive process, which includes notifying their owner, the BDN reported. Some agencies destroy guns used in suicides.

At the other end of the spectrum, 12 states forbid the destruction of firearms seized by police.

It seems counterintuitive to us that law enforcement agencies are selling guns. That’s why we hope lawmakers will consider changes to state law to encourage the destruction of guns forfeited after being used in crimes.

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...