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One bill that was approved for consideration last week targets a very specific problem — the sale of forfeited guns by law enforcement in Maine.
“With some exceptions, Maine law requires that machine guns and guns used in murders and homicides be destroyed,” the Aug. 17 editorial continued. “Lawmakers should consider broadening this law to require the destruction of all guns that can’t, by law, be returned to their owners.”
The Legislature will have an opportunity to do this after a bill, proposed by Democratic Sen. Anne Carney of Cape Elizabeth, was approved by the Legislative Council, a 10-member panel of top lawmakers, on Thursday. Her bill would require the destruction of all firearms forfeited to law enforcement.
The council also approved a bill, from Rep. Vicki Doudera, D-Camden, that would allow people to put themselves on a list preventing them from purchasing firearms, which she said could prevent suicides. Carney and Doudera are co-chairs the Legislature’s Gun Safety Caucus.
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 identified 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.
The sale of guns by Maine law enforcement agencies was brought to light by the BDN Maine Focus reporting on sales by the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office that lacked the required paperwork.
The Oxford County Sheriff’s Office sold 52 guns to a local gun dealer in 2021 without the appropriate tracking and recordkeeping, BDN Maine Focus editor Erin Rhoda reported in August.
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.
However, here’s one example of why these sales can be problematic.
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 and 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.
Because it seems counterintuitive to have law enforcement agencies selling guns, lawmakers should give strong consideration to Carney’s bill to encourage the destruction of guns forfeited after being used in crimes. Likewise, Doudera’s bill, which could help reduce suicides in Maine, is worthy of lawmakers’ attention.