116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Rifles and shotguns seized in Iowa crimes are sold back to the public to raise money for the state, but some victim advocates say the annual gun auction adds to the problem of easy access to weapons for abusers and would-be criminals.
Seized handguns are destroyed unless law enforcement agencies need them for officer use. But rifles and shotguns - viewed primarily as hunting weapons - go to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for the auction, this year scheduled for May 4 in Polk City.
The sale brought in nearly $83,000 last year, but at what price?
“Batterers that have weapons available to them tend to be more violent,” said Kristie Fortmann-Doser, executive director of the Domestic Violence Intervention Program in Iowa City. “A weapon is a weapon. It doesn't matter if it's a handgun, if it's a shotgun, if it's a knife.”
Sold at auction
Iowa law enforcement agencies that seize guns as part of criminal investigations are required to give them to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation once the guns are no longer needed as evidence. The DCI collected 1,584 guns in 2012.
About 200 of those guns were added to the DCI's gun reference collection, which includes about 4,000 firearms of different makes and models. The collection is used for training and for comparison with weapons used in crimes across the state.
The DCI has transferred or is waiting to transfer 183 guns to law enforcement agencies in Iowa and in other states.
Last year, 585 guns were destroyed. These guns, mostly handguns, are shredded by a private company in Des Moines.
The remainder of the seized guns - about 600 rifles and shotguns - was transferred to the DNR for the auction.
“We have over 700 items at the auction this year,” said DNR conservation officer Jeff Swearngin. “That's over 500 guns, maybe 20 bows and various traps.”
The auction brought in $82,700 last year. More than $55,000 went to the DNR's Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund, which pays for fish stocking, habitat restoration, wildlife surveys and game wardens. Another $27,200 went to the state's general fund.
The DNR is expecting an even larger turnout for this year's auction because of fears gun-control legislation will make it tougher to buy firearms in the future, Swearngin said.
Destroy or sell?
How police dispose of seized weapons has been a hot topic across the country.
Arizona law prohibits law enforcement agencies from destroying guns they confiscate during criminal investigations. The logic behind the legislation is that destroying sellable guns is a waste of state resources.
On the other end of the spectrum, Washington state law enforcement agencies were criticized for selling seized guns, including SKS military-style rifles and AK-47s, according to a February report by Seattle television station King5.
In Iowa, the Fremont County Sheriff's Department traded 114 guns, including handguns, rifles and shotguns, to a firearms dealer in 2011 in exchange for $6,000 in gun parts for the department. Sheriff Kevin Aistrope said he didn't know Iowa law requires departments to forfeit seized guns to the state.
“It's given me a little black eye, but we did what we thought was right and saved a small county six grand,” Aistrope said.
He thinks the state should do more to educate departments about proper disposal of seized guns.
Several Iowa police departments have planned gun buybacks in which residents can turn in firearms for gift certificates or free gasoline. The Waterloo Police Department recovered nearly 60 guns in a 2011 buyback, Capt. Tim Pillack said.
Cedar Rapids police are seeking up to $10,000 in donations so they can offer $100 gift certificates to people who anonymously hand over a gun at a buyback later this year. The guns will be destroyed.
“If we only get one gun back, then you know what, to me it's a success because that one gun will not ever be used to hurt someone,” Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said.
Rep. Bob Kressig, D-Cedar Falls, pointed out the contradiction between one state agency “buying” guns while another agency sells them.
“It seems odd that we're taking guns off the street from criminals and then reselling them,” said the ranking Democrat on the House Public Safety Committee.
Only sporting weapons
The Iowa DNR gun auction is tightly regulated, requiring all participants to have a valid firearms permit.
“You can't just walk off the street and purchase a weapon,” Swearngin said. “You have to be cleared to buy that weapon before you even come into our auction.”
The DCI isn't aware of any guns sold at auction coming back to the lab in a second crime.
Swearngin recalls at least one weapon - a hunting bow - being seized in a poaching case and then sold at auction to the man who was charged with the crime. That bow was recently seized in a new poaching case, he said.
State officials stressed that the guns sold at auction are sporting weapons.
“We're not selling handguns,” said Victor Murillo, a criminalist with the Iowa DCI. “We're not selling so-called assault rifles. None of that is being put back on the street.”
History of crimes
However, some of the state's most well-known murders involved shotguns or rifles.
Dixie Shanahan Duty, of Defiance, shot her abusive husband in the head with a shotgun in 2002 and then left his body in the bedroom for more than a year while she and her children continued to live in the house.
Shawn Bentler, of Bonaparte, gunned down his parents and three teenage sisters in 2006 with a rifle that likely came from his father's collection of hunting weapons.
In 2011, Jeffery Krier used a rifle and a shotgun in a shootout with police that killed Krier and Keokuk County Sheriff's Sergeant Eric Stein.
The Linn County Sheriff's Office and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating the burglary of more than 70 rifles and shotguns from a Palo residence in January. Investigators are trying to figure out whether those guns were trafficked to criminals, as is often the case with stolen guns.
“You can do more damage with a long gun than with a handgun,” Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said.
Having access to firearms of any kind can increase the odds that domestic abuse will escalate to violence, Fortmann-Doser said.
“We'll have individuals who will describe how their partner, after an argument, will go and clean their weapons,” she said. Victims “feel that's a very direct threat to them, a way of letting them know ‘I can take your life at any moment.'?”
Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden takes a pragmatic view of the gun auction.
“I guess it's a way of recycling assets to raise money,” he said. “If the DNR canceled this program, would that result in a drop in crime? I don't think so.”