The Austin City Council voted this week to prohibit its police department from selling retired service weapons back to the public, citing concerns about how those firearms might be used once they’re in civilian hands.
The resolution was a response to recent revelations that Austin police had offloaded more than 1,100 Smith & Wesson .40 caliber handguns to a Houston gun dealer in 2016 after the department secured a new contract for 9mm duty weapons.
Police made around $370,000 for those firearms, which the dealer was then free to resell. But Council Member Alison Alter, who sponsored the measure, said that revenue may have come at a much deeper cost.
“How do you compare that to someone’s life who gets killed by one of the 1,100 guns you put out there?” she said in an interview with HuffPost.
Austin’s policy change comes months after a report by Texas Standard and The Center For Investigative Reporting, which found that nearly half of the largest law enforcement agencies in Texas sell their used firearms to the public. Some of those guns end up being used in crimes, though it’s not clear how frequently because of a federal law that restricts the release of firearm trace data.
“We have no reports concretely of any APD guns being used in a crime, and why is that? Well they don’t track those statistics anywhere,” said Alter.
Previous reviews of shootings in Denver and Washington, D.C., have found examples of former service weapons being used by criminals. In more recent instances, police have sold off other confiscated weapons only to later recover them at crime scenes.
The Houston gun dealer would have been required to resell the retired APD firearms according to federal standards, which include conducting an FBI background check. But the resolution notes that this isn’t a guarantee against future criminal use.
“Existing loopholes in criminal background check laws cannot preclude the possibility that firearms initially sold by a licensed gun dealer may not be ultimately purchased by an individual who would fail existing background check standards,” the city council measure reads.
We would have hated for one of these guns to be involved in an officer shooting or be used to kill a child. Austin Council Member Alison Alter
Guns can fall into the wrong hands through straw purchases ― when someone buys a gun for a restricted individual ― or secondary private sales, which don’t require an accompanying background check. Or they can simply be used by a legal owner who ends up breaking the law.
Former service weapons are also cheaper and likely more highly sought after than most new guns, said Alter.
“If you can sell a used gun that says ‘APD’ on it then people want it. It’s a former police gun that has some cachet,” she said. “We would have hated for one of these guns to be involved in an officer shooting or be used to kill a child.”
Following the passage of Alter’s resolution, APD will only be able to sell retired weapons to officers within the department. Any remaining weapons will be destroyed.
Guns can be a thorny issue in Austin, a relatively liberal college town in the heart of deep-red Texas. State law broadly preempts municipalities from passing their own laws regulating firearms, and as a result, Alter said she and other city council members have very few levers to do anything meaningful on gun control.
“I don’t want to pretend it was a huge thing, but it was one of the few things that we have within our purview as a municipality to do and to send a message that we don’t want this kind of gun violence in our community and that we don’t want to in any way be contributing to that,” said Alter.
Although Alter said Austin police had expressed some concerns about losing a source of revenue, APD assistant chief Troy Gay told KXAN that he viewed the measure as a positive step.
“Unfortunately, there are millions of weapons out on the street, but anything that we can do, whether it’s just taking one gun off the street and destroying that to me is a move in the right direction,” he said.