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What happens to used police service weapons in Maryland? Many agencies sell them to offset costs

What do Maryland law enforcement do with retire weapons?
What happens to former police service weapons in Maryland? Sometimes they are tied crimes 05:33

BALTIMORE -- Service weapons are vital for police officers across Maryland but they inevitably have to be replaced.

WJZ asked Baltimore-area law enforcement agencies where the thousands of former service weapons used by officers end up and what the agencies are doing keep them out of the wrong hands.

CBS News, in partnership with The Trace and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, found that more than 3,000 times every year, a gun once owned by police ends up being used to commit a crime.

WJZ found Maryland police departments are increasingly selling them back to vendors or manufacturers. 

In many cases, that is a change from policies several decades ago. 

What is the policy in Baltimore City?

In Baltimore City, which has struggled with violence for decades, the mayor maintains they are cautious about former police guns. 

"We're extremely diligent about what happens when we have weapons retire. The officer is first offered the first right—an opportunity to purchase that. If the officer wants to sell it down the line, they are required to offer it back to BPD to purchase it first," Mayor Brandon Scott said. "Any that are not purchased, they are sent back to the vendor, but before they recycle it to anyone else, BPD has to have the right to purchase it."

The Baltimore Police Department told WJZ, "After we pass, the vendor then takes on the responsibility of ensuring the gun goes to credible sources—such as smaller agencies that might not be able to afford newer weapons."

"It's so important because we know how crime guns end up in the hands of the wrong individuals, and we will not be fueling that from my administration," Scott added.

It comes as the city is suing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for detailed tracing information to find out where illegal guns are coming from.

The federal agency says they are barred by law from releasing that information. 

Nationwide findings

Data journalists with the CBS News Innovation Lab found that across the country, thousands of former police weapons end up being used in crimes although tracing many of these retired service guns is difficult. 

Here are the key findings of the Innovation Lab investigation: 

  • More than 52,000 guns once owned by law enforcement agencies turned up at crime scenes between 2006 and February of 2022, according to data obtained in a lawsuit against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
  • CBS News journalists surveyed state and local law enforcement agencies coast to coast and found at least 145 agencies resold their guns between 2006 and 2022. That's about 90% of the agencies that responded. 
  • CBS tallied the number of sold/traded police weapons based on FOIA requests to agencies around the country. We know at least 63,000 guns have been sold/traded over the last two decades, of the agencies we surveyed.
  • Since 2000, the number of guns produced for the U.S. market has nearly doubled, according to federal data.

You can read the key takeaways here.

Oklahoma murders tied to former Baltimore police gun

The only case WJZ found where a former Baltimore police gun was tied to a crime was a weapon used to murder two girls—Skyla Whitaker, 11, and Taylor Paschal-Placker, 13—in Weleetka, Oklahoma in 2008.

According to court documents, the Glock was defective, and BPD returned it to the manufacturer. The weapon then somehow ended up in the hands of the killer, Kevin Joe Sweat.

Oklahoma authorities traced it back to Baltimore because BPD saved a casing from a test fire.     

Maryland State Police, Anne Arundel Co., Baltimore Co. police responses

Several agencies including Maryland State Police and Anne Arundel County police declined on-camera interview requests about their policies. 

Maryland State Police directed us to current state law

Both have traded in or sold their weapons, according to an analysis by CBS News. 

CBS News obtained 2019 documents showing a trade-in from Anne Arundel County to Atlantic Tactical in Pennsylvania. 

That vendor says on its website it only re-sells to current and retired public safety personnel. 

WJZ traveled to Pennsylvania to try to get more answers: We wanted to know how the process works, how many departments they buy from and how they can ensure these weapons don't fall into the wrong hands. 

Atlantic Tactical declined an interview and its parent company did not respond to follow-up requests. 

There is nothing illegal about the practice.

In Baltimore County, police have traded in their old service weapons to offset costs, but they require the vendor to destroy key parts of those guns that include the serial numbers. 

That included an agreement in 2019. 

"1,917 FN weapons were provided to Atlantic Tactical as part of a county trade-in. Under the terms of the agreement, the weapons were to be destroyed," a spokesperson said. 

Baltimore County police also told CBS News, "Under the terms of the agreements entered into over the past ten years, the weapons were to be destroyed within the specifications outlined in the solicitations."

Maryland's General Assembly allows departments to trade in their old weapons under legislation passed in 2007

The departments get a discount: Many times, half off the purchase of new guns.

Harford County Sheriff speaks about trade-in policy

In Harford County, which is in the process of purchasing new weapons, Sheriff Jeff Gahler says it is not about the money. 

"That's a good savings, and our citizens deserve for us to be fiscally responsible, but in a $1.2 billion budget. It really does not amount to that much," Sheriff Gahler said.

He told Hellgren, "As equally as it could end up in a bad person's hands, it could also end up in a good person's hands and be used at the right moment to save someone from loss of life or violent assault. It's a tool like any other—a firearm—and it deserves the respect it's due as does a car, but I believe the citizens—it's in the Constitution—they have a right to keep and bear arms."

We asked him whether he believes it is an overreaction for departments to destroy their weapons because they're worried about them getting into the wrong hands.

"I certainly do. I'm a Second Amendment advocate, proponent. I believe in responsible gun ownership," the sheriff said. "These guns are going back to a federal firearms licensee, so they're going to go back through the proper checks before they're sold back out in the public to anybody if that's what the manufacturer decides to do with the weapons that are traded in."

WJZ found plenty of former police service weapons for sale online, but in Gahler's view, the number of guns out there is not the problem.

"If guns were the problem, there would be no people left. It's not the guns. It's not the responsible gun owner. It's the criminals,"  Gahler said. "No, I don't believe police officers or police departments recirculating their weapons or putting them back to the manufacturer contributes to increased crime or violence in our society. I just believe that is not a true excuse."

Gahler stressed to us that any guns confiscated by his deputies that were part of a crime are destroyed once that investigation is over and are never sold or offered to private citizens for reuse.

Howard, Carroll, Montgomery County responses

Howard County police told WJZ they trade old weapons in to the manufacturer. "Our vendor ensures they are not sold to civilians," a police spokesperson said. 

The Carroll County Sheriff's Office said they upgraded weapons in 2015 and turned the old guns into a vendor for credit. Deputies could purchase their old weapon from the vendor. 

Montgomery County police also sell or trade their retired weapons according to CBS News. 

You can read more about how CBS News traced former police weapons tied to crimes here.

Why are crime scene guns traced to former law enforcement weapons? 04:24
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