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Gun used at Pittsburgh crime scene traced back to New Jersey police, part of alarming trend for former service weapons

Gun used at Pittsburgh crime scene traced back to New Jersey police
Gun used at Pittsburgh crime scene traced back to New Jersey police 03:24

When a police department upgrades its guns, what happens to the old ones? A CBS News investigation found law enforcement agencies routinely resold or traded in their used duty weapons, a practice that has sent thousands of guns into the hands of criminals. 

In a 16-year period ending in 2022, the ATF identified more than 52,000 guns recovered from crime scenes that were once used by police agencies. It took a federal court order for the ATF to release that data.

In one case, serial numbers obtained from police mapped a weapon's path from Newark, New Jersey, through New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, and ultimately to a crime scene in Pittsburgh - 350 miles away.

Shots fired in Pittsburgh

On July 14, 2019, 12 shots were fired in the Northview Heights neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Police searched the area and didn't find anyone shot, but they did find the gun, ditched near Hazlett Street.

An officer wrote that the gun had "numerous scrapes ... consistent with it being thrown and sliding across cement," leading police to believe the person who fired the shots tossed it as they ran away.

According to Pittsburgh Police, the gun was not reported stolen, but they also couldn't find any record of the current owner. An ATF gun tracing report obtained by CBS shows the gun's serial number was traced back to the Newark Police Department.

Newark police traded-in guns

Newark Police have proudly taken guns off the street for years through gun buybacks. But at the same time they have inadvertently put their own weapons back in circulation.

The Newark Police Department confirmed that they traded-in about a thousand guns in 2016 and 2017 to a firearms dealer, in exchange for discounts on new equipment. That dealer then resells the weapons.

"It makes me feel that money is more important to you than mankind," said Newark-based anti-violence activist Pastor Jethro James. "Melt it down and make something useful out of it."

"I don't blame this mayor because it didn't start with this mayor," James said. "However, this is your time to try; step up to the plate and take your swings. You tried and because of your trying, maybe somebody is not dying, somebody's kid is not dying."

Many police departments trade-in weapons

Newark Police tell CBS News they have not traded-in guns in years, but they would not say whether they will do it again when it's time to upgrade.

In partnership with the nonprofit newsrooms The Trace and Reveal, CBS News surveyed 200 police agencies nationwide and found a majority sell their guns when they decide to upgrade their arsenal.

Police in Monroe, New York, trade-in old weapons. Police in Yonkers, New York, trade-in to a vendor that does not sell to the public. In New York City, officers are the legal owners of their guns. When upgrading, they can keep the old weapon for personal use, or sell it.

"I'm not going to penalize or say that's wrong in any way," said retired ATF New York Special Agent in Charge John DeVito. "I think we should have satisfactory budgets so these departments and chiefs don't have to make hard decisions — 'We have to trade-in these guns, we have sell these guns, in order to equip my officers.' That's not a decision a chief should be having to make."

According to DeVito, ATF agents can trace a gun from one firearms dealer to another, but they can't see which citizens might later buy them.

Tracing the gun from New Jersey to Pennsylvania

The gun used in the 2019 Pittsburgh incident was sold by Newark police to a company called Atlantic Tactical, according to documents obtained by CBS News.

Atlantic Tactical's website says their corporate headquarters is in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. However, CBS News found the building for sale and an online announcement said the company sold to Florida-based Safariland in 2015.

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

That same year, Atlantic Tactical stopped selling guns to the general public, according to their website. They now only sell to current and retired public safety personnel.

No one at the retail store in New Cumberland would do an interview and Safariland did not respond to requests for comment.

Police perspective

"It's more common for police agencies to do things like buybacks where their objective is to get guns off the street," said Robert Bradshaw, a crisis management consultant in New Cumberland who works with police departments.

"In my experience, that's probably where most of the law enforcement officers that I know — that's how they feel. They feel there's too many guns on the street already."

Bradshaw also helped write the fictional book "American Roulette" about the impact of a mass shooting on an American town. The characters he created are police officers, "to highlight the fact that police officers themselves become victims of these events. They become traumatized by it. They're changed forever."

An unclear path to Pittsburgh

How a gun sold by Newark Police to Atlantic Tactical landed on the streets of Northview Heights in 2019 is unclear.

In a statement to CBS News, an ATF spokesperson said, "there are a few different scenarios that could have occurred. Given the range of options and not wanting to imply something incorrect, we cannot speculate on what may have led to this particular report."

"This sounds like it's part and parcel of a system that is setup with so many holes in it to allow guns to get into the wrong hands," said Josh Fleitman, the campaign director for CeaseFirePA.

Fleitman said this incident is just one example of why new gun policies should be considered.

However, a Pittsburgh area gun shop owner said he and other owners cannot just sell to anyone and face restrictions.

"We have to ask, 'mother may I sell this gun?' to our federal government, and they have to give us an approval number to be able to transfer that item. And then we have to have records of who bought it," outlined Bruce Piendl, the owner of Allegheny Arms and Gun Works.

As for the gun that traveled from Newark to Northview Heights, Pittsburgh Police never did find its owner and eventually destroyed it in 2021.

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