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Data shows Philadelphia police sold nearly 900 used guns. Here's what our investigation found.

Philadelphia police sold nearly 900 used guns, investigation finds
Philadelphia police sold nearly 900 used guns, investigation finds 06:38

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — One way law enforcement works to protect and serve is by getting guns out of the hands of criminals, but we've discovered each year that thousands of guns once used by officers have been discovered at crime scenes.

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

What about our local law enforcement and the possibility these guns could have ended up at crime scenes?

Over a 16-year period, ending in 2022, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives identified more than 52,000 guns recovered from crime scenes that were once used by police agencies.

A federal court ordered the ATF to release that data. Our partners at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting sued ATF after it rejected a public records request.

ATF had cited the Tiahrt Amendment, which bars publicly disclosing most gun trace information.

Many law enforcement agencies wouldn't speak on the record about these findings. To be fair, no one in law enforcement is accused of doing anything illegal.

But the number of former police weapons turning up at crime scenes drew curiosity. What do local departments across the Delaware Valley do with their used firearms when they purchase new guns?

And what do those affected by gun violence have to say about these figures?

"This is unbelievable. We have a problem."

"More awareness needs to be made about this," Crystal Hamilton of South Philadelphia said.

The South Philadelphia mom says in the seven years since her son, Kristian Hamilton-Arthur's murder, she's helped hundreds of moms just like her, those caught up in trying to cope with indescribable loss.

Since her son died, she says she's learned a lot.

"I learned that there was a war going on in Philly," she said. "I had no clue it was that bad until it happened to me."

Hamilton-Arthur, a 28-year-old aspiring realtor, died in 2017 after police said a car pulled up to a spot where he was standing at 22nd and Fitzwater streets. Investigators say those inside the car opened fire. His murder is unsolved.

Since then, Hamilton has been on a mission, using her strength to call attention to the vicious cycle of gun violence.

She has mentored dozens of mothers through the loss of their children and has lobbied for stricter gun control legislation.

"As a mother that has lost a child to homicide, I had to join the crowd," Hamilton said. "I had to change my pain into a purpose. I wanted to find out what was going on, what happened because I was clueless. I had no clue."

It comes as no surprise that this mom, an anti-gun-violence activist in Philadelphia, was stunned to hear about the results of this CBS News and CBS News Philadelphia investigation: that former police weapons have been repeatedly found at crime scenes.

The once "law and order" guns were, apparently, now in the hands of bad guys.

"I'm floored," Hamilton said. "I can't believe it. This is unbelievable. We have a problem."

How many guns have the Philadelphia Police Department sold?

More data uncovered by CBS News data journalists shows nearly 900 former Philadelphia police guns were sold legally between 2006 and 2022. A department spokesperson said these figures represent officers who were permitted to buy their firearms as the department bought new guns, or the officer was retiring.

From the research, this practice is commonplace with dozens of departments we reached out to for comment and information. Those included county sheriff's departments, local police, the city of Allentown and Philadelphia.

On the fifth floor of Philadelphia's Public Services Building, Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel granted CBS News Philadelphia a sit-down interview to talk about our findings and to explain his department's policies.

"We here at the department take our guns and sell them back to the manufacturer," Bethel said. "Half our guns are, as you are aware, being purchased by the officer."

A department spokesperson said they were unaware of any former Philadelphia police weapons turning up at crime scenes.

Of the data we uncovered about the 52,000 former police weapons found at crime scenes, the ATF wouldn't reveal which police departments once owned those weapons.

"We have to look at all of it and see if, as you indicated, if we're contributing — we constantly talk about how many guns are in our communities," Bethel said. "If we're finding the weapons we're purchasing and then bringing back and recycling to being crime guns, well, that's a problem, right, and something we have to talk about and think about."

We reached out to a spokesperson for Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker, a Democrat, providing details and the findings of our investigation. An email sent earlier this week seeking comment did not receive a response.

In this months-long investigation, CBS News Philadelphia sought records and spoke with dozens of police sources.

Like Philadelphia, every department we reached out to has traded used weapons back to a federally licensed firearms dealer in exchange for a discount on new firearms purchases. But how 52,000 law enforcement weapons ended up at crime scenes is not entirely clear.

Nearly every single agency was unaware of that figure.

When CBS News requested public records from law enforcement agencies nationwide, some provided serial numbers of the guns they sold. Many agencies denied our information request.

"This is news to me"

At a press conference last month, where legislators called on the Pennsylvania Senate to pass a ban on ghost guns, we presented our findings to Democratic lawmakers from Philadelphia.

"That is crazy," Democratic state Rep. Amen Brown said.

Brown, who represents parts of West Philadelphia, wanted to know more.

"We need to figure out who the irresponsible party is in that whole matter," he said. "There's got to be a loophole somewhere and as a policymaker and stakeholder, I want to look more into that. Because this is news to me."

House Speaker Joanna McClinton, a Democrat, sounded similar alarms and called for more scrutiny.

"Those figures are astonishing," McClinton said. "It is very important that police departments across the nation have real safeguards and appropriate protocol in place for when someone retires or transfers to another department that the officer's weapon is either destroyed or recirculated. But we do not need to ever risk them getting into the streets."

"Destroy the gun"

In a city very much at war to reduce the number of guns on the streets, Crystal Hamilton, the mother of a murder victim, struggled to comprehend what she called a "dark irony."

"I can't even wrap my head around this, but I'm trying," Hamilton said. "If you want to turn a gun back in, destroy the gun. That's how you decrease the amount of guns in existence."

Nearly every department said their established trade-back programs, where their weapons are sold back to a federally licensed firearm dealer, provide necessary financial relief in the purchase of new weapons. One local department said without the trade-back program, the cost of new weapons would approach $200,000 for its force of more than 125 officers.

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