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What happens to old guns when Pittsburgh-area police agencies are finished with them?

What happens to old guns when Pittsburgh-area police agencies are finished with them?
What happens to old guns when Pittsburgh-area police agencies are finished with them? 05:33

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- CBS News discovered that in a 16-year period, between 2006-2022, the ATF identified more than 52,000 guns recovered from crime scenes that police agencies once used.

CBS News surveyed 200 police agencies nationwide and found a majority sell their guns when they decide to upgrade their arsenal.

KDKA Investigates wanted to learn the policies at law enforcement agencies in the Pittsburgh region and if their old weapons could be going back into public circulation.

KDKA learned that in most cases, when an officer joins the police force, the department will provide their officers' weapons while others will tell the officer what to buy and they'll later be reimbursed.

Policies set by law enforcement in the Pittsburgh region

Uniontown Police Department has 20 officers in their department and said they are constantly training with their weapons.

"Our policy is all of our weapons are the same. We use the same weapon. Same ammo. Logistically that's the best, cheapest way to do it," Lt. Thomas Kolencik said. "We can buy everything in bulk, from the same distributor and of course, you know, you get savings that are buying in bulk and that ultimately saves the taxpayers too."

For new officers at the Uniontown Police Department, service weapons are provided to them when they start.

"We train with them all the time. They're used a lot. There are thousands of rounds put through our weapons a year between training and qualifications," Kolencik.

Kolencik said because of new technology or advancements, the department will trade their duty weapons in for new ones, when necessary.

"You know, sometimes you have to change the caliber or change the make and model just to be more advanced," Kolencik said. "We do our best at cleaning and updating the weapons, cars and ballistic vests, but eventually they get old, and they need, you know, we need new ones, updated ones."

Elizabeth Township police have the same policy.

"Every five to seven years, our firearm staff assesses the weapon, its efficiency, its wear and tear, and then we normally will get an amortization schedule for the fair market value of that firearm. We offer a buyback program to our sworn members and then we upgrade to the latest weapon system that is comparable to what we just sold back," said Elizabeth Township Police Chief Ken Honick.

Both departments said when upgrades are needed, they're required by federal law to take their unwanted weapons to a certified federal firearms licensed (FFL) dealer in order to trade them in for something new, rather than opting to destroy them.

"I mean, as a fiduciary for the municipality, it's in the best interest of public tax dollars to ensure that, you know, we get some sort of return value on the asset as opposed to just having it destroyed," Honick said. "We feel it's in our best interest to make sure we have the most modern and effective equipment to assess what their value is at the time that we determine they're no longer road-ready. We offer a buyback to the police officers who can carry those firearms for, you know, several years at that point."

Honick said a new policy at the department went into effect in 2021 to ensure all officers use the same weapons and ammo. Prior to 2021, he said the officers personally purchased and owned their service weapons.

"If you reflect on the 2021, Brevard County, Florida incident, there were 61 rounds fired in less than a minute against law enforcement. In that case, the officers on scene, some of them immediately ran out of all of the ammo and ammunition that they had stored on their person," Honick said. "If you move into a department issue weapon where all the officers are carrying the exact same weapon system and the exact same magazines, you now increase the amount of the specific magazine and the specific ammunition type that's available to the police officers on scene and again in moments of peril and high-stress environments."

Honick said his department reflected on that national event and on the tragedy of Brackenridge Police Chief Justin McIntyre and made the decision to provide officers their weapons. He said they only trade with Blue Label vendors.

"You want to ensure that your officers are prepared every single day when they get on the road with the most effective and efficient weapon systems to protect themselves and citizens when they find themselves in moments of peril," Honick said.

What happens to the weapons once they're traded?

KDKA Investigates then asked what happened to those weapons once they're traded?

KDKA reached out to Markl Supply in Pittsburgh and Officer Supply in Chalk Hill, two local FFL dealers who trade and sell weapons with local police departments.

Markl Supply said the weapons turned over to them are first made available for the officers of the department to buy back for personal use.

"Again, you're training with it weekly and monthly, and then qualifying with it a couple of times a year so there's a personal attachment to the weapon and almost everybody tries to buy their weapon back," Kolencik said.

Before an officer can buy their weapon back, they have to have a background check like anyone else.

"The buyer has to present a valid state-issued ID, driver's license or state-issued ID card, fill out the federal form 4473 as well as fill out the Pennsylvania instant check handgun form. And then that information is submitted to the Pennsylvania State Police who in turn also submits it to the FBI in Washington D.C. to run a background check on the individual to take possession of the gun," Bruce Piendl, the owner of Allegheny Arms and Gun Works, said.

Can service guns end up in circulation?

KDKA Investigates asked if those service guns could ever end up back in public circulation.

Markl Supply said there are scenarios where the guns can end up on the shelf at a local FFL dealer.

"How would you feel to know if one of your weapons that were sold to the distributor that may be sold to the public ended up being used in a crime here locally?" KDKA Investigative reporter Erika Stanish asked.

"I think any weapon that's used in a harmful way's gonna bother me. I don't think it's going to make a difference any more, any less than that it was previously owned by a police officer. If it's used illegally and used to harm somebody in a wrong way then that doesn't sit well with me," Kolencik said.

"If you were to find out one of your local police weapons that you had traded ended up being used in a crime, what would your thoughts be in that situation?" Stanish asked.

"We would never, we would never do business with that, that vendor again. And I would take it another step further and sit down and have a discussion with the Allegheny County District Attorney to see if there was some violations that happened that something like that could even occur," Honick said.

KDKA Investigates also asked bigger departments about their gun policies.

According to the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police firearms policy, officers buy their own duty weapons at their own expense and "cannot lend, sell or dispose of their service weapon unless the transaction is made through an authorized, licensed dealer."

Allegheny County police and Ross Township also require their officers to buy their own, but they are reimbursed. From there, KDKA-TV was told officers own that weapon and can choose to either keep their service weapon or sell it or trade it in when it comes time to buy a new one.

Pennsylvania State Police also sell their weapons.

"The department issues each cadet their department handgun during their training at the academy. If you're on duty and in uniform, that's the only option to carry. Since the department supplies them, a 'buy back' option is offered to personnel when an upgrade occurs to help offset the costs. If the officer does not want to consider the buyback option, they are sold to a licensed firearms dealer," a PSP spokesperson said.

As for the gun that traveled from Newark to Northview Heights, Pittsburgh police never did find its owner and requested to destroy it in 2021. Pittsburgh Police told KDKA after this story aired that the gun remains in their evidence room.   

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