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South Salt Lake Journal

Guns held in evidence get a second life

Dec 04, 2022 11:08AM ● By Zak Sonntag

By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]

The City of South Salt Lake Police Department has a lot of guns—but not all of them belong to officers.

Through the course of evidence, the department acquires firearms that have been abandoned, found, or used in the commission of a crime. Where applicable, SSLPD tries to return guns to owners, but in the course of the last few years the department has found itself with a slew of arms it doesn’t want.

“We just don’t have enough space to maintain and hold (guns) for an extended period of time. And this is a legal way that we are able to dispose of that property,” said Captain Danielle Croyle, public information officer with SSLPD.

South Salt Lake City Council voted in September to appropriate stored guns for “public interest use” by giving them to Salt Lake Wholesale, a federally licensed firearms dealer who is allowed by Utah state law to resell or destroy firearms acquired from agencies throughout the state.

The practice enables functional guns to be put back in circulation, which helps meet the surging demand in a state which had 118,408 registered firearms in 2021, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), translating to a gun in around half of all Utah households, as corroborated in a recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll.

Should some guns remain off market?

Utah law prevents law enforcement agencies from selling or destroying firearms. They must instead dispose of guns through federally licensed entities, according to Croyle, who says the council’s vote allows the department to now offload around 100 guns collected over the past eight years.

For a licensed dealer like Salt Lake Wholesale, a local South Salt Lake for-profit business, the incentive to resell arms is clear, but it’s unclear what incentives exist to destroy them, which raises philosophical questions about the ethics of certain instances of gun recirculation.

Croyle said there is a belief held by some public servants that particular guns should not be resold, like those used in the commission of a suicide or uniquely heinous crime.

“There are cases that are traumatic and sensitive. They're heart wrenching, and in those cases we don't want (firearms) back out there. So there are some things that widen our perspective about the question of how we dispose of property,” she said.

“What’s the benefit of (a licensed dealer) to destroy them when they don't get something from it? We’re trying to balance all of these things and look at different avenues to be sure what we’re doing is in the law, and if there is a better best practice for how do we dispose of property,” Croyle said.

Jordan Mitchell, owner of Salt Lake Wholesale, did not comment directly on the recirculation of guns with dubious histories, but said that his business adheres rigorously to the law.

“It’s not like some guy walking around with a gun who wants to trade it in at a pawn shop,” Mitchell said, referring to his acquisition of arms from state agencies. “My ethics are to be 100% legal, and I go above and beyond to follow the actual laws and the spirit of the law in all cases.”

Mitchell is still waiting to receive SSL’s public interest use donation, and says he cannot know how many will be resalable until after he examines them. In the case of illegal or unsellable guns—which could mean guns with destroyed serial numbers or that have been illegally altered, like those with sawed-off barrels—he says Salt Lake Wholesale does not destroy them but instead contracts a separate entity if destruction is needed.

For law enforcement agencies across the region, Salt Lake Wholesale has become a go-to outlet not only for firearm disposal, but also for firearm and ammunition provisions.

“We do millions in dollars in sales to law enforcement because we are highly trained, highly professional, and we’re very serious about what we do,” said Mitchell, whose company holds exclusive contracts to provide Glock pistols to agencies throughout the state.

Crime Lab

In seeking to dispose of firearms, agencies like SSLPD have also turned to the Utah Crime Lab, a division within the Utah Department of Public Safety. The lab uses firearms to conduct forensic research—in order to analyze and compare ballistic trajectories, fire-casings, impact ratios and other aspects of firearm function which can then be used to help enforcement agencies connect dots in criminal investigations.

“We try to have as large of a variety of makes and models of firearms as we can in our reference collection in order to do our forensic analysis of casework,” said Jennifer McNair, chief forensic scientist at the Crime Lab.

Similar to law enforcement agencies, albeit, the lab is also limited by storage space and declines to dispose of most arms offered by law enforcement agencies.

“If you think about all the possible guns that are held in evidence with police departments throughout the entire state, it wouldn't be possible for us to continually accept every gun an agency is trying to dispose of,” McNair said.