When Flint, Mich., announced in September that 68 assault weapons collected in a gun buyback would be incinerated, the city cited its policy of never reselling firearms.
“Gun violence continues to cause enormous grief and trauma,” said Mayor Sheldon Neeley. “I will not allow our city government to profit from our community’s pain by reselling weapons that can be turned against Flint residents.”
But Flint’s guns were not going to be melted down. Instead, they made their way to a private company that has collected millions of dollars taking firearms from police agencies, destroying a single piece of each weapon stamped with the serial number and selling the rest as nearly complete gun kits. Buyers online can easily replace what’s missing and reconstitute the weapon.
Hundreds of towns and cities have turned to a growing industry that offers to destroy guns used in crimes, surrendered in buybacks or replaced by police force upgrades. But these communities are in fact fueling a secondary arms market, where weapons slated for destruction are recycled into civilian hands, often with no background check required, according to interviews and a review of gun disposal contracts, patent records and online listings for firearms parts.
Some public officials and gun safety advocates said they had no clue this was happening. The Rev. Chris Yaw, whose Episcopal church outside Detroit has sponsored buybacks with local officials, said in an interview that he was “aghast and appalled” when told by a reporter how the process works.
“It tells me that our society is set up really well for buying and selling guns,” he said, “but it’s not set up very well for disposing of them.”
This examination of the gun disposal industry reveals a hidden aspect of the government’s role in promoting the proliferation of guns and a gun culture that has divided the country. The New York Times has previously reported how federal officials and legislators have facilitated the spread of ammunition and favorable laws.
The industry relies on contracts with public agencies at the local, state and federal levels, and is subsidized by tax dollars and charitable donations that pay for buybacks. Governments arguably could be seen as complicit in bad outcomes — if a recycled assault weapon from Flint, for example, was later used in a deadly shooting — but it would be difficult to even know that: The salvaged gun parts typically would not include a serial number that could be traced.
A Missouri business called Gunbusters, which patented a “firearms pulverizer,” was responsible for dealing with the Flint weapons. The company says it has taken in more than 200,000 firearms over the past decade from about 950 police agencies around the country, from Baton Rouge, La., to St. Louis to Hartford, Vt.
At least a half-dozen other firms do similar work. LSC Destruction of Nevada says it has disposed of guns for police departments in Minneapolis and San Antonio, while New England Ballistic Services of Massachusetts has worked with Boston and towns in Rhode Island.
Gun auction websites have thousands of listings for parts kits, and even complete firearms, offered by firms that contract with law enforcement agencies to handle disposals. Gunbusters and its five licensees across the country, for example, recently averaged more than $90,000 a week in combined online sales of hundreds of disassembled guns from government clients.
This little-known but profitable corner of the firearms economy exists because the approved method of destroying a gun contains a loophole that has been exploited.
To be able to say a gun is destroyed, disposal companies crush or cut up a single piece that federal law classifies as a firearm: the receiver or frame that anchors the other components and contains the required serial number. The businesses can then sell the remaining parts as a kit: barrel, trigger, grip, slide, stock, springs — essentially the entire gun, minus the regulated piece.
Police agencies and disposal companies say they are following guidelines set by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. While the guidelines, posted on the A.T.F. website, show illustrations of whole guns being cut into pieces with an acetylene torch, they also say that an “acceptable method” is to destroy just the receiver or frame.
The companies, for their part, say that if public officials want the whole gun destroyed, they must pay for it.
“Our services are free for law enforcement agencies,” said Scott Reed, president of Gunbusters. “If we can’t cover our costs by selling parts, then we charge them.”
Only about two percent of Gunbusters’ clients pay to have the full firearm destroyed, he said. Federal agencies, including the Secret Service, are among them.
Mr. Reed likened the recycling of parts to “organ donation,” allowing collectors to repair or maintain their firearms: “The people who are happiest with us are those who need parts for old guns that just aren’t made anymore.”
But while the parts kits have legitimate uses, they could also further the spread of so-called ghost guns when paired with an untraceable receiver or frame, said Nicholas Suplina, a senior lawyer with Everytown for Gun Safety. The number of do-it-yourself ghost guns turning up in violent crimes has surged, made possible by unfinished components — prefabricated metal pieces that need welding and drilling — that are not serialized, and often do not require a background check when purchased separately.
“These parts kits provide the necessary elements to complete a gun by a person who couldn’t pass a background check,” Mr. Suplina said.
Both Everytown and the Giffords Law Center, another national gun safety group, said they had not realized that “destroyed” firearms were being sold in this way.
In their marketing, gun disposal companies play up their no-cost services, often leaving out the information about parts-selling, which appears in the written contracts. Elected officials rely on their police departments — which typically look to save money — to make the arrangements, and they give perfunctory approval with little or no discussion. In interviews, some officials acknowledged that they had not understood the process, but were reluctant to speak publicly now because they had made inaccurate claims for years about guns supposedly being destroyed.
In Spartanburg, S.C., where a taxpayer-funded buyback in May collected 128 firearms that were given to Gunbusters, local news stories reported that they would be destroyed at no cost to the city. Police Chief Alonzo Thompson said he was aware that Gunbusters sold most of the parts rather than crushing everything, but felt that was acceptable as long as the company complied with A.T.F. regulations.
“But I understand the concerns and those who might feel they’re less than informed,” he said, adding, “My priority is to remove these guns from our community.”
Flint, like other Michigan municipalities, transfers its unwanted firearms to the state police for destruction. What Flint officials did not know was that the Michigan State Police was Gunbusters’ biggest client.
“The city was unaware that weapons were not being incinerated,” Flint officials said in a statement when told by a reporter about the company’s destruction method, adding that they would seek to clarify the disposal arrangement.
Red vs. Blue
The disposal of unwanted guns has emerged as yet another front in America’s culture wars.
Red state lawmakers have pushed to prohibit law enforcement agencies from destroying firearms in their inventories, while also discouraging gun buybacks, calling them ineffective and a waste of money. At least nine states have laws mandating that the police sell seized guns or trade in their own when buying new ones. Gunbroker, the largest online firearms marketplace, lists hundreds of former police service weapons for sale.
At the same time, officials in mostly blue cities have stopped police departments from selling or trading in old or confiscated weapons, pointing to cases where the firearms resurfaced in crimes. They have also embraced buybacks, using tax dollars and charitable donations to pay citizens to turn in firearms.
Amid the rancor, entrepreneurs large and small have found a way to profit.
Jeff McCabe, a house painter with a firearms license in Orange County, Calif., started a side business, California Gun Services, to resell weapons. His buyback website says its goal is “to limit the number of cheap, dangerous or unwanted guns in our local community” by destroying them — unless they have historical “or significant monetary value.”
Mr. McCabe said that navigating the politicized environment around guns can be challenging. On one hand, he said, “there’s those, ‘You can pry it out of my dead cold hands’ Republicans,” and on the other, “there’s the liberals who think nobody should ever own a firearm.”
“I’m trying to be somewhere in the middle,” he added.
Other businesses deal only with law enforcement agencies. Gunbusters, the biggest of them, was established a decade ago by a retired St. Louis police officer. The company’s “pulverizer” crushes a firearm and videotapes the process so the police have a record.
In its patent application, Gunbusters said the device offered a superior alternative to cutting a gun into pieces with a torch or paying a foundry to melt it down. The company also pitched it as a way for public agencies to avoid controversy over selling unwanted guns.
“Some of these firearms turn back up in other crimes, sometimes involving the assault of an officer,” the application said. “The political ramifications are high and should be avoided.”
Federal regulators approved Gunbusters’ pulverizer as an acceptable destruction method. A January 2018 letter from A.T.F. to a lawyer for Gunbusters indicated that the agency was also aware that the company removed “firearms parts and components for commercial sale.”
This practice is not explained on the Gunbusters website and is rarely mentioned in news stories, though the company’s contracts contain language saying it “will sell salvaged parts and scrap metals.” When asked during an interview whether Gunbusters typically puts “the whole gun” through its pulverizer, Mr. Reed, the president, initially paused before answering.
“Um,” he said, “yes, the firearm gets put in there.”
Asked to clarify if he was referring to the receiver or frame, Mr. Reed acknowledged that he was, then explained that selling the rest of the weapon was how his company made money.
The business appears to be lucrative. During a recent three-week period, Gunbusters and its licensees recorded a combined 2,400 sales of gun parts on Gunbroker, totaling more than $290,000. A parts kit can run from less than $100 to more than $1,000, depending on the type of gun and its condition; a nearly complete Colt AR-15, without the receiver, drew 30 bids before selling for $2,175 in October, no background check required.
Another company, New England Ballistic Services, which has worked with more than 150 police departments, says it offers firearms destruction “at no cost.” It shares a phone number and email address with another business, New England Guns & Parts, which recently had more than 400 listings for parts kits or complete firearms for sale online.
The company’s president, Steven Dahl, declined to comment.
LSC Destruction’s contracts typically state that the police will keep a piece of the gun bearing the serial number, but that “LSC will retain all other portions of the firearm.” Its contract with Riverside County, Calif., which previously destroyed guns at a steel foundry that has since shut down, says LSC may sell gun parts to distributors but “not to the civilian population.”
But distributors supply licensed firearms dealers, who in turn can sell to the public. In a statement, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office said it included the provision “to ensure all legalities are met.”
“The Riverside Sheriff’s Office isn’t in the business of selling firearms or firearm parts to civilians,” the statement said. LSC’s founder, Alex Zorensky, did not return calls or emails seeking comment.
His company’s website once linked to a related business, LSC Manufacturing, which sold both unfinished receivers and parts kits that, it said, allowed buyers “to recreate the firearm.” It also featured a testimonial from an unnamed police official in California saying that “gun buybacks used to be a big headache” before contracting with LSC, but “now the politicians are happy, and I’m happy too.”
In Michigan, clergy members and police officers in Lansing held a buyback in October that collected more than 100 guns that were ostensibly going to be “melted down.” In fact, they were turned over to the state police, who gave them to Gunbusters. Mr. Reed said the hundreds of guns he gets from Michigan each month follow the usual process: After disassembly, only the receivers or frames are crushed and the remaining parts are sold.
Michigan State Police did not initially explain this when asked how the guns are disposed of. After first saying, simply, that a grinder is used to “destroy the firearms,” a spokeswoman, Shanon Banner, later acknowledged that this actually meant “destruction of the frame or receiver.”
Last year, Father Yaw’s Southfield church near Detroit set up a makeshift graveyard whose markers represented gun violence deaths in the community, 70 percent of which were suicides. Removing unwanted firearms through buybacks could help reduce that number, he said, but recycling them back onto the street defeats the purpose.
“The disposal process needs to change,” said Father Yaw. “And there are enough well-meaning people here who are not going to take this sitting down.”