Arizona cities may have to sell guns under bill to ban buybacks

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PHOENIX -- In Arizona, where guns are allowed in bars and concealed weapons can be carried without a permit, state lawmakers are moving to force police to sell -- rather than destroy -- firearms they collect in the wake of Tucson's scrapping more than 200 last month.

The city-sponsored event, in which residents exchanged guns for $50 grocery gift cards, outraged gun-rights activists who set up opposite the police collection site to buy weapons with cash. The "gun buyback" was held on the anniversary of the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson that gravely injured Democratic then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and left six others dead.

Arizona lawmakers are now advancing a measure to bar the destruction of firearms surrendered in events such as those that have been held in cities from Newark, N.J., to Seattle, Wash., since the shooting in December at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school. The measure, sponsored by 16 Republicans and one Democrat, strengthens existing state law that orders seized and abandoned guns to be sold.

"Anything that diminishes the use and the utility of firearms -- anything -- is gun control," said Charles Heller, a co-founder of the 8,500-member Arizona Citizens Defense League that is among groups pushing the new legislation. "It wastes a perfectly good gun and removes it from commerce."

Tucson City Council member and Vice Mayor Steve Kozachik, who organized the buyback, said he was surprised at the backlash to the event, which he had viewed as a community service to help people get rid of unwanted firearms. "I thought this was benign from a Second Amendment standpoint," Mr. Kozachik said about the event he organized with police and paid for with donations. "That object, to them, is a holy relic."

After being inundated by opposition to the gun buyback and panned on talk-radio shows, Mr. Kozachik said, he changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat. The event cost the city nothing beyond the time of staff who participated, said Sgt. Chris Widmer, a Tucson police spokesman.

Several gun buybacks have been held across the nation after the Connecticut school shooting that killed 26 drew attention to gun violence and spurred calls for restrictions, including universal background checks and an assault weapons ban.

Tucson is not the only place where there's been a backlash: Activists and collectors have shown up at similar events in Seattle, Dallas and elsewhere to outbid those organizing the buyback and undermine efforts to collect and destroy weapons.

"I suspect what you are seeing here is the confluence of the extreme distrust of government and the extreme love of guns," said Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore.

Mr. Vernick is not a fan of buybacks. There is little evidence they reduce street crime, and they are popular mainly because they are easier than passing meaningful gun legislation, he said. Still, Mr. Vernick doesn't think it is good public policy to force police to recirculate weapons. "It seems to be odd to put cities into the role of gun sellers -- to require cities to put more guns out on the street, back out into households," he said. "The goal of criminal law is to ultimately reduce crime. If you are going to then force the city to pump those guns back into the community, it does seem counterproductive."

The movement to force police to sell or auction seized guns got its start with legislation approved in Kentucky more than a decade ago.

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