Right-leaning media outlets are up in arms over a recent decision by the Honolulu police department to destroy 2,300 service pistols, rather than resell them on the commercial market. A Fox News article notes that the cache of “perfectly good” Smith & Wesson 9mm pistols — worth an estimated $575,000 — includes at least 200 factory-fresh weapons.

In the past, the Honolulu police department sold retired guns to officers and staff for personal use, a common practice in law enforcement. But this year Hawaii’s capital city decided to melt the weapons ahead of a switch to Glock 17s. The department issued a statement explaining the mayor and police department “would not allow the guns to be sold to the general public and end up on the streets of Honolulu.”

The problem of what to do with surplus and seized police guns is not a new one. Some jurisdictions even sell seized guns straight from the evidence room, a fundraising method that splits police chiefs who try to weigh fundraising needs against the desire to limit the spread of firearms. In Tennessee, lawmakers have even proposed a law that would require all police departments to regularly auction contraband guns to the public. “I’m not enthusiastic about returning guns to the same streets where my officers might have to face them again,” Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher said of the measure. But Tim Christol, chief of the much smaller Red Bank department, which already sells surplus guns, argued the extra cash is crucial to supplementing his budget. Under the proposed law, most of the money would be be diverted to the municipality’s general fund. “It’s going to have a devastating impact on a lot of the smaller agencies,” he said.

What makes the tug-of-war between reducing gun violence and bringing in needed funds especially tricky is the fact that once a firearms cache has been offloaded, there’s no way to control where the individual weapons will wind up.

Paul Barrett’s excellent Glock describes what happened to thousands of guns that the New Orleans Police Department no longer wanted. At the time, the city was taking gun companies to court in the hope of holding them accountable for their role in shootings. But the old service weapons would come back to haunt local leaders:

Ten months before suing firearm manufacturers for gross negligence, New Orleans had agreed to give Glock 7,200 old service pistols and confiscated weapons in exchange for 1,700 new Austrian .40-caliber handguns. This was one of dozens of such trades Glock had made with police departments around the country … New Orleans, in other words, had done exactly what it accused the industry of doing: sought financial benefit from dumping guns indiscriminately on the street.

The guns the city traded went to a wholesaler in Indiana to be resold. Included were confiscated TEC-9s and AK-47s prohibited two years earlier by the federal assault weapons ban … Two months after the exchange, a New Orleans pawnshop ran a newspaper advertisement for Beretta nine-millimeter pistols that were part of the Glock deal: “Own a piece of New Orleans history,” the ad said. “Guns formerly belonged to members of the police department. All are stamped NOPD.”

Finally, Barrett delivers the kicker: ATF investigators were finding former police guns at crime scenes by the thousands. “In 1998 alone,” he writes, “the federal agency identified at least 1,100 former police guns among the 193,000 traces it conducted.”

[Photo: Flickr user Keith LaFaille]