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Here’s how police in Lancaster County get rid of unwanted guns [Lancaster Watchdog]

  • By Dan Nephin/LNP | LancasterOnline
ATF officials announced two federal indictments of 14 individuals charged with trafficking about 500 firearms from the Southern states of Georgia and South Carolina to sell in Philadelphia, at a press conference on April 11, 2022.

 Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

ATF officials announced two federal indictments of 14 individuals charged with trafficking about 500 firearms from the Southern states of Georgia and South Carolina to sell in Philadelphia, at a press conference on April 11, 2022.

How do police in Lancaster County get rid of unwanted guns?

It’s a question The Watchdog was prompted to ask after reading a New York Times story about a company called GunBusters that offers free firearms destruction for law enforcement.

The company, based in suburban St. Louis, states on its website that it has destroyed more than 200,000 firearms for some 950 law enforcement agencies in the country.

But there’s a catch. And it’s important to understand what is meant by the words “firearm” and “destroy.”

According to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, what counts as a firearm for purposes of destruction is the frame or receiver. On a handgun, the frame holds the parts of the firing mechanism, and on a rifle or shotgun, the receiver houses the bolt or equivalent.

It’s also the part on which a serial number would be placed, if required. (Anyone in the business of making or importing firearms is required to place a serial number on the gun. Someone who makes a gun solely for their own use does not need to put a serial number on it.)

According to the ATF, “‘destroyed’ means that the frame or receiver has been permanently altered such that it may not readily be completed, assembled, restored, or otherwise converted to function as a frame or receiver.”

The ATF has a page showing acceptable destruction procedures, which include melting, shredding and crushing, or cutting the frame or receiver in at least three places using a torch.

That means that the trigger assembly, barrel, slide, grip, magazine and other parts of the gun do not have to be destroyed.

And GunBusters, which is about 10 years old, does not destroy those parts. It resells them as repair kits, which it says allows them to provide free destruction for law enforcement.

This week, GunBusters had more than 700 offerings on, the largest online gun auction.

The kits also can easily be paired with other kits, marketed online as “80% finished” or “unfinished receivers,” which can then be put together as a functioning gun and which — until recently — did not require serial numbers, making them hard to trace if used in a crime.

In 2022, in an effort to combat the increasing number of guns turning up at crime scenes without serial numbers — so-called ghost guns — the ATF began requiring serial numbers on kits. However, the legality of that rule change is being challenged at the federal level.

Where local guns go

So The Watchdog was curious: Do any of the county’s roughly two dozen police departments or the district attorney’s office use GunBusters? What about the Pennsylvania State Police, which provides police services to more than 20 of the county’s 60 municipalities?

Of the handful of police departments in Lancaster County that responded to the Watchdog’s inquiry about getting rid of guns, none use GunBusters.

Lancaster city police used to, but no longer does. However, it uses a company that operates similarly.

The company is US Firearms and Accessories in Chester County. The department began using them in 2019.

According to Drew Hollinger, evidence technician for the city police, the main reason it stopped using GunBusters was that the company wouldn’t pick up the city’s guns until the department met a threshold. US Firearms is local and more willing to take fewer guns at a time, so guns aren’t sitting around for years, he said.

Hollinger said the department is trying to be responsible with gun disposal, which is difficult and time-consuming. The city is allowed to auction guns, but does not want to do that, he said.

“We prioritize transparency and accountability. Through the US Firearms process, we receive documentation of each component transferred into their custody, ensuring a traceable and accountable handling procedure,” Hollinger said.

Hollinger said GunBusters and US Firearms provide video or photographs of the guns being destroyed and accept all liability after taking possession of the firearms.

When police recover a gun, they enter its serial number into the ATF’s Electronic Tracing System. In addition to being recorded on the frame or receiver, sometimes serial numbers are placed on a barrel or slide.

“None of the gun parts that have been repurposed by these companies have ever been found illegally circulating within our community or confiscated by another department,” Hollinger said.

Gus Orr, the head of US Firearms, said the bulk of his customers are gunsmiths and repair shops, and he does not sell kits to make guns using frame or receiver parts.

Orr said he destroys frames and receivers by using a chop system to break them into three pieces, which the ATF states is an acceptable method. Sometimes, guns he gets from the city are of cheap quality and have no parts value, so he’ll simply destroy them.

What other departments do

The state police take guns to steel mills for destruction. The mills do it for free, said spokesperson Myles Snyder. Over the past three years, state police have destroyed more than 6,000 guns. Some of those guns are turned in by municipal departments. Northern Lancaster County Regional sends its guns to the state police for destruction.

Some departments, including Northwest Regional, Ephrata and East Lampeter Township, said they send guns to an incinerator.

Karen Gross, communications manager for Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority, said it provides free gun destruction services to police at its incinerators in Lancaster and Dauphin counties.

“Guns are handled very differently than typical household refuse, which is pushed into a pit and slow-fed into combustion burners. Guns are placed in a container and direct-fed into one of the combustion burners. Many times, police will witness the destruction process to ensure case evidence is properly destroyed,” Gross said. The remaining metal is recovered and sent to a recycling facility where it is melted and refined.

Manheim Township Sgt. Barry Waltz said its public works department cuts guns into multiple pieces, which meets ATF destruction requirements. Those pieces are then put into boxes with various other materials and taken to an incinerator. Columbia Borough also destroys guns in-house, Chief Jack Brommer said.

While some departments may have few or no guns that have to be destroyed in a year — Waltz said Manheim Township gets about a dozen a year, and Northwest Regional Chief Mark Mayberry said most years the department has none — city police confiscate about 150 guns a year.

Of those, about 120 are associated with crimes, mostly stolen or found on someone other than the owner. About 20 are related to protection from abuse orders, and several are turned in by people who want them destroyed, said Hollinger, the evidence technician. People who want their guns destroyed are told about the process the city uses.

Most guns need a destruction order from the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office before they can be destroyed, generally because they were evidence in a criminal case. If a gun is no longer needed for evidence and isn’t subject to a destruction order, Hollinger said the department contacts the owner and gives them 30 days to contact the evidence division if they want the gun back.

Before returning the gun, the department verifies the person is legally allowed to have the gun through the state police’s verification system.

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