PHOENIX - Just days after Gov. Jan Brewer signed a law designed to hinder police participation in gun buyback events, the city of Phoenix held the first of three buybacks Saturday that organizers are calling the largest effort of its kind in state history.
The law Brewer signed April 29 takes effect this summer and requires cities and counties to sell surrendered weapons instead of destroying them.
That basically bars police and supporters of the events from accomplishing their key goal, cutting the number of guns on the streets, and police likely would not participate.
"It would be counterproductive of us to be involved in a program where we would buy guns only to sell them back," Phoenix police spokesman Sgt. Steve Martos said.
But Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik says the law is so full of loopholes he's confident the gun buyback events can still be held with police participation.
"I could do one through law enforcement tomorrow and put a price tag of $100,000 on them, and no one would bid on them so they'd sit in storage," Kozachik said Friday. "Or in the alternative I could put a price on them of a penny and sell them to an artist who would melt them down and make them into art.
"They've really achieved nothing but made fools of themselves," he said of the law's backers.
There's also nothing in the law that prevents private groups like the one backing the Phoenix events from destroying guns, although they say they need police participation.
A gun buyback sponsored by Kozachik early this year prompted the pro-gun group Arizona Citizens Defense League to lobby lawmakers to push the law Brewer just signed. It requires guns seized or otherwise obtained by police be sold even if they were used in crimes.
Defense League spokesman Charles Heller said the city was using a flawed interpretation of the law to keep destroying guns from buyback events, and it asked the Legislature to intervene. He said destroying guns is a waste of government funds.
"That's a resource. This is a way to bring in revenue," he said Saturday. "What they're saying is that guns are the evil stepchild of society. That's just plain poor husbandry of resources."
It's clear few agencies would want to do buybacks if they knew the guns would end up back on the streets. And police agencies are needed to check if the weapons were used in crimes and provide event security, said Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, who said she's asked county lawyers to look for a way around the ban.
"Where there's a will, there's a way," Wilcox said. "And if not, maybe we go back to the Legislature next year and say 'Look, you've had your fun. Now let's get down to business, and let's repeal this.' "
The bill was pushed through the Republican-controlled Legislature despite fierce opposition from Democrats. The GOP members argued that destroying turned-in guns was a waste of taxpayer resources.
Democratic Sen. Steve Farley, who represents Tucson, gave a stirring speech in an effort to change some votes, to no avail.
"It's incredibly disappointing that of all the things we could have done to make our citizens safer, this is the first bill that has gone through," he said after the governor signed it into law.
Police estimated that Saturday's buyback at the Phoenix churches netted more than 800 guns. An official tally is expected early next week.
The event was sponsored by Arizonans for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that has been working to reduce gun injuries and deaths since the 1990s, using an anonymous $100,000 donation.
"We feel it's going to be a huge benefit, a public service," said Hildy Saizow, the group's president. "Because there are just so many people that have firearms, they're unwanted. They want to get rid of them, but they want to dispose of them in a safe way."
Martos, the Phoenix police spokesman, said each weapon turned in at the city-sponsored buybacks will have its serial number checked against a stolen weapons database and fired so ballistics experts can check to see if it is tied to a shooting. If not, it will be destroyed - unless all the work can't be done before the law takes effect.
"We feel it's going to be a huge benefit, a public service. Because there are just so many people that have firearms, they're unwanted. They want to get rid of them, but they want to dispose of them in a safe way."
Hildy Saizow, president, Arizonans for Gun Safety