A proposed gun buyback program in Tucson could place the city in a legal fight with the National Rifle Association.
Councilman Steve Kozachik is trying to raise $5,000 so Tucsonans may have a hassle-free way to dispose of unwanted firearms while making a little money in the process.
"With the success other cities have had with voluntary gun buybacks, I want to test the water to see how Tucson residents respond," Kozachik said. "The rules are simple: Bring in your gun on a totally voluntary basis, no questions asked, and you'll trade it for a Safeway $50 gift card."
Safeway has already agreed to donate $1,000, and Kozachik said he raised the other $4,000 from various private donors to purchase 100 firearms. Kozachik will work with the Tucson Police Department so the guns will be disposed of properly.
It's a good way to take guns nobody wants anymore out of circulation, he says.
However, an NRA lobbyist said Arizona law renders any gun buyback meaningless since the Police Department would be required to return or resell them.
Todd Rathner, a member of the NRA's national board of directors, said the law was changed earlier this year because police departments were destroying firearms.
Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Glendale, last session sponsored an amendment to an Arizona statute that deals with how government entities sell property. The amendment said if the property being sold is a firearm, a court shall order it to be sold to any authorized business.
During a Judiciary Committee hearing, Murphy said he was trying to plug loopholes in the original 2010 law, which required cities to sell off weapons they seized. There was no discussion at all during the hearing about gun buyback programs, not from Murphy nor from John Wentling, lobbyist for the Arizona Citizens Defense League, which advocated for the change.
Rathner said the change means police departments can't destroy guns.
"The police would have to take the guns and run them through the national database. If they are stolen, they are returned to the owner," said. "If they are not stolen, (TPD) is mandated by state law to sell them to the public."
TPD runs checks on every gun it receives to ensure they aren't stolen or have been used to commit a crime, spokeswoman Sgt. Maria Hawke said. TPD holds several "destruction boards" throughout the year to dispose of things such as illicit drugs and guns. She said the same process would hold true for guns purchased through a buyback.
Hawke said TPD was researching to determine how this statute applies to TPD's practices regarding the disposal of firearms.
Any attempt to destroy a firearm would elicit a severe response from the NRA, Rathner said.
"If they destroy them, they will be in violation of state law," he said. "If they are in violation of state law, we will see them in a courtroom or we will change the law and have them sanctioned financially."
Rathner said the means the NRA chooses will depend on which one is most expeditious.
"If we can pass legislation faster, we'll pass a law that says we'll charge the city of Tucson and the Police Department some exorbitant amount of money for every firearm they destroy," he said. "We'll pursue it either through litigation or legislation."
City Attorney Mike Rankin said he believes the law would not apply to guns voluntarily surrended by their owners. The law is intended for guns that are seized by police.
Kozachik said he is confident Tucson police will abide by the law and dispose of the weapons properly, and doesn't understand why the NRA would oppose a voluntary program like the one he's proposing.
"This is geared to people who may have been given a weapon and have never felt comfortable having it around, or people who aren't trained in the safe use of the guns they own and simply want to get them out of their homes," Kozachik said.
"All of the gun-rights groups should absolutely embrace this idea. The NRA, Gun Owners of America and the others all say that only people who are trained and comfortable with weapons should own and use them," Kozachik said. "This program is intended to give people who don't fit that description a way to properly dispose of their weapons."
Once the money is collected, Kozachik said, he will work out with TPD the specific location for the event.
In a perfect scenario, Kozachik would like to hold the buyback around Jan. 8, to honor the anniversary of the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson.
If the program proves successful, Kozachik hopes another entity will continue the program.
"I am just trying to do a small one. … If it goes well, and the residents demonstrate that there's more of a demand for a program such as this, a nonprofit can pick up the mantle and do a bigger and better one later on," Kozachik said.
Ken Rineer, president of Gun Owners of Arizona, said he has reservations over losing guns committed during a crime, people unwittingly selling antique firearms and the legal issues regarding who is a licensed gun dealer when large numbers of weapons are purchased.
"I don't know if these issues can be laid to rest if they follow the no-question policy," Rineer said.
He said buybacks work well as symbolism or as a vehicle to pander for votes, but they have minor impacts in the real world.
"They're nice. They make people feel good. It makes council member Kozachik feel like he's doing something," Rineer said.
If Kozachik wants to get reelected he needs to remember that Arizonans of all political stripes support gun rights, Rineer said.
"I understand Kozachik is using this for political grandstanding for his election next year," Rineer said. "But council member Kozachik should know that even Democrats like guns in this city."
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