For years, police officers in North Carolina had a choice when it came to confiscated guns. They could use them for law enforcement purposes—training, testing, examining—or they could destroy them.
But a new law (PDF) passed by Republican lawmakers in the state changes that. Police officers can still use confiscated guns, but as of this week, they can’t destroy them. Instead, if a department wants to get rid of a gun, it has to sell it or auction it. Effectively, men and women who once worked to keep guns off of the streets must now moonlight as gun dealers.
Crafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and passed at the urging of the National Rifle Association, the specifics of the “Save the Gun” law are straightforward. When faced with confiscated guns, law enforcement agencies must either donate, keep, or sell the items to licensed firearm dealers. The only guns that can legally be destroyed are those that are damaged or missing serial numbers, the latter an indication the gun was stolen. (In practical terms, that group doesn’t add up to many weapons; nationwide, stolen guns account for just 10 to 15 percent of those used in crimes.)
As for what law enforcement thinks? After ALEC developed this proposal in 2011, the Fraternal Order of the Police, a national labor union, said that it preferred discretion when it came to dealing with confiscated weapons—a reasonable position. In North Carolina, the Sheriff’s Association, a trade group, declined to comment on the measure while it faced debate in the legislature. Still, it’s hard to imagine that local police are happy with a law that not only limits their options but also blocks judges from ordering the destruction of weapons used in a crime. Indeed, there’s something perverse about forcing a police department to sell guns that may have been used for assault or murder.
There’s a big question hanging over all of this: why—besides their commitment to every right-wing priority under the sun—would North Carolina Republicans push this kind of law? In praising the proposal as “fiscally responsible,” one co-sponsor suggested that money was the main reason—that it would be a way for police departments to fund themselves. In which case, why forbid law enforcement from destroying guns? Why not give them the choice? That’s the approach Texas took this summer, with a law that allows police departments to sell confiscated weapons but doesn’t require them to do so.
That North Carolina’s law goes further has less to do with the circumstances of the state and everything to do with the message Republicans and their allies were trying to send. During the battle over the proposal, the NRA issued an alert to its members: “It is critical for you to contact your state Representative TODAY and urge her or him to oppose any efforts to amend H714 in a way that will allow any discretion by judges or law enforcement to destroy lawful functioning firearms.” Underneath this alert was a call for members to “defend their Second Amendment rights.”
While non–gun advocates may strain to see the link between prohibiting the destruction of guns and defending the Second Amendment, it makes sense when you consider the attitude of the NRA and its supporters: any encroachment on gun rights—defined as the right to own any firearm, at any time—is a threat to all gun rights. And while it’s true that there’s nothing harmed by destroying confiscated guns—rights remain intact and manufacturers can continue to sell—it’s also true that this is a time when gun control advocates are newly powerful on a state level. So far, in 2013, they’ve won substantial victories in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Colorado.
The “Save the Gun” law doesn’t solve a problem, but it doesn’t need to; it’s meant to respond to this new wave of gun control activism. It’s why North Carolina went further with its assault on gun regulations, freeing concealed-carry owners to take their weapons into bars and restaurants, onto playgrounds and other public recreation areas, and in their vehicles while at schools and universities.
This is a counterattack—an aggressive response to a new wave of gun control activism that borrows its approach from groups like Grass Roots North Carolina, which has a “no compromise” stance and opposes all gun regulations, regardless of other concerns.
It’s a fanaticism that hints at something elemental. It’s one thing to support and defend gun rights, which through the years have become an integral part of American identity. It’s something else entirely to oppose the destruction of guns used to commit violence and harm innocent people. For these advocates, are guns still tools—objects that have a purpose? Or are they relics, totems of a strange faith that demands our allegiance? Is the NRA defending rights, or is it imposing a new religion of gun worship? As laws like “Save the Gun” make their way across the country, I’m more and more inclined to say the latter.