That department followed all state and federal laws when it sold the gun and 45 other confiscated hunting guns to the public over the last two years. Kmetz, who was prohibited from owning a gun because of his mental health history, ordered it from an online auction site and had a friend pick it up in an illegal “straw” purchase at a gun shop in Princeton, Minn.
On Jan. 26, Kmetz, 68, took the gun to New Hope City Hall, where he shot the two officers. Other officers returned fire, killing him.
“You can’t guarantee where guns go,” Fournier said.
Duluth police pocketed $5,538 for selling the 46 shotguns. Feb. 13, Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said his department now is weighing a change in the way it discards confiscated weapons no longer needed for investigations or training.
“The New Hope incident is yet another example of why we need to develop sound strategies to keep weapons from individuals who are ineligible to lawfully possess them,” Ramsay said.
If Duluth decides to start destroying them, it will join many Twin Cities metro-area and outstate departments whose chiefs say that policy sends the right message about keeping guns off the streets.
Although any Minnesota police department or sheriff’s office can legally sell weapons through a federal firearms licensee, some states, such as Iowa, require that confiscated guns be turned over to a central law enforcement clearinghouse and destroyed or used for training.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said that he isn’t advocating any gun law changes. But he recently approached a legislator to talk about the possibility of creating a statewide program to collect and destroy seized guns at no charge. Freeman is also considering using criminal forfeiture money from his office to buy guns from law enforcement departments that still want to sell them.
Fournier, for his part, understands both choices.
“You hate to have an officer assaulted with guns sold by another law enforcement agency,” he said. Still, he understands the desire of some departments to collect revenue from the sale of confiscated guns.
“Gordon Ramsay is a good chief, and he runs a good department,” he said. “I have no problem with police departments selling guns to the public.”
Fournier’s department destroys most of its confiscated guns, but sells a few to a firearms licensee — not an auction site, he said.
To sell or destroy?
Duluth police sold the Stoeger, along with a Mossberg 500 and a Yimeng shotgun Kmetz ordered online for $675.22 total, to the online auctioneer K-Bid of Maple Plain in July. A month later, Michael Garant, who is now facing federal charges in the case, picked up the shotguns at Full Metal Gun Shop in Princeton after passing a background check.
Then he transferred them to Kmetz.
Kmetz, who believed individuals and government agencies were engaged in conspiracies against him, shot and wounded officers Beau Schoenhard and Joshua Eernisse before he was killed. Fournier said they are healing and will return to duty soon.
In addition to the three shotguns he got last year via Garant, Kmetz had bought another one from K-Bid that Garant picked up for him in December 2013.
The shotgun used in New Hope had been taken into evidence by Duluth police as part of a case involving young men who were shooting it in the woods within city limits. One of the men was its registered owner. The gun was considered abandoned property.
Ramsay said his department doesn’t sell handguns or automatic weapons and stopped selling hunting rifles and shotguns for a decade before resuming sales in 2011.
Many city and county agencies sell used service weapons or hunting guns in an effort to be good stewards of the public’s money, he said. Duluth police recently exchanged 160 service weapons with a company and received credit for newer weapons, saving taxpayers nearly $100,000, he said.
Risks vs. rewards
Minneapolis, St. Paul, Bemidji and Kenyon police, Hennepin, Ramsey and Dakota sheriffs’ offices and the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension are among the law enforcement agencies that destroy confiscated guns. Minneapolis police, the Hennepin County sheriff and the BCA also keep libraries made up of thousands of guns used for training and forensics.
“We are so small we’ve never had an issue with selling guns, but it should be looked at as a way to make money in cash-strapped times,” said Kenyon Police Chief Lee Sjolander. “I feel badly for the Duluth Police Department.”
The Chicago Police Department has reported it could earn $2 million a year if it sold confiscated guns. And the state of Texas recently clarified its state statutes to allow law enforcement to sell guns.
The Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association doesn’t have a model policy on selling unclaimed and seized weapons, said Andy Skoogman, the group’s executive director.
“In some cases, agencies can have a number of weapons worth several thousands of dollars,” he said. “Do you destroy them? Or do you sell them and reinvest the proceeds from the sale back into local public safety efforts?
“It’s a conversation we encourage law enforcement leaders to have with their local officials.”
Seeking a safer way
If Freeman has his way, the issue could be addressed by having his office arrange to “tour” the state twice a year to pick up unwanted guns and destroy them. The idea of using forfeiture money to buy guns from agencies that want to sell them makes sense because the money currently supplements the office’s crime prevention budget, he said.
“You don’t want guns back in circulation,” Freeman said.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who keeps a confiscated antique gun worth $85,000 in a display case in his office, said he doesn’t think confiscated guns should be sold to the public, because the potential costs can far outweigh the money made.
“Look at the cost because Ray Kmetz got a gun,” he said. “There were medical costs and costs to the community. Officers were shot, and Kmetz was killed. I feel sorry for him, but I think this was preventable.”