Thursday, April 18, 2024

Are all guns used in crimes destroyed? Long story short — no

A box labeled "Crust shooting" contained evidence from the incident more than two years ago. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
A box labeled “Crust shooting” contained evidence from the incident more than two years ago. A gun box sits on the top of the same shelf at the Williamsburg Police Department. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

Those who spend time in a Historic Triangle courtroom or scan local arrest reports may find gun-related charges occasionally pop up, from concealed carry without a permit, to use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, to brandishing a firearm — the charges vary.

During those cases, the firearm often sits in the evidence room of the arresting agency.

After the case is over, what happens to that firearm?

In Virginia, law enforcement departments have several options. With a court order from a judge, the firearm can be cut up and thrown away. The weapon can also be approved to be put into service with the department if it’s the correct make and model.

Lastly, the firearm can be resold.

None of the Historic Triangle’s law enforcement departments resell firearms, although the Virginia Code allows it.

The Williamsburg Police Department, James City County Police Department and York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office all destroy firearms used for evidence once the case is over, unless a legal owner can be identified.

“When we cut it up, there’s now way you’re going to reassemble it,” said Capt. Troy Lyons, spokesman for the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office.

Here’s how many firearms area law enforcement has in their evidence rooms, regardless of the case status:

Williamsburg Police — 70 firearms

York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office — Roughly 200

James City County Police — 260 firearms

Williamsburg Police Chief Sean Dunn said a majority of the department’s firearms in evidence are related to a crime, and most end up being destroyed after they are approved by the commonwealth’s attorney and cleared by a judge.

“Very few” are in the evidence room for safekeeping or as found property, Dunn said.

Twelve firearms are in the process to be destroyed. Dunn said the department usually destroys multiple weapons at a time, but hasn’t destroyed any for at least a few years.

To destroy the firearm, an officer and a witness go to the city’s workshop to cut it up using a grinder. At that point, the gun is fully unloaded and safe to dismantle.

Illegally-modified guns are never given back to their owners, Dunn said.

“By the time we get to this point, it’s been to the lab, it has been placed in a safe storage-type of position, it’s been emptied of all the rounds,” Dunn said. “We’ve made it safe.”

The James City County Police Department has destroyed 118 firearms since January 2016. The department uses an acetylene torch to cut them until they’re inoperable, police spokeswoman Stephanie Williams said.

Lyons said the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office is in the process of taking a “100-percent” inventory of the property and evidence room. Some inventory is old and stems from a time before the department implemented its computerized evidence-tracking system.

As of Jan. 14, the sheriff’s office has about 200 firearms in its possession.

Lyons said the sheriff’s office has destroyed 21 firearms since implementing its computerized system in 2007. Almost 180 firearms have been returned to their legal owners in that same time period.

Lyons said so many firearms are returned to their owners because the sheriff’s office must give legal owners an opportunity to retrieve their property if they’re allowed to possess a firearm. If a case does not result in a conviction, and that defendant is legally allowed to own a gun, they also will get their gun back.

The sheriff’s office must also do its diligence to find the rightful owner of stolen or found firearms before destroying them, Lyons said.

“Just because we’ve seized it as evidence doesn’t mean the person can’t get it back again,” Lyons said.

Even with suicides, the sheriff’s office must offer the firearm back to next of kin. Families often ask the sheriff’s office to dispose of those weapons, he added.

Lyons said it’s possible — but rare — for the sheriff’s office to put a firearm from evidence into service with the department, if cleared by a judge.

Some types of criminal cases, however, require departments to hold on to some evidence for decades, such as homicides.

“The Virginia state code is very specific with disposition of evidence,” Lyons said.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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