A standing room-only crowd of 100 arrived in downtown Bismarck on Wednesday night to bid on 22 guns — rifles, pistols, revolvers, shotguns and pellet guns.
This was not a gun show or private auction: It was an event hosted by the Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department, and it took place in Courtroom 301 — a place where people more often lose their right to carry a gun.
A new law requires the department to auction found, seized and forfeited guns to the public, unless they can be lawfully returned to their owners. So the department set up its first sale of crime guns and found firearms just upstairs from its offices.
Deputies were not familiar with the stories behind individual guns, but it is conceivable that some were used in crimes committed by people tried and convicted in the same venue.
“There’s always a risk that we could sell a gun, and the gun could be misused,” Maj. Kelly Leben said. “But I think law-abiding citizens will do what is right.”
The sheriff’s department conducted background checks on everyone who successfully bid on a gun.
Crowd fills the courtroom
Mostly men, many sporting camouflage, filled the benches and jury box, where defendants, victims, jurors and grieving families usually sit. They came for a variety of reasons: They wanted to support the department, score a bargain, add to a collection or pick up a practice gun for a child or grandchild.
The guns were spread neatly on the lawyers’ tables — where manila folders of legal documents typically lie. Instead of perusing evidence, people circled weapons and scrutinized them. Some were intact, while others missed backstraps or scopes.
Many people had set price limits: One young man brought along $150 cash, which he hoped to spend on a handgun for self-defense.
Most found out about the sale in the newspaper or on Facebook.
New law, new system
Before the new law, no uniform procedure existed for handling guns confiscated by law enforcement.
The Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department would destroy guns deemed inoperable or damaged and exchange the rest for weapons they needed from gun stores, Leben said. If a gun owner asked for his or her weapon back, the department would return it, but disposing of the guns was a low priority, he said.
Rep. Karen Karls, R-Bismarck, introduced House Bill 1457 in February 2015, because she wanted to make sure that working weapons were not destroyed, she said in a recent interview.
In her testimony before the Senate, she cited laws in Indiana and Georgia, which require law enforcement to return firearms to their owners after disposition of a case, if possible, and sell other guns at public auction.
“I was looking at other states and saw a way that we could have a systematic way of disposing weapons that are still useful and put them in the hands of people that like to hunt or have a personal defense weapon,” she said in the interview.
As before, the law states that if someone is convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor involving violence or intimidation, the gun used in the crime is forfeited to law enforcement. The court can decide whether the gun ought to be sold at auction, sold or traded to another law enforcement agency or dealer, retained for use or destroyed.
What is new in the law is that if an owner is found innocent or if the gun was not used in a crime, law enforcement must try to find that person and return the gun.
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Operable guns that are not returned must be sold at live or online auctions at least once per year. All proceeds go to the county’s general fund.
The agency has some discretion: If a family requests that a gun used in a suicide be destroyed, for example, they can do that, Leben said.
Leben said his department sorted through its evidence room and returned eight guns to their owners since the law passed. The department also was able to sell a few guns that would have otherwise been destroyed, because bidders were willing to buy guns that needed repair, which a dealer might not have purchased.
Similar procedures are common in some parts of the country: Last month, a Tennessee sheriff hosted an online auction. An Indiana sheriff sold the seized guns at an estate auction house.
Meanwhile, in some other states, law enforcement does the opposite: Guns are bought from the public, in order to keep them from being used in a crime.
Bids pour in
The bidding began at 6 p.m., when Lt. Jim Hulm sat in the judge’s chair and began to call out prices for a Ruger Bisley Blackhawk single action revolver. A deputy sat in the chair usually reserved for the clerk and reported the winning bidders on her cellphone.
“Four hundred? Four and a quarter? Four and a half?” Hulm called out calmly, banging the judge’s gavel when the bidding relented.
Conducting his first auction, Hulm egged on the bidders gently.
“We all know what these go for brand new,” he chided the crowd of a Heckler and Koch semi-automatic pistol, which sold for $600.
“This is a little gem right here. A lot of you know that,” he said of a Browning A-5 Magnum 20 Belgium shotgun.
Bidders conferred softly among themselves and discretely waved green cards when they wanted to make an offer.
The guns sold for $20 at the cheapest, up to $625 for the most expensive. Together, gun sales totaled $5,870, Leben said.
After expenses, the auction netted $4,088 for the general fund, Leben said. Since the sheriff’s department spent 58 hours planning the event and returning guns to their owners, they were allowed to subtract $1,782 from the total, he said.
‘Good first pistol for the kids’
Jeff Japel, a financial adviser, brought his 8- and 10-year-old sons to the event. He said he was looking for a “cheap deal.” He had his eye on the pistols, either as concealed carry for his own safety or as a “good first pistol for the kids.” He said he wanted to teach them to target shoot at the gun range.
Seated in the jury box, his sons swiveled eagerly in their chairs whenever he raised his placard.
Japel did buy a gun — an Iver Johnson model TP22 semi-automatic pistol for $130.
He carried it out in a white, cardboard evidence box.