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Colorful State Sen. Stacey Campfield seems to court controversy, particularly in his blog, Camp4u.
So it was no real surprise when he took a reproachful tone in blog posts on Sept. 11 about the "gas for guns" program announced the day before by the City of Memphis and the Memphis Police Department. The city held a press conference on Sept. 10 to announce that on Sept. 15, it would conduct an event in which it would give people a $50 Mapco gas card plus two tickets to a Memphis Grizzlies basketball game for turning in a gun. The idea was to get guns off the streets, and 497 guns were exchanged for the cards and tickets at the event. The city said most of the guns would be "destroyed."
"I don’t think they can do that," Campfield wrote in his first blog post on the gas for guns program, adding that "…the point of this post is that the city is saying they intend on destroying the guns they buy. I may be wrong but didn’t we change the law to say they have to resell the guns now?"
The senator cited the Tennessee legislature passing a bill in 2010 regarding what local law enforcement can do with guns but acknowledged he might be wrong with exactly whether it applied to gun "buyback" programs similar to the Memphis initiative.
Nearly an hour later, Campfield posted a second item that sounded as if he had verified that the city’s program could not destroy the guns as it intended. Under the headline "Sorry Memphis," the senator wrote: "I was right. The city of Memphis/Memphis PD is wrong (I know, a real shocker). As I recalled, you can’t destroy the guns purchased in a gun buy program as the city wants to do. They have to be re sold (sic) to a licensed gun dealer. Someone should alert them. I would hate to see our law enforcement in violation of the law."
Clearly, somebody was firing a dud, so we decided to look into the matter.
Campfield was recalling the 2010 law that prohibits local law enforcement from destroying certain guns, but his recollection was a little off on which guns. Tennessee Code Annotated 39-17-1317 governs the disposition of "confiscated weapons" only, and the 2010 amendment to the statute removed destruction of guns as an option for confiscated guns, unless they are certified by local police as "inoperable or unsafe."
But otherwise, after a confiscated gun is no longer needed for evidence, local law enforcement may ask a court to declare it contraband. "Any weapon declared contraband shall be sold in a public sale or used for legitimate law enforcement purposes, at the discretion of the court." The law goes on to say how the gun must be sold -- a public auction or through a private gun dealer.
When the 2010 amendment was briefly discussed in the legislature, its sponsors said it was sought by the National Rifle Association. The NRA in fact posted on its website an alert encouraging its members to urge then-Gov. Phil Bredesen to sign it into law. He did.
Campfield linked to the NRA’s 2010 alert in his blog post, but even the alert made note that the law applies only to confiscated guns: The bill "would prohibit the destruction of confiscated firearms and require them to be auctioned off or sold to a federally licensed firearms dealer," it said.
But can guns voluntarily surrendered by people to the police – even if in exchange for cash or gasoline debit cards or pro basketball tickets – be considered "confiscated" under the law?
Ultimately, that may be a question for the courts if anyone challenges the legality of the program, but our dictionary says "confiscate" means "appropriated by the government; forfeited; deprived of property by confiscation," and "to seize as forfeited to the public treasury; to seize by authority."
Memphis believes its program is within the state law, city spokeswoman Mary Cashiola wrote in an email to The Commercial Appeal: "The firearms collected during Saturday’s Gas for Guns event will be turned in voluntarily by citizens. . . . The Memphis Police Department will take possession of the exchanged weapons and will handle these weapons in accordance with State law."
The state attorney general’s office does not appear to have rendered a legal opinion on the statute, so we turned to Nashville lawyer John Harris, a gun advocate who founded the Tennessee Firearms Association.
Harris told us in an email hat he doesn’t believe the law prohibits Memphis from destroying guns obtained through the gas for guns initiative. "As I understand it, TCA 39-17-1317 only applies to weapons that were ‘possessed, used or sold in violation of the law’ and, based on that use, ‘confiscated by a law enforcement officer and declared to be contraband by a court of record exercising criminal jurisdiction.’ The prohibition on the destruction of such weapons under this statute (with limited exceptions) thus only applies to those weapons that were specifically ‘confiscated’ and ‘declared to be contraband’. I do not think that the statute would apply on its face to firearms ‘buy back’ programs conduct by state or local agencies."
Harris did say, however, that he believes the "intentional destruction of functional weapons violates the spirit of the law" and that he anticipates that the TFA will seek to close the buyback loophole. "While it might appear to be ‘politically correct’ to destroy legal items with material value, it’s foolish and government should not be doing foolish things," he said.
Contacted by PolitiFact on Sept. 20, Campfield said he had already changed his mind on his blog post, after speaking with legislative lawyers. "For buybacks, it is different than for guns confiscated. The way it was originally written it would have covered buybacks. But when I had legal look at it, I don’t think it covers buybacks. All the early stuff I had said, no they can’t do it."
It is PolitiFact policy to take into account when someone later acknowledges an original claim was somehow incorrect. Often, those statements are made during live interviews, but in this case Campfield took the time to write up and post not one but two items onto his blog declaring that it would be illegal for Memphis to destroy guns purchased in a buy-back program.
Campfield hadn’t altered his blog post as of this writing. We give him a ruling of False.
Camp4u, Sen. Stacey Campfield’s blog, accessed by PolitiFact Sept. 20, 2012
The Commercial Appeal, "Memphis trades gas for guns," Sept. 10, 2012
City of Memphis press release, "City of Memphis, Mapco, Memphis Grizzlies To Offer Gas For Guns," Sept. 10, 2012
Public Chapter 629, Tennessee General Assembly, Approved March 3, 2010
Tennessee Code Annotated, 39-17-1317, "Confiscation and disposition of confiscated weapons"
National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action, "Pro-Gun Bill Heads to Governor’s Desk in Tennessee!" Posted Feb. 22, 2010
Email from Nashville lawyer John Harris, Sept. 20, 2012
Email from Mary Cashiola, Media and Communications Manager, Office of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., Sept. 14, 2012
Telephone Interview with Sen. Stacey Campfield, Sept. 20, 2012
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