LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The silver pistol’s journey through the Louisville Metro Police Department began in 2012 at a McDonald’s restaurant on Cane Run Road, where a man was threatened at gunpoint in the bathroom.

The would-be robber fled following a struggle, and police recovered the .25-caliber Lorcin. But after the case languished, the department sent the weapon to Kentucky State Police, as required by law, to be sold at auction.

Two years later, police encountered the same handgun at a Jeffersontown home where a man was allegedly threatening to kill his neighbors. Richard Penn was subdued with a Taser after he refused to follow police orders and took an “aggressive stance,” according to court records. The Lorcin was in his back pocket.

After Penn pleaded guilty to terroristic threatening, the gun was again seized – a cycle LMPD Chief Steve Conrad said he’s seen before. In all, Conrad said he has been made aware of about 40 instances of a weapon used in a Louisville crime that at some point was previously sold by state police.

“The thought of a gun being used in a violent crime and then finding its way through the system back out onto the street to be used for another violent crime is just a travesty – and I don’t think that’s the intent of the program,” Conrad said.

The auctions are required under a law passed in 1998 by the Kentucky General Assembly, which directed that seized weapons be sold to federally-licensed firearms dealers if they can’t be returned to their legal owners. Auction proceeds help outfit police officers, sheriff’s deputies and other law enforcement with body armor, Tasers, weapons, ammunition and body-worn cameras.  

But the law has come under new scrutiny from police officials in Kentucky’s two largest cities. Amid a surge in gun violence in Louisville, Conrad said in June that some weapons seized and sent to auction eventually are used in crimes again.

So far in 2016, there have been more than 100 murders in Jefferson County; the vast majority of the deaths are gun-related, according to LMPD

He told the Metro Council that he “would rather get rid of the gun and destroy it like we used to before the state law.”  

Before the law, judges could order a gun used in a crime be destroyed.

Now thousands of weapons a year are sold at auction, including 4,379 firearms in 2015. Guns from LMPD accounted for nearly one-third of those sales.

“I think this law should be looked at,” said Lexington Police Chief Mark Barnard.

 “Any weapon used in a crime, in my opinion, ought to be destroyed,” Barnard said in an interview. “Once it’s used to victimize an individual, we should not allow that weapon to recirculate back into the public. We ought to do more for our victims by saying ‘You don’t ever have to worry about anyone victimizing anyone else with this weapon again.’”

And to Bryan Carter, Covington’s police chief, that includes law enforcement.

“I personally would like to destroy the weapons,” he said in an email. “I don't want the weapons back on the street where they can be used against officers.”

Scant records

It’s difficult to say just how many guns in Kentucky are being seized, sold and used in subsequent crimes.

Kentucky State Police spokesman Lt. Michael Webb described the examples cited by Conrad as “isolated.” But he acknowledged that state police -- an agency that, under the law, keeps 20 percent of all proceeds from weapons sales – don’t track such cases.  

Lexington also doesn’t keep that data. And Conrad was not able to immediately provide records to support the figures he cited.

In an attempt to gauge how frequently guns sold at auction are used in crimes more than once, WDRB News obtained five years’ worth of state police auction records, including serial numbers of guns sold, under Kentucky’s open records law.

But Louisville Metro Police declined to release serial numbers of firearms from criminal cases, saying that doing so would be an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” and “violate the spirit” of a 2012 federal law that limits the release of information kept by federal firearms licensees.

After agreeing to an interview, however, the department eventually provided the example of the .25-caliber Lorcin.

“Somehow or another, that gun got back out on the street and it was available for someone to use to commit another crime,” Conrad said.

B & G Firearms Inc., a federally-licensed gun dealer in Paducah, purchased the Lorcin at a state police  auction in July 2014 for $425.  B & G’s Gary Miller said his company performs background checks on all buyers and follows all other requirements.

Penn’s family believes that he likely bought the gun from a friend.

“A year later, who knows how many hands it went through,” Miller said. “How they make their way back to Louisville is anybody’s rabbit-trail guess.”

Gun dealers holding a federal license must keep detailed records of all sales and are required to comply with requests to trace weapons from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Kentucky had 2,421 such license holders as of October.

“If guns were being sold to just anyone that wanted to buy them, I would be concerned,” said Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rick Sanders. “But we sell to licensed gun dealers and they are going to obtain guns anyways. They are going to find guns to sell.”

Sanders, a former Jeffersontown Police Chief who was appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin this year, noted in an interview that law enforcement agencies can apply for grants funded by the gun sales to buy safety equipment.

In particular, he cited a recent case in which an officer was shot in Paris, Ky., and survived because he was wearing body armor.

“If it wasn’t for gun sales, in some cases, officers wouldn’t be able to get that equipment,” Sanders said.

Instead of focusing on gun auctions, Sanders said people should be concerned about lenient sentences given to criminals charged with felony possession of a handgun.

“We focus on the gun when we ought to focus on the person perpetuating the crime,” he said. “Why are these people doing these heinous acts back out on the street?”

So far in 2016, state police have sold firearms worth nearly $575,000.

In recent years, sheriff’s departments have been the biggest beneficiaries of the proceeds from gun sales. Under a grant program administered by the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security, departments in Pike, Franklin and Jefferson counties have accounted for the largest awards since 2011.

The Kentucky Sheriff’s Association hasn’t taken a stance or even discussed the prospect of auctioned guns being used in multiple crimes, executive director Jerry Wagner said.

“If there is a criminal out there and they want to find a gun to commit a crime, they are going to find a gun someway,” said Wagner, a retired sheriff. While a change in the law “may keep some guns used before from getting back on the street, I don’t think if it will keep a criminal from getting one,” he said.

And destroying the weapons would put a halt to funding that is important for buying necessary equipment, especially to smaller departments.

“We are against people not having guns who shouldn’t have guns,” Wagner said. “I don’t know if there is a better method to dispose of them or not.”

Small departments benefit

Louisville police and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office have tapped grants financed by gun sales to buy body armor for officers and deputies. LMPD’s most recent award was $35,500 in 2013.

But smaller agencies have landed the biggest awards. The 13-officer Pike County Sheriff’s Office has received the most money -- $93,186 -- from the grant program over the last six years, according to records from the homeland security office.

Pike County leaders said in their grant application that they couldn’t rely on the regular budget process to buy weapons and other gear. “Since the decline of the Appalachian coal fields, purchasing new equipment, weapons or supplies is not feasible at this time,” an application from 2015 says. “The department is relying on grant programs.”

The grant program is well managed and saves public dollars that otherwise would be spent on equipment, said Glasgow Police Chief Guy Howie, whose department has received more than $42,000 in recent years for guns, Tasers and body armor.

“The public needs an outlet source to save their tax dollars,” Howie said.

Heritage Creek, a small Jefferson County city that took in people forced from their homes as part of the expansion of Louisville International Airport, received more than $10,000 over the last two years to buy weapons and ammunition.

Heritage Creek Maj. Marc Kaiser expressed concern in a 2016 letter about the age of the department’s weapons – all of which the 10 officers must provide themselves. “We are experiencing difficulty in hiring due to this requirement,” the city’s grant request says.

Despite Louisville sending in large caches of weapons to the state, LMPD’s Conrad said he doesn’t question whether his department is giving the statewide program what amounts to a large subsidy.

“I think not being able to give an officer a ballistic vest when we’re asking them to go out and patrol whatever that community might be is wrong, and I think the opportunity to provide the best kind of equipment to the departments across the state is important,” he said.

Law changes unlikely

Kentucky legislators have amended the 1998 law requiring gun sales several times over the years. Most recently, the General Assembly unanimously approved a bill this year to earmark auction proceeds for body-worn cameras.

Despite the concerns raised by Louisville, Lexington and some other police, LMPD’s Conrad said he doesn’t believe it’s likely the law will be changed to give local departments discretion over how to handle seized firearms.

“I don’t think we have that same level of support throughout the state,” he said. “It tends to become an urban-rural kind of issue and there are more rural legislators than there are suburban legislators or urban legislators.”

State Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, said he’s “detected no appetite” for changing the law.

“Look, I’m a gun owner. I don’t feel threatened about my guns,” he said. “What I am threatened by is the ability of our local governments to do those things that are necessary to protect us adequately. And I have to listen to my police when they say, you know, ‘Hey, we need something here in this situation to deal with that.’”

But former state Rep. Bob Damron, a Republican who served in the General Assembly as a Democrat, dismissed the concerns from the Louisville and Lexington chiefs as “a political statement.”

“The issue that those guns are getting back into society is just B.S.,” said Damron, who helped author the law. “They’re no more likely to get back into society than any other gun that a federally licensed gun dealer would sell.”

And he said the grant program funded by gun sales helps departments that – unlike in Louisville and Lexington – aren’t “flush” with money.

“A gun didn’t commit a crime,” Damron said. “This is an asset, just like a car or just like any legal asset. This is an asset that police have captured and we’re going to make sure that that money that that asset is worth goes back into protecting law enforcement officers.”

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