Atlanta sits on 6,000 confiscated guns -- and won't sell them

Somewhere in Atlanta, in a room controlled by the city's police force, is a cache of 6,000 or so guns that have been plucked off the streets over the last three years.

Yes, that’s “6,” followed by three zeros. Or 2,000 a year, which works out to just under six every day.

In years past, the city would have turned most of this hardware into scrap metal.

But in 2012, Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law S.B. 350, which required local governments to make an effort to return firearms to “innocent owners” – just as any stolen property might be. No problem there.

The law doesn’t stop with that. State lawmakers decided that, just like juvenile delinquents, all guns deserve a second chance at finding a worthy parent. Local governments are now supposed to auction off all confiscated but unclaimed firearms to a properly licensed dealer.

Who will then arrange for the guns to be placed in new, and presumably legal hands.

Atlanta Police Chief George Turner understands what the law requires when it comes to the city's captured arsenal. "We have an obligation to re-sell that, re-bid that, and get that to gun purchasers so they can re-sell those," Turner told a CBS46 reporter this week.

But the police chief added this: “The city of Atlanta has not done that.” To put those firearms back on the street would be “catastrophic,” Turner said.

So the city has decided to slow-walk its legal obligation. It hasn’t destroyed the weapons, but neither has it held any auctions – which are required at least every six months, online or in the flesh.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed doesn’t like to pick fights with his former colleagues in the state Capitol. But he may have a big one on his hands, just the same.

Throughout his tenure as mayor, Reed has been a cautious opponent of gun violence. He joined a coalition of mayors formed by billionaire and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to stop illegal trafficking in firearms. (Georgia is considered a major source.)

Following the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., which occurred six months after Georgia’s gun-auction mandate was signed into law, the mayor of Atlanta said we need to rethink our relationship with guns. But he wasn’t ready to talk specifics. That was three years ago.

“It’s very difficult for me to lead on this, because even in the state of Georgia, when we take illegal guns off the street, under Georgia state law right now, we actually have to return them or make them available to the public in some form,” Reed told CBS 46.

One measure of the volatility of this issue: When we asked the mayor to elaborate on the city’s strategy, Reed declined.

Deputy Chief Ericka Shields confirmed the existence of Atlanta’s weapons cache, putting the estimated number of confiscated firearms at 6,000 – a somewhat lower figure than the one reported by the TV station.

Shields also confirmed her police department’s course of action. “We would have to sell guns that have been used in homicides,” the deputy chief said. Those were the exact words she used, but it is impossible to capture the revulsion that accompanied them.

The 2012 state gun-auction law includes no penalties for non-compliance on the city’s part. Even so, legal exposure is surely one reason for caution on the mayor’s part.

Among gun rights organizations in Georgia, Georgia Carry is the most aggressive when it comes to courtroom challenges. John Monroe, attorney for the group, confirmed that he and his friends will be examining the possibility of a lawsuit to force the city to obey state law.

But a larger issue is at stake in the direction that the city of Atlanta has chosen. Are people safer when there are more guns on the street – or fewer? According to a national Quinnipiac University poll released this week, 49 percent of voters say that more guns mean less safety. Forty-one percent disagree.

Who should decide? The state Legislature has declared itself the Georgia’s sole authority when it comes to firearms legislation – down to zoning decisions over where gun shows can and can’t be held.

Kasim Reed's crime-rattled city has posed at least a passive challenge to that sovereignty. If he were willing to talk about it, the mayor's arguments might also include economic factors. Reed this week promised to do anything it takes to lure General Electric from his headquarters in Connecticut.

What would GE executives say if they found out that 6,000 pistols and rifles were about to be added to the local gene pool? No, the guns wouldn't have to be sold here. The lucky wholesaler could send them someplace else – but that would again emphasize Georgia's role as an exporter of firearms.

The city’s refusal to sell off its gun cache is likely to provoke a reaction from gun lobbyists in the Capitol come January.

“The law says what the law is. I don’t know how you go around that,” said Don Balfour of Snellville, who was the author of S.B. 350. He was defeated for re-election in 2014.

Balfour called the city of Atlanta’s behavior “bizarre.”

The former lawmaker doesn’t pack, but his son does. “That’s just a totally different philosophy than I have. When I ride around with my son, I feel safer,” he said.

When S.B. 350 passed the Senate, Balfour was chairman of the chamber’s powerful rules committee. That might explain its easy 49-4 passage. Only four Democrats voted against it.

To his current embarrassment, state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, wasn’t among them. Granted, it was a crowded legislative day. “If I voted for that, it was a complete oversight,” Fort said. Nonetheless, the senator described himself “chagrined,” and promised to work to repeal the measure.

Fort doesn’t always agree with the Reed administration, but he does this time. “We’re going to find that those guns are going to be used in crimes. I have no doubt about that. To put that many guns back on the street, when we should be doing the opposite, is bizarre,” Fort said.

There was no prompting. Don Balfour and Vincent Fort both used the same word to describe the other side. “Bizarre.”