HomeTop StoriesThe weapon used at the Pittsburgh crime scene has been traced back...

The weapon used at the Pittsburgh crime scene has been traced back to New Jersey police, part of an alarming trend for former service weapons

How former police guns end up in criminal hands


How former police weapons end up in the hands of criminals

04:24

When a police department upgrades its weapons, what happens to the old ones? A CBS News investigation found that law enforcement agencies routinely resell or trade their used service weapons, a practice that has put thousands of guns into the hands of criminals.

Over a 16-year period ending in 2022, the ATF identified more than 52,000 guns recovered from crime scenes that were once used by law enforcement. It took a federal court order for the ATF to release that data.

In one case, serial numbers obtained from police mapped a gun’s path from Newark, New Jersey, through New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, and finally to a crime scene in Pittsburgh – 350 miles away.

Shots fired in Pittsburgh

On July 14, 2019, twelve shots were fired in the Northview Heights neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Police searched the area and found no one shot, but they did find the gun dumped near Hazlett Street.

An officer wrote that the gun had “numerous scratches… consistent with being thrown and sliding on cement,” leading police to believe the person who fired the shots had thrown it away as they ran away.

According to Pittsburgh police, the gun was not reported stolen, but they were also unable to find any evidence of its current owner. An ATF gun tracking report obtained by CBS shows that the gun’s serial number is traced back to the Newark Police Department.

Newark police traded in guns

The Newark Police Department has proudly taken guns off the streets through gun buybacks for years. But at the same time, they have inadvertently put their own weapons back into circulation.

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Newark police confirmed that they traded in approximately 1,000 guns to a firearms dealer in 2016 and 2017 in exchange for discounts on new equipment. The dealer then resells the weapons.

“It makes me feel like money is more important to you than humanity,” said Newark-based anti-violence activist Pastor Jethro James. “Melt it down and turn it into something useful.”

“I don’t blame this mayor because it didn’t start with this mayor,” James said. “However, this is your time to try; stand on the board and make your move. You tried, and because of your efforts, maybe someone doesn’t die, and someone’s child doesn’t die.”

Many police departments trade in weapons

Newark police tell CBS News they haven’t traded in guns in years, but they won’t say whether they will do it again when the time comes to upgrade.

Working with the nonprofit newsrooms The Trace and Reveal, CBS News surveyed 200 police agencies across the country and found that a majority sell their weapons when they decide to upgrade their arsenals.

Police in Monroe, New York, are trading in old weapons. Police in Yonkers, New York, trade with a vendor who does not sell to the public. In New York City, cops are the legal owners of their guns. When upgrading, they can keep the old weapon for personal use or sell it.

“I’m not going to punish or say this is wrong in any way,” said retired ATF New York Special Agent in Charge John DeVito. “I think we need to have satisfactory budgets so that these departments and chiefs don’t have to make difficult decisions. “We have to trade in these weapons, we have to sell these weapons to equip my officers.” That’s not a decision a chef should have to make.”

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According to DeVito, ATF agents can trace a gun from one firearms dealer to another, but they can’t see which citizens might later buy it.

Trace the gun from New Jersey to Pennsylvania

The gun used in the 2019 Pittsburgh incident was sold to a company called Atlantic Tactical, according to Newark police. documents obtained by CBS News.

Atlantic Tactical’s website states that their headquarters are in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. However, CBS News found the building for sale and, according to an online announcement, the business was sold to Florida-based Safariland in 2015.

That same year, Atlantic Tactical stopped selling guns to the general public, according to their website. They now only sell to current and retired public safety personnel.

No one at the New Cumberland store would do an interview, and Safariland did not respond to requests for comment.

Police perspective

“It’s more common for police departments to do things like buybacks, where their goal is to get guns off the street,” said Robert Bradshaw, a crisis management consultant in New Cumberland who works with police departments.

“In my experience, that’s probably what most law enforcement officers I know feel that way. They think there are too many guns on the streets already.”

Bradshaw also helped write the fictional book “American Roulette” about the impact of a mass shooting on an American city. The characters he created are police officers, “to emphasize that police officers themselves become victims of these events. They are traumatized by them. They are changed forever.”

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An unclear path to Pittsburgh

It’s unclear how a gun sold by Newark police to Atlantic Tactical ended up on the streets of Northview Heights in 2019.

In a statement to CBS News, an ATF spokesperson said: “There are a few different scenarios that could have occurred. Given the range of options and because we don’t want to imply anything false, we cannot speculate on what could have led to this specific report led.”

“This sounds like it’s a key part of a system that’s set up with so many holes in it that guns can fall into the wrong hands,” said Josh Fleitman, campaign manager for CeaseFirePA.

Fleitman said this incident is just one example of why new gun policies should be considered.

However, a gun store owner in Pittsburgh said he and other owners can’t sell to just anyone and face restrictions.

“We have to ask, ‘Mother, can I sell this gun?’ to our federal government, and they must give us an approval number in order to transfer that item. And then we need to have records of who bought it,” said Bruce Piendl, owner of Allegheny Arms and Gun Works.

As for the gun that traveled from Newark to Northview Heights, Pittsburgh police never found its owner and ultimately destroyed it in 2021.

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