A line of cars, trunks filled with unwanted weapons, still extended for several blocks up James Street on Saturday, January 26, when police officers started turning vehicles away shortly before noon. Demand for Seattle's first gun buyback program in two decades had far exceeded supply, with police running through their gift cards less than three hours into what was scheduled to be a six-hour event.
By the end of the truncated buyback, officials had exchanged $68,000 in gift cards for 716 handguns, rifles, and shotguns, including dozens of assault weapons, three 12-gauge 12-round semiautomatic "street sweeper" shotguns, and a shoulder-fired surface-to-air Stinger missile launcher.
"We were not expecting this level of response," Seattle police deputy chief Nick Metz said at a press conference two days later. Based on similar buyback events in other cities, Seattle officials had expected to collect about 100 guns an hour, but weapons were coming in at nearly three times that rate, creating a traffic jam around the buyback site beneath I-5 between Cherry and James Streets, and a long line of armed citizens waiting to dispose of their weapons.
"It's a little surreal," Seattle Police Foundation president Renée Hopkins said while surveying the bins of weapons. The foundation, which is administrating the gun buyback program, contributed $25,000 toward funding the event. Hopkins also said the turnout "exceeded expectations." She's now hard at work raising additional money to fund promised buyback events at locations throughout the county.
In addition to guns, officers also collected more than 500 pounds of unwanted ammunition, sometimes walking the line with open bags as people dumped in handfuls of bullets and cartridges, giving the exchange a weird trick-or-treat-like feel. It was almost festive.
But by 11:30 a.m., two and a half hours into the event, and with more people steadily arriving, it became apparent that at $100 per handgun, rifle, and shotgun, and $200 per assault weapon, the demand would quickly outstrip the $80,000 worth of gift cards on hand. The decision was made to turn away newcomers to more quickly serve those who were already waiting in line. About an hour later, after the backlog was processed, police briefly reopened the event, but a lot of people with unwanted guns went home disappointed, while others turned to the dozens of private gun buyers who had swarmed the surrounding streets, hoping to pick up valuable weapons on the cheap.
"We had a gun bazaar break out on the streets of Seattle outside a gun buyback," exclaimed Mayor Mike McGinn at a morning press conference the following Monday. "This is insane." It sure is, but as McGinn explained, the city does not have the authority to prevent the private sale of guns. He suggested the city council might be able to pass an ordinance barring gun sales on public sidewalks, "but that just means those sales move someplace where we can't see them at all."
"We need a background check on all gun sales," insisted McGinn. "And that's something that can be done at the state level."
This is the so-called gun-show loophole that exempts private gun sales from otherwise mandatory background checks. And nothing demonstrates the banality of this loophole more than Alex, Rich, and David, three nice young men who took the ferry in from Bremerton on Saturday morning in the hope of snagging a few deals on some unwanted weapons.
"I just want to save some of these beautiful guns from being destroyed," David told me as the three waved signs along James Street. David said he's a collector, and he came off as a knowledgeable and responsible gun owner. He assured me that he keeps all of his weapons safely secured. And I don't doubt him.
But then, what do I know? David could be a total sociopath. (Probably not, but sociopaths are great at faking normal.) Or perhaps he's a convicted felon or has a restraining order against him (again, probably not). Yet none of that would have stopped him from paying cash for guns on a downtown Seattle street corner—no background check, no waiting period, no questions asked.
Alex, Rich, and David couldn't legally buy a beer without showing ID (Alex and Rich didn't look old enough to me to legally buy beer, period), but there's no such restriction when it comes to them buying guns. Hand them a gun and they hand you some cash. I watched it happen. It's perfectly legal.
It's also fucking crazy, regardless of how sane, law-abiding, and responsible Alex, Rich, and David may seem.
Encouragingly, despite offering better prices and the opportunity to skip the wait in line, the private buyers had relatively few takers before the police started turning people away.
"The sentiment here is genuine," Hopkins from the police foundation said of the gun owners taking advantage of the event. Most weren't there for the money. They were there to rid their homes and their city of some unwanted guns. The gift cards were a great incentive, but not their primary motivation. Indeed, to avoid the wait in line, some just handed over their guns for free.
But sentiment goes only so far. All the officials involved promised to do what they could to avoid similar gun bazaars from popping up outside future buyback events. "We will take on a very in-depth after-action review," promised Deputy Chief Metz.
Even some of the private buyers agreed that these street-corner gun sales felt a little weird. And while most of them scoffed at the very premise of gun buyback programs, many freely admitted that the kind of person who would hand over a gun for free or below cost is not likely to be a model of a responsible gun owner. "If you don't want a gun and you don't know how to use or care for it or have it properly secure," one buyer told me, "then you probably shouldn't have it in the house."
McGinn agreed, pointing out that 1,738 guns were reported stolen in Seattle since 2008. Every gun bought back is one less available to be stolen or to be tragically used in an accident or crime of passion.
If there's anything this event proved, it's that gun buyback demand far exceeds the supply. The Seattle Police Foundation raised about $118,000 from Amazon, Nick and Leslie Hanauer, and other local businesses, organizations, and individuals, but after just one event has less than $50,000 left in its coffers. It's time for Microsoft, Boeing, Vulcan, and other civic leaders to step up and help the city and county buy back thousands of dangerous and unwanted guns.