Gun sales surged in 2020, reaching record levels amid a backdrop of an ongoing pandemic and political and social unrest. In fact, people bought some 23 million guns over the course of the year, according to data from consulting firm Small Arms Analytics.
That number represents a 65% increase in sales compared to 2019, CNN reports. So, we know how and where to buy guns. But if you no longer want your firearms, how do you safely and legally dispose of them? That answer isn’t always clear.
“This is a country awash in firearms, and we’ve made it easy to buy them, but not equally easy to dispose of them,” says Scott Charles, a gun violence educator and trauma outreach coordinator for Temple University Hospital. “I wish there were more people looking at their arsenal and thinking, ‘What the hell was I doing?’”
Some people, says Adam Garber, executive director of CeaseFirePA, may be doing just that — and for a number of reasons, such as the risk of accidental shootings and other issues.
“Even if you don’t want [a gun] anymore, the fact that it is in your house, it poses a risk,” he says. “It’s worth getting rid of it.”
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So, where can you take your unwanted firearms? And what should you do with any ammunition you might have? Here are some options to consider:
Take your guns to a buyback or giveback
Held periodically in many areas in the state, these events often accept unwanted firearms with an anonymous “no questions asked” policy. In the case of givebacks, you won’t receive anything in exchange for your firearms, but buybacks offer a financial incentive, typically a gift certificate (to a grocery store, for example), or sometimes cash.
Bilal Qayyum, president of the Father’s Day Rally Committee, frequently organizes gun buybacks in Philadelphia, and says his events have collected more than 380 unwanted firearms in 2021 so far. Most recently, Qayyum partnered with ShopRite to provide $100 ShopRite gift cards in exchange for working firearms. Currently, he plans to hold two more buybacks around the city in coming months, and promotes the events on social media ahead of time.
“We give you a gift certificate, and you walk out,” he says. “The whole process takes less than a minute.”
While buybacks are generally anonymous, Qayyum notes that police, who help facilitate the events, will check to see if guns have been stolen or if there is any evidence that they have been used in a crime. Ultimately, the firearms collected are destroyed, helping to keep them from “finding [their] way into trouble” through theft, accidents, or misuse, Charles says.
How effective are buybacks at reducing violent crime? Some have questioned how much of a difference they make. But, as one 2019 study concluded, buybacks can help when used “in conjunction with other methods.”
“This is one tool in the toolbox of efforts to help reduce shootings and violence in the city of Philadelphia,” Qayyum says. “It’s going to take a concerted approached. There are no overnight fixes.”
Surrender them to your local police station
While gun buybacks are an option for disposing of your unwanted firearms, they don’t happen every day. So, if you want to remove a gun from your home today, another option is to surrender it to your local police station. But it’s on a location-by-location basis, so contact your local station first to see if that’s a service they offer.
Philadelphia police do accept unwanted firearms, Charles says. (The PPD did not respond to request for comment.) And all local state police stations will as well, says Pennsylvania State Police spokesperson Ryan Tarkowski. But, it should be noted, turning unwanted guns into a police station is not an anonymous process, and you will not receive any compensation in return for the gun. Any surrendered firearms will be destroyed.
“If someone wants to surrender [a firearm] at a state police station, they will fill out a form with their name and info,” Tarkowski says. “It will ask how they came into possession of the firearm, whether they are the owner or if they inherited or found it. And a trooper will run a check on the serial number of the gun to see if it was reported stolen or is connected to a crime.”
That lack of anonymity, Garber says, is because turn-ins could “become a mechanism where someone uses a firearm in a criminal activity and then gives it to the police” to be destroyed, without identification. While Charles understands that concern, he says it makes it harder for people who have potentially illegal firearms, but are “trying to turn their lives around,” to safely dispose of their guns.
“That’s the group we have to figure that out for,” Charles says. “There are people who we don’t want this to be a get out of jail free card for, as well. We have to strike a balance.”
Sell your guns to a licensed firearms dealer
If you don’t want to surrender your unwanted firearm to police or turn it in at a buyback, you may be able sell it to a licensed firearms dealer (known as a “Federal Firearms Licensee” or FFL). These are places like gun stores, or in some cases, even pawn shops.
Generally, Garber says, you won’t get the full price for the firearm, but you should be able to get some money — depending on the type of firearm and its condition. And ultimately, the store isn’t required to buy the firearm from you, so you may need to shop around.
“Some firearms are very in demand right now because of the high level of sales in 2020,” Garber says. “So, it’s possible, depending on the type, that they might be very interested.”
If an FFL buys your gun , they’ll need to record it in what is known as an “Acquisition and Disposition” book, says Special Agent Robert Cucinotta of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Philadelphia Field Division. That entry will include your name and address, as well as information about the firearm itself, according to ATF documents. If everything checks out, the FFL will add the firearm to its inventory, and sell it to the next buyer, who must pass a background check as with any other firearm sale at a gun store.
After selling a firearm to an FFL, Cucinotta suggests that you keep all the associated paperwork and get a receipt. That can help create a “life path of the firearm” in case it’s ever used in a crime.
“Say you bought a gun and sold it back. You have some explaining to do, [because] you bought a gun in 2015 that was used in a triple homicide,” Cucinotta says. “You can show us a receipt that you sold it to Joe Blow’s pawn shop in 2017. We’d go there and see who he sold it to from there. That’s why the pattern of that gun’s life is important.”
What do you do with unwanted ammunition?
If you have an unwanted firearm at home, you probably also have some unwanted ammunition that goes with it — and that can sometimes be a little complicated to dispose of. In Philadelphia, for example, ammunition cannot be accepted at household hazardous waste disposal events, and it should not be thrown out with your regular trash, according to the Streets Department.
Instead, the city suggests contacting your local police department district office to arrange for disposal. The state police, Tarkowski says, will also take limited amounts of ammunition at local state police stations, though they are not supposed to routinely take large quantities of ammo, and you will likely be asked to leave your information.
Qayyum’s gun buyback events will accept ammo, and there is no limit on the amount you can surrender. However, he says, you won’t receive a gift certificate for ammunition alone.
If you can’t drop off your unwanted ammunition at a buyback or with your local police station, Garber suggests checking around with local gun clubs and shooting ranges. They may accept the ammunition as a donation on a case-by-case basis.
“As a society, we think of tracking and use of firearms, but we don’t really think of ammunition,” he says. “It definitely needs to be properly disposed of. It has explosive components to it, so you don’t want to just throw it in the trashcan.”
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Scott Charles, gun violence educator and trauma outreach coordinator for Temple University Hospital.
Bilal Qayyum, president of the Father’s Day Rally Committee.
Adam Garber, executive director of CeaseFirePA.
Ryan Tarkowski, communications director for the Pennsylvania State Police.
Robert Cucinotta, special agent and public information officer at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Philadelphia Field Division.