CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati police guns are ending up on the street in private sales between complete strangers with few questions asked.
The I-Team was able to buy one of the department’s former weapons from a stranger in a parking lot, and caught the whole thing on hidden cameras, which you can watch in the video player above.
Chief investigator Brendan Keefe purchased a Smith & Wesson 9mm with “Cincinnati PD” etched into the slide for $400 in cash after coordinating the sale via the Internet. The man the I-Team bought the gun from said he was a teacher, and he even brought some of his students to spectate the gun deal. The seller also happens to be a retired police officer.
The seller, who had no idea he was selling the semi-automatic handgun to an investigative reporter, never asked Keefe for a name or identification before offering him the weapon.
The teacher asked only one question during the transaction.
“You’re legal to own, no domestic, no felony, anything like that?” the seller asked.
"Well yeah, I'm glad you asked. These days you'd have no way of knowing in a private party sale, right?" Keefe responded.
The seller had nothing but our word to go on.
We’re not identifying the seller because the gun deal between strangers in a parking lot, in broad daylight, with no background check is perfectly legal in Ohio.
When asked where he got the firearm, the seller admitted he picked up the gun as a recycled weapon from the Cincinnati Police Department.
The I-Team tracked the serial number of the gun we bought to the Cincinnati police target range.
So how did a pistol used to train police officers end up for sale on the web?
Every year, Cincinnati officers take about 1,000 guns off the street, but this year they’re also putting more than 1,000 police guns in private hands as a result of a deal the city was offered to receive free guns.
Smith & Wesson traded its newest model for the police department’s 6-year-old M&P pistols.
The old pistols not purchased by officers for their personal collections were liquidated by Smith & Wesson through a local dealer, who is a retired CPD sergeant selling the guns out of his Blue Ash home. Because the dealer has a federal firearms license, he conducts the required background checks when selling the guns, even to officers who choose to buy back their own weapon.
During the I-Team’s parking lot gun buy, two former police guns were offered as choices. These private-party sales are not regulated and no background check is required by Ohio law.
"Nobody wants to be the mayor or the police chief that has to explain how one of their firearms was used in a murder," Ohio State Representative John Becker said of the sales.
State Representative Becker said he understands the risks, but he’s not only in favor of the city’s free gun swap, he wants to go one step further. Becker is the author of House Bill 210, which would require Ohio police departments to sell all their guns to firearms dealers, even guns turned in or used in a crime.
"If you're willing to have the used service weapons of officers beings sold to the general public, why not these others weapons that are confiscated?" said State Rep. Becker.
House Bill 210 is now in committee in Columbus, and the bill has seven co-sponsors. A similar law has already passed in Arizona.
"To me it's just a real shame to see those perfectly good firearms get sent to the scrap heap," Becker said.
Protestors attending a gun control rally at Fountain Square in August had no idea that guns strapped to the hips of officers protecting them could end up in the hands of criminals.
Carlee Soto, the sister of a victim in the Newtown elementary school shooting, was in attendance at the rally. Soto said she is wary of CPD’s process.
“Why should people be able to buy guns that a police officer uses without a background check?” Soto said.
In 2007 and again in 2013, more than 1,000 guns ended up in private hands, with no way of knowing how many will end up on the street.
Convicted heroin dealer Damon Weathington was found with a Cincinnati Police Department 9mm when he sold drugs to an informant near an elementary school.
The gun had been stolen from an officer’s car, but the felon could have bought a police gun from a stranger just like the I-Team did. It’s illegal for felons to buy guns, but the seller would have no way of knowing the buyer’s criminal history.
Are there more former Cincinnati police guns ending up with suspects of crimes?
We may never know because Cincinnati police does not track information on where their guns end up, noting in a document request on the firearms swap that there is nothing in the records to “identify law enforcement guns.”
Neither Smith & Wesson nor Cincinnati police would talk with the I-Team about their gun trade agreement, despite the fact that it saved taxpayers almost $500,000 this year.
Former Cincinnati Police Chief James Craig personally signed the deal with Smith & Wesson at the same time that he was publicly criticizing unregulated private party gun sales, the same kind that allowed the I-Team to buy the police gun.
"…these flea markets and gun shows that anybody can walk in and buy a weapon. I struggle with that,” Police Chief James Craig told 9 On Your Side earlier this year. “I struggle with it because who are we selling handguns to? What about the mentally ill?"
Becker says just as old police cruisers are sold to the public, he says guns are an asset worth selling, no matter the risk.
"An old Crown (Victoria) that used to be owned by the department could be used to run over a police officer and kill him, the same way it is possible for a firearm to be done, to be used the same way," State Rep. Becker said.
WCPO is turning over the gun purchased on the street to a local sheriff who will check it out to see if it has been used in a crime and destroy it because the parent company of WCPO has no interest in keeping it, but doesn't want to sell it.
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38-time Emmy winner Brendan Keefe was named Best Reporter by the Ohio Associated Press in 2011, and Best Photographer in 2012 and 2013. He serves as Anchor and Chief Investigator for 9 On Your Side.
Jason Law joined 9 On Your Side in January 2013 as a investigative reporter with the I-Team.