Some of the guns for sale had been sitting at the Carbon County Sheriff’s Auction since the 1990s.
All were seized or found by law enforcement, or turned in to them. On Wednesday the sheriff’s office held its first auction to get rid of the goods.
The firearms came to the sheriff’s office in many ways, said Liz Westhaesser, a former evidence and records clerk for the sheriff’s office who organized the auction.
“Some of them are confiscated guns from felonies,” she said. “The court has ruled that they can’t have them back.”
Others were used in suicides. Some are found and just turned in. Others might have been used in a crime, but Westhaesser didn’t know the stories behind them all. The guns had been in the office's possession for so long in part due to a Montana law that prohibits them from destroying seized guns and requires selling them.
The proceeds from the sale went to the Carbon County Sheriff’s Office.
Wednesday’s auction came amid sharp focus on who can or should purchase and own firearms — a debate that intensified after a man shot and killed 58 people in Las Vegas before turning the gun on himself Oct. 1.
On the topic of sales, the sheriff’s office auction utilized a method supported by organizations that want gun law reform.
All transactions at the auction were required to go through someone with a federal firearms license. That means that all buyers were checked by a federal background check.
“I’m sure that gives them a lot more confidence that the firearms they’re selling from seized evidence are not going to end up in the wrong hands,” said Tom Platt, a Missoula gun owner and member of the Responsible Gun Owner Network in Montana.
Platt said that he has a federal firearms license and supports the system. He said it protects the buyer because a federally licensed dealer is also checked by the government, and it gives the seller more confidence in the hands in which the firearm goes.
While some buyers at the auction had the licenses, commonly called FFLs, the auction’s designated licensee was Ken Awes, who runs the True Value hardware store in town.
Awes, who said he’s been selling firearms since 1964, said that he prefers people go through an FFL dealer.
“I don’t think it hurts anybody,” he said. “If they don’t want to be checked on, why is that?”
Winning bidders at the auction filled out a federal form with Awes, who said he checks in with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The check can take as little as 10 minutes or be delayed longer — or denied.
Awes isn’t required to sell a gun to anybody, either. He said he’s utilized that right on multiple occasions.
Prior to the auction, Westhaesser said the sheriff’s office also cleared all the firearms with the same bureau.
The auction included other seized items. There were gloves, knives, old chainsaws and a Babe Ruth baseball card. But most of the action surrounded the guns, which were spread out across nine tables.
Platt and other organizations praised the use of an FFL. That’s how gun transactions happen at retail stores, for example. But they showed concern that their use isn’t universal.
Private sales are not subject to background checks and happen most visibly at gun shows. That process has been dubbed the “gun show loophole.”
Kristin Brown, co-President of the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence, said that the use of FFLs is the most successful way to close the loophole.
“It’s not the absolute answer,” she said, “because not all FFLs follow the law. So there has to be rigorous enforcement.”
But the majority of FFL holders do follow the law, she said, and the organization supports the use. Nine states have passed universal background check laws for private sellers.
The position of the National Rifle Association, the largest organization opposed to background check expansions, is that background checks “don’t stop criminals from getting firearms.”
The delicacy of the gun debate after the Las Vegas shootings was present at Wednesday’s auction. Multiple people declined to speak or be photographed to avoid publicly attaching their name to the issue.
The auction itself was sedate. There were a couple of muffled debates over whether a last-second (or post-last-second) bid was made. The buyers filled out their paperwork with Awes and were on their way.
To Awes, that’s how the system should work.
“Absolutely," he said, “especially in today’s world.”