“We’re trying to be the junkyard.”
The few ways to get rid of a gun
There are guns on the table. Three rifles, two handguns. A shipment that came in early this week from a man in Memphis. Bruce Seiler calls out to his volunteer: “You cleared them, right, Ross?” Ross doesn’t hear too well. Asks Seiler to repeat the question. “Except for that .22,” Ross says. “I don’t know how to open that.”
Seiler carries the gun out of the workshop. Against the Montana backdrop — verdant mountains, reams of blue sky — he examines the weapon. “This is a really dumb-looking Beretta, and it’s greasy as hell,” he says. Seiler is 66 and lanky, with a woolly mustache and eyebrows to match. He checks the chamber to make sure there’s no bullet in it. Then he brings it back in and picks up another gun — a revolver.
“These types of guns are known in the antique-gun circles as ‘suicide specials,’ ” he says. The modern versions of these are called “Saturday night specials” — there are a few specific features that distinguish them, but what really defines the guns is that they’re cheap, poorly made pieces of crap. “Do you see how this spins around?” he gives the cylinder a twirl with his finger, then jiggles it back and forth, showing that it’s loose in the frame. This kind of gun, he says, isn’t even safe for target practice. “What we’d do with this is render it so it’s not functional.”
We’re at the headquarters of the National Center for Unwanted Firearms, a big name for a small organization with a monumental mission: ridding America of its unwanted and unsafe guns. Seiler is the organization’s co-founder. He and his partner, Chip Ayers, are both former U.S. Secret Servicemen. They run the organization with the help of a few volunteers and an assistant Seiler pays out of his pocket. When someone wants to dispose of a gun, he or she can visit the NCUF’s website or call its hotline, and Seiler and Ayers will make the arrangements.
On a nearby table, neatly displayed in little plastic baggies, are a bunch of Saturday night specials in pieces. Seiler shows me how he does it: He turns on a big, noisy band saw and cuts them up. Then he photographs them and logs them in a book — evidence for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that the weapons have been disabled.
It’s impossible to know exactly how many guns there are in the United States, because no one is keeping a thorough count. But it’s safe to say the country is glutted with them. According to 2018’s Small Arms Survey, there are more than 393 million firearms in America, though some estimate that more are out there, uncounted. Still, that’s more guns than people. Our rate of firearms ownership is twice as high as the next highest country’s. The stockpile grows every year. The ATF estimates that 3.6 million pistols were manufactured in the U.S. in 2018. 2.8 million rifles. One million of what they call “miscellaneous firearms.” A half-million shotguns. A half-million revolvers.
There are other facts about our country’s relationship with firearms, ones that are easier to quantify. We have the highest rate of gun-related killings of all of the high-income countries on Earth. In 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, guns killed nearly 40,000 Americans — more than at any time in the past 50 years. Most of those deaths were suicides.
What happens when the owner of one of these 393 million guns decides he doesn’t want it anymore? Most people know how to recycle their papers, their plastics, their glasses, their metals. If someone needs to dispose of old paint cans, outdated electronics, or a car, she can usually find a drop-off facility by searching for one online.
But there’s no easy, centralized way to dispose of a gun. Buyback programs aren’t always available. The local police department might take them to destroy or give to officers for training or personal use. But some police departments will resell them. It’s entirely up to the owner to find out. Federal firearms-licensed dealers will buy guns — as long as the owner is fine with having the gun back on the market to be sold to someone else. And if a person were to try to offload a gun to a friend, or in a private sale, that transfer could carry legal repercussions. Or: A person could reach out to the NCUF, or one of the handful of organizations like it, and have them take the gun instead.
Seiler is emphatically not anti-gun — he owns several and made a career in them. He grew up the son of an Army Ordnance colonel and was leafing through weapons manuals before he was old enough to fully understand them. He began competitive sharpshooting in his early 20s, with guns he built himself, and set two world records and won six national competitions. His marksmanship caught the attention of the Secret Service, which brought him in as a consultant and an ordnance specialist in the 1980s.
“I’m like the Rain Man of guns,” he says. Show him any gun — seriously, any gun — and he can recite the make, model, gauge, and something interesting or unique about its provenance. After his time in the Secret Service, he worked in weapons sales to law enforcement for the gun manufacturer SigArms. He even owned a gun shop at one point.
But Seiler watched, with dismay, as gun violence exploded over the past 30 years. “I guess I’m a sensitive person, and I just felt horrible every time I’d read about a kid that got hurt in a home accident,” he says. When he started his career, guns were far less plentiful and more difficult to make. He always assumed they’d eventually reach market saturation and people wouldn’t want to buy any more. Instead, the opposite happened. “We need to get rid of some of these guns,” he says. “There’s no junkyard for guns, so we’re trying to be the junkyard.”
Chip Ayers, who is 62, didn’t handle a firearm until his early 20s, when he was beginning his career in law enforcement. He was a counter-sniper and later taught other officers. He was working for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the late 2000s when he was tasked with putting together a response plan for workplace shootings. “You get engulfed in it — the shootings, violence,” he says. In the next couple of years, after the school shooting in Sandy Hook, after the Navy Yard shooting in Washington, D.C., he wanted to do something to help solve the problem. The political debate appeared to be going nowhere. But offering to help people who voluntarily wanted to get rid of their guns? That seemed small enough, and practical enough, to work.
When people contact the NCUF, the organization asks what they’d like to have done with their guns — if they’d like to sell them, donate them, or have them destroyed — and it’ll take it from there. Donations are usually sent to law enforcement or a museum, depending on the gun. The vast majority of owners want to sell their weapons — they’ve made a financial investment and aren’t willing to give their guns up for nothing. So Seiler and Ayers will help connect them with a dealer who has a federal firearm dealer’s license, ensuring that their gun will end up in the hands of someone who’s passed a background check.
They’ve fielded inquiries from all over the country. There was a couple in the midst of a divorce, arguing over what would happen with their guns. A man who’d acquired an AK-47 who wanted it out of his possession. A hospital in California, which called to say that people kept leaving guns in their drop box for old prescription drugs. Ervin Rivers retired as a Marine Corps colonel in 2004 after 30 years of service. Even though he’d been trained to work with weapons, he never kept any for personal use — until his brother gave him a 9 mm pistol. When he died, his brother left him the rest of his gun collection. For seven years, Rivers tried to keep up with their maintenance, but he felt like he couldn’t anymore. “My wife and I searched online for a way to safely dispose of weapons, and we were astonished at how difficult it was,” Rivers says.
John Luczyszyn also was a Marine, and when he came home to attend college, he realized that the hunting rifle he’d bought was now mostly collecting dust in his parents’ closet. “Nobody talks about getting rid of them,” he says. He looked for a buyback program in Philadelphia, where he lived, but couldn’t find one. Luczyszyn met with Seiler and donated the gun to the organization, telling him they could decide how best to deal with it. He says it was “more about getting it off the street completely and making sure it’s not getting sold.”
The NCUF began collecting guns in July 2015, when Seiler received an email through his website from a man who lived in a small town south of Erie, Pennsylvania. “We’ve recently had a really bad spate of killings,” the man wrote, referring to some homicides that had been making headlines in the area. He was getting older, he said, and his kids didn’t want his guns. “Shooters aging out, of course, are only a small part of the problem of unwanted guns, but it’s a start. I’m tired of the pro-/anti-gunner dialog ending with ‘No new gun laws. Enforce the laws you’ve already got.’ ” The man sent Seiler a list of the guns he wanted to let go of — a dozen total. Seiler flew his little four-seat Cessna across the country to meet him. He took one of the man’s handguns and cut it into pieces.
That man was my dad. I grew up in a part of the country where, it seemed, everybody owned guns and learning how to shoot them was more practical than political. Target practice was a family affair. And that didn’t change, even when a student at my school brought a gun to the eighth-grade dinner dance in 1998. I was too young to attend the dance, which was held at a nearby recreation complex, but I was standing with my best friends a few feet away, on the first hole of a mini-golf course next to the dance hall. At first, I dismissed the noises I heard as balloons popping. But then a bunch of students came running outside, crying, in formalwear and corsages. The news traveled fast, if incorrectly: A student had shot a teacher named Mr. Gillette in the leg. There wasn’t much time to think through what happened next. Someone shouted that the student was now outside. Everyone scattered. A bunch of us crammed into the concession stand between the dance hall and the mini-golf course. One of my best friends, on instinct, ordered us all to get on the ground. While we were huddling there, knee to knee, the owner of the complex talked the student into giving up his weapon.
There’s a lot that we couldn’t have known right in the moment. That three others had been hit, and that Mr. Gillette had been shot in the head and killed. Or that my classmates and I were at the beginning of the school-shooting generation. The shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas, had happened exactly one month before. A year later came Columbine, and after that Red Lake, Minnesota, and then Virginia Tech. The debate raged, furious and strangely static. At some point, I began to think more about the family gun collection. What did it mean to own those guns? Even more difficult: What would it mean to responsibly rid ourselves of them?
My dad was weighing that responsibility, too. We weren’t hunters, so our guns were only ever being used for target practice. They were always kept locked up in a safe. What was the likelihood that they’d ever be used for something good? What was the likelihood that they could become instruments of tragedy? Without better options for safely disposing of our guns, it’s easy to think that it might be better if they just stayed in our possession forever. That’s what initially drew my dad to the NCUF.
It’s possible that my family’s position is unique. Guns are incredibly polarizing. But it’s easy to think that because the NRA is the loudest voice representing the interests of gun owners, it’s representative of the majority of them. Seiler and Ayers are both gun owners. They support the right for people to own them safely and legally. They’re also both lapsed members of the NRA. Seiler gave his membership up in the 1980s, when the organization started sending him alarmist mailers about gun-control groups trying to take his Second Amendment rights away. “I hated it,” he says.
Above all, they want the NCUF to be a nonpartisan organization. “The way I look at it,” Ayers says, “is that if we don’t stay neutral, we’ll no longer exist.” Still, they are trying to take small steps into the public arena, finding instances where they think people can reasonably agree. Most Americans want to see an end to the era of mass shootings. Most want to see a reduction in violent crimes, suicides, and gun accidents in the home. So, last year, when the March for Our Lives rally led by the survivors of the Parkland school shooting came to Washington, Ayers did something that, as a lifelong cop, he thought he’d never do. With his daughters, he made signs saying Protect Our Future and The National Center for Unwanted Firearms and went to a protest. “At some point in your life, you have to take a stance in your beliefs,” Ayers says, showing me the photos on his iPhone at a coffee shop in downtown D.C. “I didn’t go into this lightly.”
Four days after I met with him, a gunman walked into a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and murdered 22 people with an assault rifle. Later that day, another gunman, in Dayton, Ohio, killed nine more people outside a bar. When I called Seiler to check in, he told me their phones had been ringing off the hook. They had been hearing from gun owners, he said, who were having second thoughts. “They found that their guns aren’t popular,” Seiler said. “They feel like they’re not helping anything.”