October 05, 2011
A reader recently called me to relate a strange incident that happened at his home. There had been an electrical fire in his house. There was no suspicion of any sort of foul play. The firefighters arrived and quickly put the fire out. While damage was significant in one part of the house, it was confined to that area.
Nonetheless, the firefighters followed protocol and swept the house, just to make sure the fire was completely out and that no one was in the house injured or unconscious. As the firefighters checked the master bedroom, they looked under the bed and saw several of our reader's cased guns. They immediately left the room and called in the police. The officers trooped in and carted the guns out.
"Where are you taking my guns?" demanded the homeowner.
"We need to run the numbers," replied the police. The homeowner was, quite understandably, livid.
"They didn't run the numbers on my stereo or my TV! Why the guns?"
Why, indeed. My caller is not what I would consider a "suspicious character." He is an established businessman who grew up in his community. In fact, he went to high school with the county sheriff and they are on friendly terms.
He specifically asked that I not contact his police department because, as I mentioned, he has a position in the community and he wanted to handle the situation through his own channels. He called me because he wanted to know whether automatically running numbers is a new standard procedure for police and fire departments.
I related the story to renowned Second Amendment and constitutional scholar David Hardy. "I can't see it as a reasonable search and seizure," Dave responded, being a reasonable man. "But a California court would probably say that it was," he added bringing to bear his knowledge not only of what the law ought to be, but what it is. "A sweep of the house for other fires, okay. But seizing firearms just because they are firearms? That's like impounding a lawfully-parked car because they wanted to run the plates."
That question piqued my curiosity, so I made a few calls to the information offices of several big-city police and fire departments. Calls to relatively gun-friendly Phoenix, Fort Worth, and Oklahoma City made it apparent that firefighters are unlikely to freak at the mere sight of a gun. As a Phoenix Fire Department information officer said, "Firemen are free to use their own discretion if they are in a situation that might be dangerous, but it's a judgment thing."
Turning to relatively gun-hostile Los Angeles, it was apparent that there was no standing policy of calling in the police upon seeing a gun, but I found that how I phrased the question elicited radically different responses, sometimes in the same breath.
Posing the hypothetical to a firefighter, I related the tale describing the guns as "a deer rifle, a .22, a shotgun, and a couple of pistols." The firefighter said he probably would not take any action. After all "they're the homeowner's property." Nonetheless, he'd want to be sure the guns were secure, so he might have the police take custody if the structure of the house were compromised. I then asked, "What if one of the guns was an AR-15 or an AK-47?" That changed the firefighters tune and tone.
"We would probably bring the police in, then."
A conversation with an LAPD detective was equally ambivalent. A detective on the "Gun Squad" first came out hard, saying he would impound and run any guns he found on a fire scene. I then reminded him that in my hypothetical situation the house was structurally intact, there was no suspicion of crime, and that the family would probably sleep in the house that night.
His manner changed a bit then, but said that it depended on what the Fire Department brought to his attention. "My first concern is to keep potentially dangerous property secure," adding that he might just secure the guns in the trunk of a squad car.
When I suggested that one of the guns might be an AR-15 or AK-47, his tone changed again, and he said he might "look into the question further, just to rule out foul play." Neither the detective, nor the firefighter said it, but their tone strongly implied that the type of gun might very well be an influencing factor in his judgment call. Seeing Granddad's deer and duck guns might prompt one response, seeing your three-gun set might prompt another.
All of this boils down to one conclusion: Gun safes are a good idea. If my caller had a gun safe, not only would his guns have been protected from potential fire damage, they would have been out of sight and out of mind of reactionary elements in the local fire and police departments.
I recall a time when the most popular project in our high school's advanced wood shop class was a glass-front gun cabinet. I'll go out on a limb and suggest that's not the case anymore. These days, guns are locked up out of sight of passers-by and firemen.
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