Once every two months, Kentucky State Police raises money for police departments statewide by combining two seemingly recession-proof businesses: government auctions and guns.
Last Tuesday, KSP raised $74,420 at its first confiscated-weapons auction of 2011, which saw nearly 700 pistols, rifles and shotguns on the auction block. Each was seized by police or sheriff's departments during criminal investigations and awarded to KSP by court order, state police Sgt. Brian Stafford said.
Hundreds of models filled the KSP garage at 94 Airport Road in Frankfort — guns ranged from two-shot Derringer-style pistols to semi-automatic AK-47s. Amidst a rack of tactical long guns and hunting rifles was even one particularly out-of-place-looking musket.
The sale drew about 40 bidders, all federally licensed gun dealers who bid on firearms and then resell them at stores and pawn shops.
Throughout the economic decline that's left thousands of Kentuckians jobless, police and auction-goers said they haven't seen a noticeable decrease in attendance at the auctions, which raise around $500,000 yearly.
"As far as I know, it's held pretty steady," Stafford said of the auction's results during the economic downturn.
State police began hosting the gun auctions partway through 2008, taking over for the state's Division of Surplus Property. In 2008, KSP held four auctions, raising more than $350,000. About $700,000 was raised during seven auctions in 2009. The total for 2010 was down some, as police raised $519,000 but over just six auctions instead of seven.
Despite a minor downswing in attendance in 2010, Stafford said, overall prices were up.
"I think that was kind of offset by political climate and people who had an expectation that there would be increased legislation of guns," he said. "There was a feeling that if you were going to buy a rifle or a pistol, now was the time to do it."
Tuesday's show may have set records.
"I'd say we were actually maybe 10 to 15 percent above our regular attendance," Stafford said.
But not everyone was happy with the turnout, namely longtime attendees looking for a bargain.
Yancy Delbert, owner of Knob Top Guns in Clay Village, was frustrated by Tuesday's crowd bidding up prices.
Delbert and other regulars were confounded when unfamiliar faces and unseasoned bidders paid almost $400 for used handguns that sell for $420 new.
"If I'm going to spend that, I'm going to go ahead and get me a new gun," Delbert said.
Jimmy Staples, owner of Jim's Log Cabin, a gun shop in Hart County that caters mostly to hunters, was also thwarted by deep-pocketed newcomers. During the last auction in October, only 13 bidders showed up the second day, giving them little competition for the guns available.
"In the October sale, which was two days straight, I bought 159 guns," he said. "And then today, I've not bought but four."
But for police, higher bids mean more money for police departments in desperate need of new equipment such as bulletproof vests and Tasers.
Drawing too many bidders "is a good problem for us to have," Stafford said.
Per state law, 80 percent of funds raised at confiscated weapons sales go to the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security's Law Enforcement Protection Program, which funds grants for body armor, weapons, ammunition and other equipment for law enforcement agencies throughout Kentucky.
Twenty percent goes to state police, which use the funds for similar equipment, Stafford said.
Since being promoted to assistant commander in the KSP supply branch, which oversees the agency's vehicles and equipment, Stafford has made it his goal to make sure the auctions yield as high a return as possible.
Illegal guns, such as fully automatic rifles, sawed-off shotguns or guns with missing serial numbers, used to be destroyed. Now, the guns have their illegal parts destroyed, and the rest are auctioned off as spare parts.
Guns with lower values are now packaged into lots of 10 or so. It speeds up the auction, and gives an incentive for dealers to buy guns that won't resell for much.
Stafford, who was a road trooper and detective for almost a decade before being promoted to the supply branch in 2009, said he never expected he would learn so much about business while working for state police.
"My time here at supply has been a real eye-opener," he said.
Once a year, the Division of Surplus Property also hosts a forfeited property sale, where citizens and business owners alike can buy surplus and seized cars, as well as countless other items confiscated from criminals.
Don Southworth, who owns W.D. Auctions on Leestown Road in Lexington, said government property auctions still bring in customers even when private auctions, such as estate sales and consignment sales, are seeing fewer bidders because of the recession.
These days, fewer people are buying antiques and collectibles, bidding instead on usable items and investments like furniture and silver.
"People just don't really have the money to spend on things that aren't necessities," said Southworth, who is not the Don Southworth who was married to murder victim Umi Southworth.
Southworth hasn't held a city auction for two years, he said, since Lexington began auctioning most of its surplus items online.
Still, the last several government auctions Southworth held drew heavy crowds in the midst of the recession. The last sale netted so much money the county clerk's office thought Southworth made a mistake when he wrote them a check.
"The clerk called me back and said 'We wasn't expecting that much money,'" he said.
Southworth said he thinks government auctions haven't been affected by the recession because dedicated buyers know they can get good deals on necessary items, and business owners know they can buy well-maintained cars, guns and tools that can be repurposed or resold at a profit.
For guns bought at government auction, resellers can typically expect a 7 percent or 8 percent profit, Delbert said, though they hope for more.
"You've made 15 percent on something, you've done had a good time," Delbert of Clay Village said.
The gun industry isn't a typical industry, he said. When the economy gets bad or politicians talk more of gun legislation, sales of guns and ammunition tend to stay steady, if not increase.
Hart County's Staples said he hasn't seen much of a change in the number of sales at his store during the recession. But what sells has altered: instead of people buying expensive guns, customers spring for lower-cost items.
"A whole lot more goes into cheaper guns," he said. "And I sell more used guns than I do new ones."
It's why Staples began coming to state police auctions.
"Sometimes you can get yourself a really good deal on a used gun," he said.
Reach Josh Kegley at (859) 231-3197 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3197.