Unclaimed guns from Augusta's Operation Smoke Screen have a long journey to destruction



It’s an action movie junkie’s dream: explosions, cars being crushed, melting metal and giant wheels of destruction. For the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, it’s called getting rid of illegal weapons.

In large undercover operations like Operation Smoke Screen, in which a significant number of guns is involved, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office often teams up with ATF.

After the operation is concluded, ATF is responsible for the guns. Depending on the number of weapons that cannot be traced back to a legitimate owner, the guns are either crushed, melted or chopped, said Richard Coes, the public information officer for ATF Atlanta.

It is a very bureaucratic and lengthy process, said Special Agent in Charge Scott Sweetow. Each gun is connected to its individual case and cannot be destroyed until the case is closed because the weapon might be needed for evidence.

Once a case is closed and the gun is ready to be destroyed, it will either be sent alone or with other weapons.

If fewer than 40 guns are coming out of Augusta, they are taken to Savannah, Ga., where they are cut up and recycled. The cuts are precise: through the receiver, action and any section that could still be used if not fully destroyed, Coes said.

If there are more than 50 guns to destroy, — as in 2007’s Operation Augusta Ink, which yielded about 400 — the weapons are shipped to Atlanta, put inside a wrecked vehicle and crushed, then recycled.

Sweetow remembered an operation in Los Angeles, where he used to work, involving the destruction of 2,000 AK-47’s.

“There was truck after truck after truck full of guns,” he said.

They ended up taking them to a giant compactor with a wheel that crushed them all for recycling. They had to be carefully monitored to make sure none were still usable.

“It is always a very formulaic and heavily monitored process,” he said.

ATF Atlanta used to have a contract with the state fire marshal to handle the bullets, Coes said. The fire marshal destroy them in an explosion.

Now, if there are fewer than 20 bullets, they are brought to ATF offices and destroyed by hand. Agents separate the bullets from their casings and throw them away.

“We are destroying bullets in the office pretty often,” he said.

Otherwise, they collect as much ammunition as they can and send it to a private company that burns it, Coes said.

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