CROWN POINT — “I’m the gun coroner,” Dan Hayes said, with a chuckle. “At least, that’s what we call ourselves.”
The title couldn’t be more fitting for Hayes and his boss, Tom Jones, owner of Certified Firearms Solutions.
Late Thursday morning, Hayes and Jones sat at two tables in the Lake County Sheriff’s Department gun range, prying apart firearm after firearm — armed with a hammer and screwdriver — before tossing them into clear plastic bags.
The Sheriff’s Department recently contracted with the Lafayette, Indiana-based company to destroy about 150 firearms in the department’s possession.
Many of the guns had been seized off the streets by officers during traffic stops, from crime scenes, or once served as critical evidence at trials.
The goal is to dismantle and destroy the weapons so they don't end up back on the streets in the hands of criminals.
Lake County Police Chief Bill Paterson said Thursday’s gun destruction event is likely the first of many needed to address the backlog of weapons currently stored in evidence. Thousands more remain in storage.
“Some of (these guns) are from court cases. Some of them are seized. Some of them are just found property,” he said.
“And what we’re doing is after these weapons have been through the court system, and we have court orders for destruction, we’re having them dismantled, and they’re being cut up and scrapped so they can’t find their way back out onto the streets.”
Pam Jones, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department, said that while gun destruction is not unusual, Jones’ company provides video documentation of the process so law enforcement can feel satisfied the weapons will not return to the streets and potentially cause harm.
Once disassembled, the firearms were fed through a slow-speed saw machine Thursday so that the functional parts of the weapon could not be pieced back together.
The cut is about ⅜-inch thick, Jones said.
“That effectively destroys the firearm,” he said.
Jones and Hayes hammered away at the piles of weaponry as Lt. Ryan Remenius and Officer Jill Baumgardner called out serial numbers to check that each number matched the evidence sheets and court destruction orders.
For added security, Jones and Hayes set up two high-definition cameras and pressed record, announcing each firearm and its serial number before showing it to the camera in a high-definition, tight shot, and then running it through the saw.
They also provide the police departments a handwritten list and an SD card containing the video of the entire process.
Once the functional part of the gun is broken down and sawed in half, Jones pays the department for scrap metal and spare parts, such as screws, nuts, bolts, grips and springs.
Years ago, Jones said police departments often would default to auctioning off seized weapons, but destruction is the way to go.
“And you don’t want to do that anymore. They could end up in the wrong hands back in the streets,” he said.
Jones started Certified Firearms Solutions about 15 years ago, admittedly as an amateur.
Its clientele has grown since then, and it now works with police departments statewide, including places like Gary, South Bend and St. Joseph County.
When Jones and his crew first started, they would take gun manuals with them for reference, he said. Now, they rely on YouTube if they get in a rare jam.
“For our first job, we had, like, what? Forty-seven guns? And it took us seven hours,” Hayes said.
On Thursday, a job of 150 guns took a little more than four hours.
Jones admired a 100-year-old Mauser pistol Thursday, turning it over in his hand before dismantling it.
Any gun enthusiast witnessing the work of Hayes and Jones likely would cringe at the thought of destroying this volume of weaponry in a matter of hours.
“I’m not sad to see them go. Clearly, they ended up here for a reason,” Jones said.
Baumgardner said she and Remenius were newly assigned to get a handle of inventory on the backlogged weapons so more can be properly destroyed.
“I’m excited to see the process here," she said. "We’re starting to clean house."