Safety replaces firearm buyback
By CHRIS TISCH
When the first gun buyback program in Tampa was launched four years ago, people lined up with rifles, shotguns and revolvers in hand a full hour before the trade-in started.
More than 1,300 guns were collected in exchange for $40 gift certificates to Wal-Mart. Organizers ran out of the certificates in three hours.
The program later expanded to Pinellas, Pasco, Polk, Manatee and Sarasota counties. Almost 7,000 guns were turned in over four years. They were melted into sewer caps or disassembled and made into clocks.
But then interest sagged. Fewer guns were turned in. The program sucked money and manpower from local police departments that helped to run it.
Now, organizers of the Tampa Bay gun buyback program have decided to cancel this year's trade-ins. Instead, the group will focus its efforts on gun safety education and awareness, which includes a billboard campaign, firearms safety classes and giving away free gun locks at local police departments.
Organizers say the program collected 1,140 guns from six counties during the Sept. 15 buyback last year. That was fewer than the program collected its first year in Hillsborough County alone.
"They didn't turn in the guns," said Nancy Crane, coordinator of Cease Fire Tampa Bay, the group of law enforcement representatives and others that organized the buyback. "We didn't even see half the guns that we did the previous year."
Part of the problem was Tropical Storm Gabrielle, which soaked counties to the south. It also was only four days after the Sept. 11 attacks, a time when people's minds were on getting guns, not giving them up.
"I can't help but wonder what was going through people's minds four days after the World Trade Center went down and we're asking them to turn in their guns," said Pinellas sheriff's Capt. Frank Holloway. "Not only were they not turning them in, people were buying them as fast as they could."
Indeed, gun sales nationwide jumped 22 percent in October. At Kastle Keep Guns Inc. in Largo, sales climbed 30 percent until leveling off in January, said manager Peter Gunn. But organizers of the buyback say that Sept. 11 wasn't a factor in their decision and that suspending the program was discussed before the attacks. Perhaps the biggest factor was that organizing the buy-back takes a lot of work -- and a lot of money.
Much of the money raised for the program comes from local law enforcement agencies, some of which donate forfeiture money. Hillsborough County agencies donate up to $40,000 for each buy-back.
Local departments have seen their budgets shrink recently, particularly since Sept. 11. That made the buyback harder to justify.
"Sept. 11 was the final straw," Largo police Sgt. Barry Smith said. "Budgets just became critical. You try to get every penny you can stretched out."
At a meeting in February of law enforcement agencies from six counties, Largo's was the only department that favored going ahead with the 2002 buyback. Smith said the number of guns collected by the department had been steady last year.
Crane said the group will re-evaluate the program in January and decide whether to revive it.
Though the effectiveness of the buyback program is impossible to measure, organizers say they think it did a lot of good.
They point out that gunshot injuries to children have decreased more than 35 percent at the two major Hillsborough County hospitals since 1998. Gunshot wounds to adults treated there also have decreased by almost 22 percent in that time. Child gunshot deaths decreased from seven in 1998 to three last year, while adult gunshot deaths fell slightly in that time frame, according to the hospitals.
Cease Fire Tampa Bay formed to take unwanted guns from homes. These would be the guns that a child might get to and accidentally fire, or that a suicidal person might grab in a time of despair, Crane said.
Groups that hold group buy-backs sprouted across the nation in the 1990s. Programs wilted before reviving after the Columbine massacre. Then they started dissolving again. Federal funding also has vanished, Crane said.
Cease Fire Tampa Bay's roster is composed of law enforcement, court, school, housing and hospital officials. The group has provided free gun locks and education to gun owners for years.
And that's where much of the group's energy will now be aimed. About $25,000 that would have gone to this year's buyback will go to education.
"Our intention the whole time was to make our community a safer place to live," Crane said. "Our focus has always been to educate. That (the buyback) is just a very small piece."
Cease Fire is sending instructors into Pinellas and Hillsborough schools to teach gun safety. More than 22,000 third-graders will take the class, as will about 4,500 sixth-graders. Evening classes also will be available.
In addition, Cease Fire has stocked many local police agencies with hundreds of gun locks. Up to three locks are available free of charge to anyone who goes to those departments and asks for them.
Free gun locks
Free gun locks are available in Pinellas County at the Largo Police Department, 201 Highland Ave.; and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office at 737 Louden Ave. in Dunedin or 10750 Ulmerton Road in Clearwater. Call for Hillsborough County locations at 813-844-GUN1. For information on gun safety programs, call MORE HEALTH Inc. at 813-258-6366.
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