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    Gifts-for-guns campaign thrives

    So many people brought in unwanted weapons that some headquarters ran out of gift certificates.

    By SHARON TUBBS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


    A stream of cars stretched from the rear parking lot of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. The cars had one thing in common: They contained weapons.

    In plastic grocery bags or lying on seats in the rears of cars were rifles, shotguns and handguns. Many were old, having belonged to a father's father or thought to have been used in one 19th century war or another. Only a few appeared fresh from the hands of a firearms dealer.

    Either way, those that still worked were traded for $50 gift certificates from Beall's department and outlet stores or Winn-Dixie Marketplace stores as part of a regional program, Cease Fire Tampa Bay. The idea was to get rid of the guns so they wouldn't fall into the hands of children or criminals.

    Law enforcement agencies in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Manatee, Polk and Sarasota counties sponsored the program, taking in firearms from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The weapons will be destroyed.

    "There's a lot of people out there carrying a gun," said a surprised Pinellas sheriff's Lt. Gary Herbein as he peered at the long lines outside.

    Although some Tampa Bay area agencies took part in the buyback program last year, this was the first year for authorities in Pinellas. They weren't prepared for the popularity of the gun trade and quickly ran out of gift certificates.

    As if vying for front-row seats at a rock concert or Bucs season tickets, people began staking places in line even before the program opened at 9 a.m. The Winn-Dixie certificates went fast -- in less than two hours for some agencies. Those for Beall's lasted a while longer. But, by lunchtime, they, too, were "sold out" in Largo, Gulfport and both sheriff's sites in North Pinellas.

    Kip Scharlow had come from his home in Seminole to shed his .22-caliber rifle. The decision was more his wife's than his. "My wife doesn't want a gun in the house," he said.

    "I've just been nagging him for years," Karen Scharlow chimed in from the passenger's seat.

    Not far behind them, John Gallagher sat in a company van. He'd been waiting about 40 minutes before reaching the front of the line. A year ago, Gallagher found two shotguns in a garbage can. He tried to shoot one of them, only to be startled by the flame that erupted. Too dangerous to have in the house with his 7-year-old daughter, Gallagher said.

    All the Winn-Dixie certificates were gone by the time he got to the drop-off site. He would have preferred groceries, but said he could use the Beall's certificate to buy a weather radio. It might come in handy, Gallagher commented, as rain brought on by Hurricane Gordon poured outside his van window.

    Total figures were not available Saturday, but by late afternoon Pinellas agencies had taken in nearly 800 guns -- not counting a slew of pellet and BB guns, and at least one samurai sword.

    In Hillsborough, authorities collected about 900 guns. One of them, a .22-caliber semiautomatic, had belonged to Matt Riggs of New Tampa. The gun simply wasn't "reliable," Riggs said, explaining how it would jam when he fired it during target practice.

    Rita Goldsborough turned in a rifle and a pistol that belonged to her ex-husband. She didn't want them in her Tampa home anymore, regardless of the fact that she kept them in a locked closet, she said.

    Farther north, in Pasco County, authorities collected 307 guns.

    Vincent Lombardi was happy to be rid of his, having cruised into the parking lot outside the Sheriff's Office in New Port Richey just before all the Beall's certificates were gone.

    Lombardi said he has more clothes than he needs. Perhaps, he hoped, he could buy a pair of socks and get $49 change.

    - Times staff writers Ryan Davis and Susan Thurston contributed to this story.

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