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Creativity in the War on Crime : Gifts-for-guns exchange collects more than 700 firearms in New York

January 02, 1994

A successful gifts-for-guns swap that has attracted more than 700 firearms in a violent, drug-ridden area of New York City should be expanded to other cities. Every gun that's off our streets makes America a tiny bit safer.

The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, which donated $5,000 to the New York effort, plans to expand the program beyond New York, through its extensive system of branches, by working with authorities in the communities.

The Rev. Ben Chavis, executive director of the NAACP, and Fernando Mateo, founder of the New York effort, will begin with a visit to Los Angeles this week. Chavis said last Tuesday that the civil rights organization will ask businesses to support this campaign. NAACP leaders now view freedom from violence as a civil right.

Sadly, violence is pervasive in most cities. Americans own--legally and illegally--more than 200 million firearms of various kinds. No gifts-for-guns exchange will rid the United States of all firearms, but good riddance to every one that such offers attract.

The successful New York program was set up recently by Mateo, a civic-minded young businessman. He decided to do something after his 14-year-old son indicated he would willingly trade his Christmas presents to get guns off the streets.

Mateo quickly got help from businesses, including the major retailer Toys R Us, and from police officers and concerned citizens who donated more than $60,000.

The deal in New York: Anyone who turned in a gun by the end of Christmas Day would get a certificate for toys. The offer later included gasoline, athletic shoes and other goods. Teen-agers, parents and grandparents responded, taking to a local police station weapons that included machine guns, hunting rifles and semiautomatic pistols.

Police officers wisely asked no questions, and they were pleasantly surprised by the turnout. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said, "Clearly this program has national implications." He also said, "What we can't measure are the lives that have been saved . . . the crippling injuries that were not sustained."

The success of the initial toys-for-guns appeal prompted further generosity. Foot Locker, a chain of athletic shoe stores, donated gift certificates worth $25,000. The New York exchange program is expected to continue through Jan. 6.

In Los Angeles, Ticketmaster has given away hundreds of tickets to concerts and sports events in exchange for firearms. Elsewhere, police have used buy-back programs to collect weapons; as part of the deal, officials make no attempt to trace the guns to any crimes.

Reducing gun violence will take such creative exchanges and buy-backs, but it will also take much tougher laws--laws that all but eliminate the private possession of handguns and assault weapons.

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