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400 Guns Swapped for Gifts

December 25, 2005|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

They came bearing sawed-off shotguns wrapped in blankets, pistols that looked like relics folded into handkerchiefs and hollowed-out hunting rifles in shopping carts.

In exchange for $100 gift cards, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies were hoping to unarm gang members or at least garner a gun that might have ended up in more dangerous hands and eventually contributed to the violence that has plagued Compton this year.

But most of the people who showed up Saturday morning at a crowded strip mall off Compton Boulevard were ordinary people desperate for extra cash to buy their loved ones gifts the day before Christmas.

"I'm here because I need the money," said a 32-year-old Hawaiian Gardens resident, who, like almost everyone else in line, wanted to remain anonymous. Even sheriff's deputies didn't require people to reveal their names.

"I'm going to Toys R Us to get my three kids a G.I. Joe, a Barbie play set and a video game," the man said while gripping a .25-caliber pistol in his jacket pocket.

More than 100 people waited as a crew of sheriff's deputies stood behind a folding table to determine if their weapons were functional. If they passed the test, they could receive gift cards from Circuit City, Ralphs or Toys R Us.

Saturday's event was so popular that people came from all corners of the county -- Lakewood, San Pedro, Van Nuys -- as well as Compton.

They stood holding lattes or gabbing on their cellphones. Many had children with them, some in toddler chairs.

For every menacing-looking man with tattoos on his neck, there were probably 10 other people who looked as if they had come from an elementary school potluck or a hunting lodge.

There seemed to be an equal number of guns rejected for each one accepted. Many of the gun owners were disappointed when they learned that their weapons had broken pins or triggers and could be lethal only if used to club someone.

"They told me it was nonfunctional," said a dejectedlooking 53-year-old man from Cerritos who chose to have his .22-caliber handgun destroyed rather than take it home. "I was going to get a gift for my wife. I was short on cash. I'm going to have to think of something else."

Behind him was a family from Van Nuys hoping to exchange a rusty, vintage pistol that looked as if it belonged in a Civil War museum.

"It looks 100 years old," the father said. "It could still work, I don't know. I want to give it a try."

He said he was hoping to receive a gift card for Toys R Us.

"We want to get her some toys," he said, pointing at his 15-month-old daughter beside him in a stroller.

The event was held at a time when Compton is experiencing extraordinary violence. As of Saturday afternoon, there have been 70 homicides in the city, which had 42 all of last year.

"The sheriff's have been in Compton for five years," said Capt. Eric Hamilton, who commands the Compton sheriff's station.

"We lowered the homicide rate the previous four years. It's this year that we had a spike. But we're not going to give up and be paralyzed by what's happening in this city."

It was a willingness on law enforcement's part to try something different to quell crime that led to the Gifts for Guns event.

Last week, a similar event by the Compton sheriff's station yielded 250 firearms, including 143 handguns, 48 high-powered rifles, 30 shotguns, three assault rifles, a machine-gun pistol and nine homemade weapons. The most surprising finds were an Uzi and a TEC-9, authorities said.

Hamilton said a program two years ago called Guns for God was not nearly as successful. Only 20 guns were turned in that time, he said.

On Saturday, about 400 guns were turned in. People arrived before 10 a.m., hoping to be the first in line.

"The funny thing is, people driving by aren't even taking a second look," said Deputy A.J. Rotella. "Obviously it's more important for these people to be able to give Christmas gifts than have guns."

After an hour, deputies ran out of Toys R Us gift cards. One gun owner asked what he could get at Circuit City for $100.

"Get an iPod," a deputy responded.

One man approached the table and told deputies, "I've got an illegal," he said, referring to a shotgun with its barrel sawed off -- a modification some prefer because it is easier to conceal the weapon. "That's OK, we'll still take it," a deputy said.

After the guns were inspected and approved, deputies locked the bullet chambers with wire or plastic strips. They loaded them onto a vehicle, where workers tagged the weapons for further inspection. If some turn out to be murder weapons, they can be used as evidence.

The event proved useful to some people who didn't know how else to get rid of their guns.

Charlene and Ed Watt came from Rancho Cucamonga to turn in two shotguns and also deliver a box of Danish cookies to the deputies.

"I'm never going to use them again," said Ed Watt, 45, who used the guns for target shooting.

The married couple of nearly 25 years then walked away with two Circuit City cards to go toward a plasma TV.

"It's Christmas Eve, the sun is shining and we've got a lot of football to watch," Ed Watt said.

Ednora Oliver, an 80-year-old grandmother, came holding a shotgun in one hand and a dainty handbag in the other.

"My husband passed away four years ago," she said. "His gun was just sitting in the corner of my bedroom. I heard about this and I thought, 'What a nice way to get guns off the street and keep people safe.' "

Oliver stood patiently as a deputy cocked the weapon, nodded and handed her a Circuit City gift card.

"I'm going to buy myself some DVDs and CDs," she said, smiling.

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