In less than three hours, Peninsula residents tapped out a $52,000 fund designated for a gun buyback in East Palo Alto Saturday.
Traffic wrapped around University Avenue in all directions as scores of people brought in their unwanted firearms in exchange for cash on the spot — no questions asked. By the time the money ran out, 111 handguns, 227 rifles and shotguns and 11 assault weapons were loaded into a police trailer, on their way to be melted down. Guns fetched up to $300 each, depending on their firepower.
The event was organized by the Strategic Multi-Agency Response Team (SMART), a collaborative effort between the Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto Police Departments. Protect Our Children, a Menlo Park-based nonprofit organization, raised nearly all of the money doled out Saturday from private donations. East Palo Alto officials also agreed to pay out $4,000 in vouchers to residents who were in the middle of having firearms processed when it was announced all of the funds had been used up.
Some waited as long as three-and-a-half hours to sell their guns back, often getting out from their cars to stretch. Many said that aside from the financial incentives, they were motivated to brave the long lines to get rid of guns they no longer had use for.
“I’m a hunter, and I’ve had guns around my house that I don’t use; they’re collecting dust,” said Andre Fontenot, a San Bruno resident and a former San Francisco police officer waiting in line. “I’ve got young kids around the house, and I thought this is a great incentive to make a little extra money and do good for society.”
Amid the piles of antique pistols and hunting rifles, Saturday’s gun buyback also netted several semi-automatic assault weapons, which are illegal under California state law, including an Uzi, a TEC-9 fitted with an illegal silencer and clips capable of holding up to 100 rounds of ammunition. One of the most unusual items returned to police was an inert grenade found by a Richmond man digging in his backyard. Two women, who declined to be interviewed, brought in a number of rifles and handguns to garner the highest individual amount paid out that day, $1,700.
Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who represents California’s 14th congressional district, attended the event briefly to lend support after speaking at a related rally that took place at Palo Alto City Hall earlier that day. Speier, who has been an outspoken supporter of gun control, said that the volume of guns being collected at recent buybacks throughout the Bay Area is indicative of an increasing national demand for outlets where people can dispose of unwanted, potentially dangerous firearms safely.
“San Mateo County has the second-lowest crime rate in the state. And yet, we’re seeing in the amount of three weeks, 1,200-1,300 guns coming in.”
Protect Our Children’s founders, James Cook and Roger Lee, said that the recent mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. spurred their impetus to help prevent gun violence in their own neighborhoods.
They said they raised the $52,000 fund in about two months through private donations; Cook said he hopes that the big turnout in East Palo Alto Saturday can be replicated in other Bay Area communities.
“We want to help other states, other people, other neighborhoods do what we did, and repeat it as much as we can,” he said. "I want to encourage other people either contact us, or try to do something themselves.”
Lee also mentioned that Stanford graduate students would be assessing data collected from the event as part of an ongoing study to determine if localized gun buybacks do in fact help to reduce violent crime rates.
Those who arrived too late to sell their guns did receive flyers from police officers with information about another gun buyback taking place March 2 at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. They were advised to arrive early. Santa Clara County Supervisors have allocated $150,000 for the next buyback, with the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office kicking in another $10,000.