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L.A. County Spends $75K on Compton Gun Buyback

Matt Hamilton |
January 27, 2013 | 10:41 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

According to the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, last week's gun buyback netted 386 firearms. Photo by Matt Hamilton.
According to the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, last week's gun buyback netted 386 firearms. Photo by Matt Hamilton.
Nick Papazian was a gun owner for more than two decades - until a week ago.

After seeing a program on TV about shooting sports, the 64-year-old purchased two assault rifles. He shot the guns on a few occasions but the amusement dwindled, especially when the reality of gun ownership set in.

“I realized it’s hard to keep them safely stored,” said Papazian.

When he heard about last Monday’s gun buyback in Compton, Papazian thought that it’s time to “be a good citizen” and bring in the weapons he had not used for 15 years. He made the trek from the San Fernando Valley to Compton, nervous about the two firearms sitting in the backseat of his SUV.

Papazian was one of hundreds of gun owners from across Los Angeles and neighboring counties who returned guns and ammunition to last week's buyback in Compton. 

Deputies and volunteers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which organized the buyback, collected, disabled and tagged the firearms. In exchange, former gun owners received gift cards, ranging from 50 dollars for gun parts to 200 dollars for assault weapons, and perhaps more appealing: anonymity. No personal information of the gun owners was documented, and the Sheriff’s department promised not to investigate the criminal history of any weapons before destroying them later this year.

“What we’re doing is the most benign enforcement idea,” said Sheriff Lee Baca, who observed the buyback with L.A. county officials and colleagues from the department.

“The more guns, the more destabilizing an environment will be,” added Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas who co-organized with Sheriff Baca Compton’s first buyback in 2005.

Such rhetoric of taking guns “off of the street” figured high among the goals of officials and the motives of those returning their weapons. The buyback collected 386 firearms, according to Sheriff’s department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida.

The haul amounts to a tiny fraction of guns in circulation. In 2011, more than 600,000 guns were sold in the State of California according to the California’s Bureau of Firearms. In the last decade, more than four million guns were sold in the state.

In response to questions of gun buybacks’ efficacy, officials offered multiple replies: that collected guns cannot be stolen and that gun buybacks minimize accidental shootings.

Sheriff Baca conceded that the primary targets of the buyback are assault rifles, which are now illegal in California and which numbered 22 of the Compton buyback’s total haul.

Armando Onate considered selling his assault rifle but returned it along with a .22 caliber rifle that he purchased more than 15 years ago.

 “The guns were just sitting in the garage, and I now have two little boys,” said Onate of his sons, both under the age of 10.

Governments and law enforcement agencies have utilized gun buybacks since the 1970s but the format and structure have varied widely. The first buyback was Baltimore’s, which netted more than 13,000 firearms over three months in 1973, according to the U.S. Public Health Service.

Australia implemented a national gun buyback program in the wake of the 1996 massacre at Port Arthur. Australia-based gun policy analyst Philip Alpers said his country’s buyback reduced the homicide and suicide rates and saved more than 500 million dollars.

Less effective are short-term, community-level gun buybacks such as the one held in Compton and the Los Angeles Police Department’s buyback in late December 2012, said Alpers.

“There’s no evidence in reduction of shootings or benefits to health…and there's no evidence that small-scale buybacks anywhere have actually saved lives,” said Alpers in a telephone interview.

Dr. Stephen Hargarten, director of the Injury Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said small-scale buybacks would not typically generate the guns used in violent crimes.

Both experts identify benefits in buybacks, albeit less measurable ones. Alpers said gun buybacks help mobilize a community against gun violence and heighten awareness.

Monday’s was the first firearm buyback in Compton since 2009. Sheriff Baca said budget cuts put a three-year stop to the program. As to why the buyback program re-started now, officials were varyingly circumspect.

Sheriff Baca referenced a litany of mass shootings including those in Columbine and Aurora, Col., and the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and six school staff members.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas referenced the Newtown massacre but more frequently invoked the nonviolence preached by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday coincided with the buyback.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas allocated 25,000 dollars from his discretionary fund to pay for the 75,000 dollars worth of Target and Ralph’s gift cards distributed at the event, while 50,000 dollars came from the L.A. County Sheriff Department’s narcotics asset forfeiture fund, according to Sheriff Baca.

The weapons collected will be melted down later this year and either repurposed into steel construction bars or sculpted into peace angels, according to Sheriff Baca.

E-mail Staff Reporter Matt Hamilton here and follow him on Twitter here.



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