Atlantic County’s first gun buyback in more than two years surpassed the previous total within the first few hours — and included a gun believed to be a World War II-era assault rifle and an AK47.
“The precedent here in the county was 511,” acting Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain said Friday.
Through the first of the two-day Guns for Cash event, the total was nearly 1,000.
This is the fifth buyback in the state since December, and the first in Atlantic County since November 2010. Weapons will again be accepted at Faith Baptist Church in Pleasantville and Atlantic City’s Second Baptist Church from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. today. Money is paid from forfeiture funds from the state Attorney General’s Office, which dedicated $300,000 to Atlantic County’s event.
Atlantic County had one of its most violent years last year with more than 50 people wounded in gunfire and 22 fatally shot. In the past five years, 78 people have died in gun violence in the county. Numbers were not available on how many stolen guns are believed to be used in violent crimes.
“With all these guns here, you can’t convince me at least one wouldn’t have been used in a tragedy,” McClain said Friday.
Gun buybacks have often gotten mixed reactions, with several studies indicating they do not get the weapons that are being used for violence off the street. Mayors Against Illegal Guns — whose members include Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford and Pleasantville Mayor Jesse Tweedle — does not have an official stance on these initiatives, a spokeswoman told The Press of Atlantic City.
Both state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa and McClain agreed they do not solve the full problem of illegal firearms, but contend they are a helpful tool.
“It does not take all the guns out of the hands of criminals,” McClain said. “But it does take them out of the community, out of harm’s way, out of the home where they can be stolen and then become part of illegal commerce.”
In 2002, a study by E.M. Kuhn, et al compared the 941 handguns recovered in Milwaukee County buyback programs from 1994 to 1996 to the 369 homicide-related handguns and 125 related to suicide in Milwaukee from 1994 to 1997.
The study concluded “handguns recovered in buyback programs are not the types most commonly linked to firearm homicides and suicides.”
“Although buyback programs may increase awareness of firearm violence, limited resources for firearm injury prevention may be better spent in other ways,” the study suggested.
McClain said it’s difficult to calculate the true effect of the buybacks since it’s basically “the removal of the opportunity for a statistic.”
“Clearly, a gun buyback is not the single answer,” he said. “There is not a single answer. Is it an effective use of resources? I think it is.”
Residents can turn in as many as three weapons, no questions asked. That also means, the guns will not be traced to crimes.
“That’s a trade-off we’ve made so we’re able to take away these guns,” Chiesa said during a stop Friday afternoon at Faith Baptist Church, where most of the guns had been turned in.
The guns will then be destroyed, including one that is believed to be the first assault rifle, which law enforcement officials estimated could be worth thousands of dollars.
McClain had said he hoped to collect at least 1,000 weapons through the event. But that goal was nearly reached by the end of the first day. A final total will be given at a news conference Monday.
If Atlantic County has similar percentages to recent buybacks, more than 90 percent will be working guns, with about 17 percent illegal. Of the approximately 7,100 guns collected in the other four counties, 1,080 of them were illegal. Chiesa said about 93 percent were operational.
“We’re getting much more than people’s attic guns,” he said.
Jerry Callahan, 81, is a licensed gun owner and a Marine. The Somers Point man still has his own guns, but turned in the two shotguns and one replica Civil War weapon his mother-in-law gave him after her husband died. He left Faith Baptist Church with $450.
The guns were placed in bins separated by payouts: ranging from BB guns fetching $25 to assault rifles or other illegal weapons for $250 each.
“I don’t even know what that is,” one woman told Pleasantville Sgt. Vaughn Howze, as she turned in three shotguns.
“That’s a magazine for this,” Howze replied, as he picked it up.
There were four stations with two law enforcement officers each — some from Pleasantville, some from the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office.
They took residents one-by-one, checked the guns for ammunition, and took down the model, make and serial numbers — but no information about the person turning it in.
“We’re taking great pains to insure this is an absolutely anonymous project,” McClain said. “Just come in, surrender your weapon, collect your money and go.”
Those dropping off guns come in one way and out another so that those with guns will not interact with those who have already turned their guns in.
Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles said those who cannot make it to either location today can call his office at 909-7200, and he will send one of his officers to pick it up.
Chiesa attributed the recent success to more money for advertising combined with the momentum of so many buybacks together.
But the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December also seems to have increased the response to such events.
“That had a large impact,” McClain said. “It’s a recent important news item that raises everyone’s consciousness.”
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