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L.A. gun buyback draws crowds, exceeds last year's collection

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Thousands of people converged on the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena and a site in Van Nuys to exchange their guns for Ralphs gift cards.

Cars queued up for blocks at the drive-through events, with the city giving up to $100 for handguns, shotguns and rifles, and up to $200 for assault weapons. There was a bit of haggling involved, but no questions asked.

“What do you got?” an officer in Van Nuys asked a man in his late 20 as he pulled up in a green Mazda.

PHOTOS: L.A. gun buyback

“Just one handgun, I've had it since high school,” the man replied.

“Will you take $50 for this?”

“Sure.”

Many came bearing more than one gun. They pulled 22 pistols from the trunk of one white Honda, a haul that earned the driver $1,000.

Two men in a pickup truck with two children in the backseat handed over a rifle, pistol and a MAC-12 altered with a silencer.

Organizers and some participants credited collective outrage and anguish over the gun rampage in Newtown, Conn.,  for the turnout. But motivations were often a bit more complicated.

“That young guy shot up all the kids and they blamed the mama because the mama had the weapons in the house,” Valerie Butler said, explaining why she was waiting in line two hours in South Los Angeles to get rid of an old handgun.

Yet Butler, 50, said she was not getting rid of both of her guns.

“Just one,” she said, and laughed. “There’s a bunch of nuts out here, and they’re coming in when you’re sleeping. You got to protect yourself.”

Cities across the nation, grasping for ways to react to a series of mass shootings this year, have organized gun buybacks to get weapons off the street.

Mayor Villaraigosa pushed the city’s annual one from Mother’s Day to Wednesday in reaction the killing on Dec. 14 of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown. By the afternoon, the event had already surpassed 1,673 guns collected last year, and officials were scrambling to get more gift cards, which were donated by Ralphs.

Many of the drivers said they were turning in their guns because they rarely used them, and were eager to get grocery cards.

“If I could get $100 of free groceries it’s worth it,” said Charles Edwards, 60, waiting in line next to his old .22 revolver after driving to Los Angeles from Fontana. “I wouldn’t do it for $40. That’s why people are here. They feel bad about all that’s happening, but times are tough.”

He still had a shotgun at home. “That’s all I need,” he said.

Edwards said authorities needed to organize the buybacks so the lines weren’t so long. He watched numerous people sit in line then drive away, he said. “I thought I could just drop this thing off. They need to have this move faster.”

Most of the weapons recovered were “mom and pop guns,” police said – hunting rifles, shotguns – but they got few dozen assault weapons as well.

They checked to make sure the guns were unloaded and double-checked by pulling the triggers while aiming the guns into metal rubbish containers filled with sand. Then they put the guns into trash containers like bundles of sticks after a windstorm.

“I had a question, one after another: ‘Do we really need this? Does this really make us safer?’ ” Villaraigosa said at a news conference at the Sports Arena. “I say, look, the Police Department is here because they believe in this program.”

He said the buyback program had taken in 8,000 guns since it began in 2009, and was just one part of a comprehensive police strategy that has reduced violent crime in recent years. Police Chief Charlie Beck said it was critical component.

One of the first guns collected was a camouflage Bushmaster AR-15, the same type of gun used at Sandy Hook Elementary.

But this was one of the rarities. Loretta, 50, from South Los Angeles, was bringing in her great-grandfather’s antique rifle -- one of them anyway. “I got the other well-hidden.”

Alex Reyes, 47, rode his bike to the Sports Arena from East L.A. with a 68-year-old, .38 revolver and a .22 target pistol. He said he came in to do “a good deed” after hearing about the Newtown shooting, getting rid of all of his weapons. “Just me and Jesus Christ,” he said.

Sandra Lefall, 38, came to the buyback with Newtown heavy in her heart. She had been thinking about the incident since she first heard the news. “I’m bringing in a 9 millimeter handgun because I want to get it out of the house because I have teenage children. I would hate for them to do what that guy in Connecticut did.”

By 2 p.m., the police began telling people they were out of gift cards.

“I'm not giving this away for free,” Sam Ferrell of Reseda said as he took a drag of his cigarette while sitting in his truck at the Van Nuys buyback.

Ferrell said he was hoping to sell his stepson's handgun.

“There are too many kids being killed by these things,” he said.

He said he didn't plan to turn in any of his own guns, but that he was glad his stepson didn’t have a gun.

“I need my gun, but not everyone who has one needs one,” he said.

Photo -- LAPD reserve officer Joe Buscaino, also a city council member in Los Angeles, holds an assault weapon, one of several turned in, ahead of a press conference given by the mayor of Los Angeles. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

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--Joe Mozingo and Westley Lowrey

 
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