By Eric Hartley
Los Angeles Daily News
LOS ANGELES — Looking to take weapons off the streets, Los Angeles police collected more than 1,500 firearms on Wednesday at city-sponsored gun buybacks in Van Nuys and South Los Angeles.
The buybacks have been held on Mother’s Day since 2009. But on the day of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and asked for one this month, Beck said.
The school shooting, which has focused new attention nationwide on the gun-control issue, was on the minds of some of those who turned in weapons Wednesday.
“I’ve got a 5-year-old grandson,” said Lee Bramer of Santa Clarita, who turned in a .22-caliber handgun he’d gotten after his mother-in-law’s estate sale. “I wouldn’t want to see anything like that happen out here.”
Villaraigosa said people in L.A. and across the country have been asking what they can do to reduce the number of senseless killings.
“They’re doing this because they want to make a difference,” he said of those turning in guns.
Villaraigosa called for federal legislation to ban the sale of some weapons and high-capacity magazines. He said the nation also needs universal background checks for gun buyers and a comprehensive list of the mentally ill.
But in the meantime, he said, L.A. can help get at least some dangerous weapons off the streets.
During the buybacks at the Coliseum and the Van Nuys Masonic Center, weapons were collected with no questions asked or information collected from those turning them in. Police do check the weapons later to see if they were stolen, and if so they attempt to return them to their rightful owners. Otherwise they are destroyed. People turning in guns get gift certificates for Ralphs grocery stores of $100 for most handguns and shotguns, $200 for assault weapons and a lesser amount for nonworking guns.
Not everyone was on board with the idea. In Van Nuys, a few protesters stood on the streets in the morning holding signs urging people not to turn in guns.
One, Bruce Boyer, yelled at waiting drivers that they were supporting “the regime” by turning in guns.
Boyer, who calls himself the “chief instigator” of the local pro-gun group Sons of Liberty L.A., said the event is “a fraud” meant to convince the public that police are making the streets safer.
Instead of urging law-abiding citizens to turn guns in, Boyer said, police should encourage them to get more guns to protect themselves.
Boyer is also the owner of Lone Star security company in the San Fernando Valley and is perhaps best known for fighting with the city for his right to place his company’s mobile billboards on Valley streets.
A red, white and blue sign that Boyer’s group had placed on Sherman Way in the morning, which drivers had to pass to enter, read: “Get $$ for your gun. We buy your gun to donate it to a woman in danger. An armed woman will not be a victim.”
Sons of Liberty L.A. doesn’t buy guns itself, but refers people to licensed shops in Glendale and Simi Valley, Boyer said.
Many of the weapons turned in at the two events were family heirlooms. But between the two locations, there were more than 50 guns that police referred to as “assault rifles,” a term that has drawn criticism because its meaning is subjective.
Doug Johnson, an undercover LAPD gang and narcotics officer at the Van Nuys event, said that included two fully automatic TEC-9s, a common gun for gang members, along with an AK-47 and a Bushmaster rifle, the same brand used in the Connecticut school massacre on Dec. 14.
Danny Reyes of West L.A. said he turned in two handguns for his brother, who believed they might be illegal and was nervous about dealing with the police.
“He was leery, but I was explaining to him they want the guns off the streets,” Reyes said after getting $200 in gift cards. “This is the perfect opportunity.”
In four previous gun buybacks since 2009, police collected almost 8,000 weapons.
The one in May will still be held, the mayor said at a press conference at the Coliseum.
The LAPD started the day with $130,000 in gift cards, donated by Ralphs, the Wellness Foundation and private donors. Beck said some might be turned away, but Villaraigosa said people were making phone calls trying to raise more money. Police said later they had stopped handing out the gift cards around 4 p.m., but continued accepting guns.
A man driving out of the Van Nuys event said he couldn’t give his name because he’s a National Rifle Association life member and doesn’t want his friends to know he turned in a gun.
Referring to the other people driving out, many of whom appeared elderly or middle-aged, he added, “I would say that the people turning them in are the ones that should be keeping them. And I don’t see many gangbangers in the line.”
Police said some of the weapons were, in fact, gangbanger guns in perfect working order.
“I know as an officer, it makes me feel safer having those guns off the street,” said Lt. Natalie Cortez, commander of the LAPD’s specialized gun unit.