Prince George's County Police, with help from Laurel Police, the city government and the local branch of the NAACP, collected approximately 160 guns this weekend at a Laurel church as part of the county's Gift Cards for Guns program.
The goal of the collection, which was the third one held by Prince George's Police in the last six months, is to reduce gun violence by eliminating the number of firearms on the street, according to police.
"We believe there is a direct connection to decreasing fatal shootings and efforts to get guns off the street," said Bob Ross, president of the Prince George's County branch of the NAACP.
At the event on Saturday, Dec. 15, people flooded the parking lot of St. Mark's United Methodist Church, in Laurel's Grove neighborhood, to exchange their functional and nonfunctional firearms for gift cards worth up to $100.
If they chose, the weapons could be handed over anonymously, according to Prince George's Police.
According to city spokesman Pete Piringer, the school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut Dec. 14 — where 20 children and eight adults, including the gunman — died prompted some people to turn in their guns.
"Talking to some people, they said watching the news on the tragedy in Connecticut made them want to get rid of that old firearm that they didn't have any use for," Piringer said.
Ross said the turnout was overwhelming and categorized the event as a huge success.
According to Maj. Ray Gordon, of Prince George's County Police, when police arrived at St. Mark's at 9 a.m. to begin setting up for the collection, there was already a line forming outside the church.
"We opened at 10 a.m., and within five minutes, we had already collected 20 firearms," Gordon said.
The event was such a success that police ran out of gift cards an hour and a half before the collection was supposed to close at 2 p.m.
Gordon said the county Police Department provided prepaid gift cards, such as Visa and MasterCard gift cards, worth $25, $50 and $100 in exchange for each firearm. Gordon said the amount on the gift card given out depended on the type of weapon.
The program will end after a fourth collection in 2013.
According to Gordon, the program was created through a partnership between the county's Youth Strategies and Program Division, a division of the Department of Family Services; and the NAACP.
Youth Services Division Manager Michael Butler said the Gift Cards for Guns program is part of the division's Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative, which is designed to reduce crime and gang violence by creating positive programming in county neighborhoods.
"It's part of something we are doing throughout the community to reduce crime, transform neighborhoods and make safer communities," Butler said.
According to the county website, the Children Youth and Families Divison of the Department of Family Services employs a gang prevention program by implementing the Phoenix Gang Prevention and Intervention curriculum into three schools across Prince George's County.
Butler said he got the idea for Gift Cards for Guns after researching similar programs conducted by other police departments.
Including all three collections, which began in June in Landover, Prince George's County Police have collected more than 460 firearms.
At last Saturday's collection, the city of Laurel joined the collaborative efforts of the county and the NAACP.
"We approached Laurel about having a collection site here, and the chief (Richard McLaughlin) was really instrumental in providing us support," Butler said.
While Butler and Prince George's Police were expecting the city to provide support in the form of police volunteers, which they did, they were not expecting Mayor Craig Moe to arrive at around noon with a handful of 20 to 30 additional gift cards.
Piringer said the gift cards were left over from the holiday party for city employees the night before.
"We found out they were running short, and made a call to the mayor," Piringer said. "We were able to contribute some and keep the doors open a little longer. I think the organizers were happy we were able to step up and get more guns off the streets."
Ross was appreciative of the efforts made by the mayor and police, and added that the two groups specifically chose Laurel as one of the four collection sites.
"We picked Laurel and this site to send a message that the NAACP and police do work together," Ross said.
In the past year, Ross and the NAACP have sponsored protests at the Laurel Municipal Center and the Laurel Police Department to protest the Laurel Police Department's treatment of blacks after a Laurel officer was seen on a cell phone video apparently striking a man in handcuffs.
Last week, the Prince George's County State's Attorney's Office found no apparent criminal wrongdoing in the case. A civil suit against the city and the officer totaling $3 million has been filed in Prince George's County Circuit Court.
Piringer said it "made sense" to have the collection in Laurel and the city is exploring the possibility of having a collection of its own some time next year.
"Based on the success they had here today, we are entertaining anything we can do to keep the city safe," Piringer said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun