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Baltimore residents trade guns for computers

In the past few months, as Renee Wright prepared to open a bakery in Highlandtown, she fretted that she didn't have a computer for her business — a necessity in today's modern world, she thought.

On Saturday, she solved that problem by digging out a.22-caliber pistol she'd stowed away long ago and headed downtown.

In what organizers believe was the first event of its kind in the United States, Baltimore residents were offered free Dell laptops Saturday in exchange for firearms — a twist on the more common cash-for-guns exchanges that have proliferated across Maryland and the country in recent years.

Wright, 57, said the exchange, held from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Downtown Cultural Arts Center on North Howard Street, was just the option she needed.

"This is a means to help me take a step forward for self-sufficiency," she said. "With a small business startup, you have to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way, and if you can give something back to improve the community, it's a win-win situation."

Baltimore police accepted more than 50 guns, organizers said. All will be destroyed.

The event, organized by local nonprofit Digit All Systems and the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, was an attempt not just to address the endemic gun violence that has long troubled Baltimore, organizers said, but also to narrow the "digital divide" that has left poor city residents disadvantaged in the job market.

"That's the goal of this event," said Angela C. Johnese, director of the criminal justice office. "When you hand in a gun, we're saying you're putting down violence and picking up an educational opportunity."

As organizers and police prepared to open the doors to the cultural center Saturday afternoon, about two dozen people stood waiting in the heat outside.

Near the front of the line was Baltimore native Lee Baughan, who walked up to a table surrounded by officers with an object wrapped in a Ravens blanket, ready to be rid of it.

The Armi Jager AP-15 assault-type rifle the officers began to carefully unwrap had weighed on his mind, he said — especially in recent weeks, as a spike in gunfire has torn through the city with deadly results.

"I didn't want to feel guilty if someone happened to break into my house," said Baughan, 54, a military veteran and retired corrections officer who lives in the Northeast Baltimore neighborhood of Overlea. "If they stole a weapon, I didn't want them to steal that one."

Lance Lucas, CEO of Digit All Systems, said his nonprofit has long handed out refurbished computers to city youth and the poor — thousands in the past few years. But when he thought to pair such handouts to a gun exchange, he said, he knew he was onto something especially beneficial for the residents of Baltimore.

"We need to give them a quality education so they can break this cycle of poverty," he said, "because the violence is a symptom of that."

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