Police collect 710 guns in buyback using $100,000 in HUD, city funds; Mayor opposed the sale, set before he took office


A week after Mayor Martin O'Malley criticized the state for lack of support in funding drug treatment, the city diverted $200,000 of its own treatment money yesterday to hold a gun buyback.

The program run by the city's housing authority collected 710 weapons with $86,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, matched by $200,000 from the city's federally funded drug rehabilitation programs, said housing authority spokesman Zack Germroth.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City used almost $100,000 for the buyback that ended at 5 p.m. yesterday, and will use the remaining $186,000 for two more buybacks next month.

Two weeks ago, before the city of Annapolis held its first gun buyback, O'Malley criticized such events in general as a waste of money and promised that Baltimore would not hold one.

Last week, the city health commissioner and mayor criticized the governor for allocating millions for a minor-league baseball stadium in Aberdeen while cutting their request for $25 million in additional drug treatment aid.

Yesterday, a spokesman for the mayor said Baltimore's gun buyback was agreed to before the mayor took office in December.

"There's no question the mayor feels the money would be better used for drug treatment if he had his druthers," spokesman Tony White said, "but he's not going to interfere with the housing authority's gun buyback."

Critics of gun buybacks contend that they merely retrieve old firearms held in storage, not weapons used for crime. Yesterday, however, nine of the first 20 weapons collected had been stolen, according to police records.

Hundreds of people, some holding loaded weapons, lined up for an hour before the buyback was to begin at 11 a.m., leading police to open early. Sellers were paid $50 for each rifle or shotgun and $100 apiece for handguns and assault weapons. In the first 20 minutes, officials handed out $20,000.

Police and housing authority officials said they were stunned by the response. The line snaked along the outside of the authority's police headquarters on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Old and young chatted in a scene that looked like a mix of cafeteria lunch line and militia gathering.

One man gingerly held a handgun in his palm, while a woman behind him clutched her purse to her chest. Several middle-aged men leaned on hunting rifles while a young man carelessly dangled a sawed-off shotgun.

Possession of a sawed-off shotgun, which has extraordinary firepower but can only hit targets less than five feet away, is a federal offense. But officials didn't make arrests for the possessions yesterday, explaining that police had agreed to a promise of immunity for the event.

"It's the immunity offer that makes this program so successful," Germroth said. "The alternative is that the guns stay on the street."

Hezekiah Bunch, chief of the housing authority police, said the guns collected are sent to city police crime labs. Ownership is established through serial markings. If a gun isn't linked to a crime, it is melted down, he said.

"I don't know if it will lower the crime rate," he said. "But logic would have it that if you get guns out of people's houses, that's one less gun that's going to be stolen, used in a suicide, used by a kid playing around or used in a domestic" shooting.

Many people interviewed in line said they just wanted to be rid of the weapons.

"I didn't want to throw it away or give it away because you can't be sure what people will do with it," said James R. Jones of Baltimore.

Police said that since they began holding buybacks several years ago, they have begun seeing more weapons that show signs of criminal use: sawed-off shotguns, sanded-off serial numbers and taped handles -- to thwart fingerprints.

At the root of the program, police said, is trust that they aren't keeping records of who's turning in what. That was evident when one participant asked for a receipt. A surprised officer told him that most people don't want one because they don't want records kept.

"That's why I want one," the man explained. "I've already been to prison and I want something that says that I turned this gun in if you guys do something and it gets back out there."

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