Sneakers for guns? Baltimore hopes so

December 30, 1993|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

Impressed by the popularity of a Christmas toys-for-guns swap in New York City, organizers of less successful voluntary weapons turn-ins in Baltimore say they would welcome a similar business-backed effort here.

"It's wonderful," said the Rev. Douglas B. Sands, pastor of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial United Methodist Church on Windsor Mill Road. "It's time for us to get rid of these weapons."

But Mr. Sands said he still believes that turning in weapons "because they're dangerous" ought to be reward enough for people.

Mr. Sands' church is part of a coalition of religious groups planning its third voluntary gun collection campaign, to take place on Dr. King's birthday, Jan. 15.

The group's previous turn-ins, held last January and in April, collected only about 60 weapons in all, according to Maj. Bernard Harper, director of the city police community relations division.

Next month's collection is to be larger than previous ones, organizers say, with up to 23 churches serving as gun drop-offs and with a contest among city school students to promote the effort.

But the New York toys-for-guns swap launched just before Christmas by a carpet store owner has proven surprisingly successful, with more than 500 weapons turned in so far and the collection extended at least through Jan. 6.

In return for the weapons, which are accepted with no questions asked about their owners or prior use, donors received gift certificates to buy $100 worth of merchandise at a Toys R Us chain store.

On Monday, the campaign began to snowball, with the athletic shoe retailer Foot Locker Inc. offering $25,000 in gift certificates to be redeemed at its stores and with a $5,000 donation from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., the NAACP's executive director, appealed to the NAACP's 2,000 chapters across the country to organize similar weapons swap programs in their communities.

A spokeswoman for Foot Locker, which has 1,400 stores across the country, told the Washington Post on Tuesday that it has talked with the NAACP about bringing a "sneakers for guns" program to other cities, including Washington and Baltimore. Calls to the chain's New York office yesterday were not returned.

Don Rojas, the NAACP's director of communications, could not confirm the NAACP's discussions with Foot Locker. But he said the civil rights group is seeking to enlist support from large corporations across the country.

"This is something that can mushroom," Mr. Rojas said. "We want it to reach beyond Christmas."

Baltimore police officials say they have not talked with the NAACP or anyone else about organizing similar swaps here but would welcome them.

"We're interested in anything that will get guns off the street," said Agent Doug Price, a police spokesman. He noted that handguns were used in 73 percent of the homicides in the first 10 months of this year.

New York's toys-for-guns swap may have surpassed recent efforts in Baltimore because of its novelty, the publicity surrounding it and its restriction, at least initially, to one crime-ridden police precinct in New York, Major Harper said.

The most successful weapons collection in Baltimore occurred in 1974, when the Police Department gathered about 13,000 guns by paying $50 bounties for each, Major Harper said. The city had surplus funds then because of a police strike, he noted.

"Tennis shoes are better than giving money," said Mr. Sands. "Because if they give money, they can just go back and buy more guns."

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