Schmoke drops gun buyback Group was flooding program with cheap weapons, police say

Mayor declares success

Money to go instead to youth programs, including summer jobs

February 14, 1997|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke abruptly canceled his highly publicized gun buyback yesterday, saying he feared it was being sabotaged by an enterprising group looking for an easy profit.

Halfway through the trade-in program that proved both popular and controversial, the mayor called it off after police warned him about a scheme to pawn off cheap guns.

He refused to provide details of what he described as "an attempt by a small group of people to flood the program with either recently purchased or nonfunctioning weapons," saying the matter was under police investigation.

A police commander said the city got a tip that a local gun shop intended to unload some of its inventory. With no questions asked at the two collection sites, some entrepreneurs had seized the chance to sell off junk guns.

The mayor's offer of cash for handguns had led to a sizable haul and provoked an emotional debate over how to rescue Baltimore from the grip of violent crime.

In the first Saturday alone, Schmoke accomplished his goal of collecting 1,000 guns in a month, running out of money in the process. After private donations made a second weekend buyback possible, the city picked up nearly 1,500 weapons in all, from cheap shotguns to a $2,000 Uzi.

Though skeptics dismissed it as a gimmick that would do nothing to make the city safer, the city's buyback inspired schools to set up gun awareness programs, an art teacher to give $20,000 in personal savings and another person to make a $50,000 anonymous donation. But the pace of buying was stretching the available funds.

'It raised consciousness'

"I have absolutely no qualms about saying the intent of the buyback was met, and it was successful," Schmoke said. "It raised the consciousness of people in our community about the number of guns circulating out there and the ease with which people are selling them. I think it got our citizens saying, 'We've got to rethink where we're going here.' "

After consulting with the person who donated the $50,000 on Saturday, Schmoke said he would use the money instead for youth programs, including the creation of summer jobs and helping teen-agers try their hand at their own businesses. Part of the donation will go toward putting up crime watch signs in local shops.

Other initiatives

Schmoke tried to emphasize other gun-control initiatives begun by his administration and the city's chief prosecutor in the weeks since a 3-year-old boy was gunned down in a barbershop and two Korean-American merchants died in violent robberies.

The mayor, who has met with Korean-American leaders, said the city would put its Korean-speaking police officers on 24-hour call to act as liaisons. The Police Department also will help grocers and merchants make their shops more secure.

Next month, the mayor will make the rounds of community meetings and pass out envelopes to solicit tips on people carrying concealed weapons. And he is urging everyone with information on illegal guns to call 911 -- and collect a $100 reward if their tip results in an arrest.

Unlike the more flashy buyback, which the mayor acknowledged got guns out of people's closets as much as off the streets, the latest efforts specifically target illegal guns. State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy is focusing on the same thing; she is creating a 14-member unit to concentrate on investigating and prosecuting the huge number of gun crimes.

Some community leaders and clergy said yesterday that the city would be better served by going after chronic criminals than paying people to turn in guns. The mayor spent $100,000 in city funds by paying $100 for every gun collected the first day, then dropped the offer to $50 apiece and used private contributions on the second Saturday.

Donor saddened

But other neighborhood activists were saddened by the program's sudden demise, especially David Calhoun, the Bolton Hill teacher whose pregnant wife was robbed at gunpoint and who donated $20,000 to keep the gun buyback going.

"I'm very sad the mayor has had to cancel it, but it's best he does as opposed to letting people rip off the city," Calhoun said.

Though he was attacked by callers to a conservative radio talk show, some of whom asked how many "stupid pills" he had swallowed, Calhoun said he has no regrets.

"My wife is worth more money than that," he said. "And I think it made people very aware of what is going on. I went out there, and I saw everyday people, the right kind of people, turning in the right guns. The wonderful part of this outweighs all the misery."

'Better than no action'

Jean Yarborough, a Park Heights community leader, said she considered every effort to get rid of guns worthwhile. Some of the guns turned in by law-abiding citizens could well have wound up in the hands of felons, she said.

"For me, living in the kind of environment I live in, any action is better than no action," she said. "I think it did take some guns off the streets, and some that could have been a danger later on."

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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