LOS ANGELES – A program to exchange guns for gifts has brought in a record number of weapons this year as residents hit hard by the economy look under the bed and in closets to find items to trade for groceries.
The annual Gifts for Guns program wound down Sunday in Compton, a working class city south of Los Angeles that has long struggled with gun and gang violence. In a program similar to ones in New York and San Francisco, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department allows residents to anonymously relinquish firearms in return for $100 gift cards for Ralphs supermarkets, Target department stores or Best Buy electronics stores.
Turning in assault rifles yields double that amount.
In years past, Target and Best Buy were the cards of choice, with residents wanting presents for the holidays.
This year, most asked for the supermarket cards, said sheriff's Sgt. Byron Woods.
"People just don't have the money to buy the food these days," he said.
Deputies expected to collect about 1,000 weapons this year. Authorities said 590 guns and two hand grenades were handed in during the last weekend in November, more than the total collected in any year and eclipsing last year's 387 guns.
Woods said most of the residents who turned in weapons were "family people."
"One guy said he had just got laid off from his job," Woods said. "He turned in five guns and said it would really help him to put food on the family's table."
Gun owners dropped their weapons off at a local grocery store parking lot. Deputies checked the weapons to see if they had been used in crimes, then destroyed them.
The annual drive started in 2005 after a spike in killings, though the murder rate had since dropped.
One man brought in a Soviet-era semiautomatic carbine.
"If that got into the wrong hands of gangbangers, they could kill several people within minutes," Woods said. "Our biggest fear is a house getting burglarized and these guns getting taken."
The drive also has yielded antique weapons.
Gift cards for the guns exchange were paid mostly by Los Angeles County, but the three companies involved and the city of Compton, which contracts the county for police protection, also donated funds.