Camden collects 57 guns in exchange for grocery vouchers

Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson (left) looks over the weapons with church and community leaders at the Evangelism Today Christian Center, one of the drop-off spots.
Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson (left) looks over the weapons with church and community leaders at the Evangelism Today Christian Center, one of the drop-off spots. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 29, 2011

Strangers turned guns over to Walter Lewis when he worked gun drives during his days with the Philadelphia Police Department. Now retired, Lewis handed over his late father's shotgun on Wednesday in a buyback program in the city of Camden.

His father bought the gun for bird-hunting decades ago, but never used it, Lewis said. After his father's death in 2007, the gun sat in a closet in Lewis' home. When the father of two teenagers turned the gun in, he joked that the serial numbers were still visible.

"The kids could get curious. I had to get it out of the house," Lewis, 47, of Sicklerville, said. "I had no need for it."

He was one of several people who turned over a total of 57 handguns, shotguns, and rifles in six hours during a groceries-for-guns program sponsored by the city, Camden police, the county Prosecutor's Office, and clergy.

Organizers doled out $5,700 worth of Pathmark gift cards - a $100 gift card for each weapon - in the first city-sponsored gun buyback program since 1993, a city spokesman said. Pathmark is the only major grocery store in the city.

Like Lewis, some handed over guns once owned by now-deceased relatives. A handful said they just wanted the weapons out of their houses because they either didn't like guns or were afraid the weapons could fall into the hands of burglars.

"We want to get as many guns off the street as possible," Mayor Dana L. Redd said Wednesday during a visit to Higher Ground Temple Church of God in Christ, one of five church drop-off locations. "We want to make Camden a safer city. . . . We need the residents' participation."

City officials displayed some of the weapons at a news conference at the Evangelism Today Christian Center in the Whitman Park section. One last handgun was collected at Antioch Baptist Church in Waterfront South after the drive was extended by an hour there and at two other sites.

Among the weapons turned in were a sniper rifle with scope, sawed-off shotguns, .38-caliber handguns, .22-caliber revolvers, and a .40-caliber semiautomatic. Most were operable; a handful were old and rusty, though officials couldn't immediately tell how old.

Camden police have seized 233 guns this year. Over the years, shotguns have been deadly for city officers, Police Chief Scott Thomson said, recalling five such deaths.

"Any gun we can get off the street is one that could fall into the wrong hands," Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk said. "The fact that we can give grocery vouchers and stimulate some commerce in the city of Camden also is a benefit."

Redd said officials hoped to have a buyback program annually or twice a year.

Authorities said the guns collected Wednesday would be melted down after they are checked to see whether they were used in crimes.

Philadelphia has held several gun buybacks this year.

On Dec. 17, Philadelphia police collected 197 handguns - the most this year - and 82 rifles and shotguns in Southwest Philadelphia.

The same day, in the 14th District, which includes Mount Airy and Germantown, people turned in 180 handguns and 73 rifles and shotguns, a police spokeswoman said.

Critics contend that gun-buyback programs are public relations gimmicks that do little to reduce crime.

"They are a complete waste of money and they are not at all effective in reducing crime," said Alex Tabarrok, an economics professor at George Mason University who directs research for the Independent Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Oakland, Calif. "It's grandstanding."

He said money would be better spent putting more officers on the streets or paying for more overtime.

Further, he said getting guns off the streets takes a larger collective national effort.

"Reducing the supply of guns in Camden is like trying to drain the Delaware by using buckets," he said. "The guns are just going to flow back in, just like the water," he said.

Critics also say criminals aren't the ones usually turning in the weapons, which often turn out to be old and rusty. Further, those guns are usually locked away and not easily found by burglars.

Renee Bryant, 41, of Camden, handed over her late father's hunting rifle, which she kept in her attic when he moved in with her before his death this month of lymphoma.

"I'm scared of guns and it shouldn't be in my house," said Bryant, who dropped the rifle off at Antioch Baptist Church.

James Jones, pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church, a drop-off location near North Camden, acknowledged that criminals weren't likely to turn over their weapons, but added that residents were better off not having guns in their homes.

"He is the guy that in a fit of rage might get that gun that's been lying around the house and shoot someone," he said.


Contact staff writer Darran Simon at 856-779-3829, dsimon@phillynews.com, or @darransimon on Twitter.

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