Thursday, May 27, 2010

Cash with no questions asked

In wake of shooting, Christian Light hosts second gun buyback program

By Joseph Kellard

Wearing T-shirts with the image of a relative who was shot dead in Long Beach, Lisa Cummings and Deanna Cruse greeted men who passed through the doors of the Christian Light Missionary Baptist Church on a recent Saturday. The men entered the house of worship with guns.

The church was hosting its second gun buyback program, after a shooting at nearby East Hudson Street in March, when, police say, Casey Fitzgerald, 20, gunned down fellow Long Beach resident Ernest Cummings, 40, after the men argued over their pit bulls. Cummings and Cruse, Ernest's mother and aunt, were among the church's congregants, alongside the Rev. Isaac R. Melton Jr. and Deacon Cecil Garrett, who helped at the May 15 program, which was dedicated to the murder victim.

"We wanted to do another program before Memorial Day, to make sure nothing like that happens again," said Marcus Tinker, president of the church's Boys to Men Ministry, who organized both events. "That was in honor of Ernest."

The program, a joint effort between the church, the Nassau County district attorney's office and the Long Beach Police Department, invites owners of illegal guns to turn them over in exchange for $200 in cash. The only questions the plainclothes police officers asked were, "How are you doing?" and "How many guns do you have?" In all, 133 firearms were collected, 13 more than were turned in at the first program last September, according to Chris Munzing, a spokesman for the D.A.

While New York City has run gun buyback programs for years, Nassau County kicked off its first program in December 2008, with pickup points in Hempstead, Uniondale and Freeport. To date, the program has gathered 1,609 illegal guns.

"We tweaked it a little bit from the New York City program, using cash rather than vouchers or ATM cards," said Chuck Ribando, the D.A.'s chief investigator, who runs the program.

The cash the police dole out is forfeiture money from people who were arrested for crimes. Using cash is one way to make the program as anonymous and comfortable as possible for those who turn in the guns. "People are more likely to hand the guns in if they get cash," Ribando explained. "They come in, hand in their guns and leave with cash in less than a minute."

Other tactics used to assure the program's anonymity include using places of worship as turn-in points and keeping local police officers away.

"It would be much easier for us not to take our show on the road and have it right here at the D.A.'s office," Ribando explained. "But I think people are more apprehensive about coming to any law enforcement facility to turn in an illegal gun."

Christian Light contacted the district attorney's office about holding the first buyback in Long Beach. To help promote it, Tinker and other church members handed out hundreds of fliers around town, and used Facebook, Twitter and the Herald.

Tinker said that at both events, he noticed that people who turned their guns in were a mix of Long Beach residents and out-of-towners. "Long Beach police know the people in the neighborhood, so to prevent anyone from being scared off, the county people are there, not the local government or police who know the people," Tinker explained. "That's how every community does it."

Tinker had said previously that he wanted to bring the program to Long Beach in part because there is a lot of drug dealing around the neighborhood, in which guns can come into play, he believes the program makes the community safer.

Some critics argue that the gun users can simply use the $200 to buy other guns. "Most people think it's a joke," said one Long Beach resident. "It's like playing musical guns. If it worked, how come they come back every year and find more guns to buy?"

But while the gun-owners can do whatever they want with the $200 they get for each gun, that doesn't necessarily mean they take that money and get a new piece, Ribando said. "If anyone who knows anything about street guns, there's not much you can buy with $200, especially to upgrade," he added. "To say they're going to upgrade with $200 is ludicrous, because you can't even buy one for $200, let alone upgrade."

Others question why police don't use the program as a way to observe the gun-owners coming in and out to see if they fit the descriptions of any wanted criminals and to potentially track down and arrest them. But Ribando said emphatically that this tactic would defeat the purpose of the program.

"No, the whole point of this is to get the illegal guns off the street, not to make an arrest for the gun," he said. "Not that you don't want to make an arrest — you do. But out of the 132 guns we collected, if one of those guns was to be used to shoot someone, then we've done our job."

All serial numbers on the guns are checked, and if any guns is connected to a crime, all police know is that they've gotten that gun off the streets. "We wouldn't try to back search to find out who handed that gun in," Ribando said. "It's totally anonymous."

Tinker said the church is working on organizing other events with the city and the Police Department to make the community safer and to strengthen relationships with elected officials.