Thursday, April 26, 2018
Public safety

Long lines – and 2 rocket launchers – at Hillsborough gun buyback

TAMPA — Jonathan Gonzalez stood on the side of Fletcher Avenue on Saturday morning trying to buy guns.

He had cash, his sign said. He was willing to make a deal.

At the top of his wish list: an assault rifle, but any modern weapon would do.

Even with a steady flow of gun-toting vehicles passing by, he didn't have much luck. Most of the offers he got were for beat-up, old rifles and illegal sawed-off shotguns.

Hundreds lined up at five locations Saturday to participate in the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office gun buyback event. The Sheriff's Office offered $75 per gun plus tickets to Tampa Bay Rays and Lightning games.

The response was overwhelming. By the end of the event, the Sheriff's Office had collected 2,541 weapons, including two rocket launchers and at least 11 stolen firearms. The buyback program is anonymous and no arrests will be made.

Still, the Sheriff's Office is working with the federal government to determine the origins of the rocket launchers, which may be military weapons, said sheriff's spokeswoman Samara Sodos. It is unclear, she said, whether they are legal to possess.

An hour into the event Saturday, deputies had doled out $55,000 in cash — the amount set aside to cover the entire day. Those still waiting to swap their guns were given vouchers redeemable next weekend at the same locations for cash and sporting event tickets.

Lines stretched for hours and Gonzalez, as well as some others, saw opportunity there. "We're just looking to support our hobby," Gonzalez, 23, of Tampa, said. He planned to keep any gun he purchased Saturday, including a rifle he bought for $20.

But many of those in line were unwilling to sell to a stranger on the side of the street.

"I'm more interested in background checks," said Brandon Parker, a 28-year-old from New Port Richey. Parker swapped his Sterling Arms .22 pistol for a $75 voucher at the Nebraska and Fletcher avenues location. "I just don't use it anymore," he said.

While buying and selling guns privately isn't illegal, some laws could be broken when conducting the business on the side of the street, said sheriff's Capt. Chad Chronister.

"We asked them not to do it on our property," Chronister said, "but a few may have had some success."

Still, he wasn't worried.

"These people (in line) want to get rid of their firearms," he said, "not sell them to these brokers."

Each weapon is checked against a registry of stolen guns. Those cleared are destroyed.

The Sheriff's Office planned to host a gun buyback later in the year, Chronister said, but recognized a need in the community to have one earlier.

"It's in large part because of the Newtown tragedy," he said. "Guns became such an in-your-face topic."

Dorothy Nicholson, 48, of Seminole Heights, turned in an SKS Russian assault rifle with a 30-round clip at the sheriff's Ybor City location. She received it as a birthday gift from an old boyfriend and was never sure what to do with it.

"I was going to sell it, but I don't want anybody else to have it," she said. "I'd rather they destroy it."

C. Burt Linthicum, 55, of Tampa, headed to Fletcher Avenue looking to buy. He hoped to find a couple of pistols for two women he knows who are interested in using them for self-defense, he said. But he also wanted to exercise his rights and support gun ownership.

"It's all about the ability of the people to effectively resist domestic tyranny," he said. "It's all in the Federalist papers."

Dressed in a white collared shirt that said "U.S. Border Patrol Undocumented Agent," Linthicum stood beside a sign offering "more $ for guns." By midday, he hadn't found anything worthy enough to buy.

"A lot I've looked at are junk and not even worth $75," he said.

Regardless, the Sheriff's Office was interested in them all.

"Maybe, if it prevents one less accidental shooting or one less stolen gun," Chronister said, "it's worth it."

Times researcher Natalie Watson and staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2442.

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