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St. Pete police re-launch their gun bounty program

ST. PETERSBURG — Police Chief Chuck Harmon stood behind the lectern and held up a gray .45-caliber 1911 pistol.

A foot-long magazine that can hold more than 20 rounds extended from its butt.

"I don't think anybody can explain this to me," he said. "It doesn't make any sense."

In Pinellas County, guns like that one — often owned by felons — are under siege. With dozens of police and deputies at his back, Harmon announced to a crowd of reporters outside the police department that the city is re-launching its gun bounty program as part of a widespread effort to reduce the number of illegal weapons on the street.

The program offers a substantial reward — $1,500 for assault weapons and $1,000 for all other firearms — but the requirements are stiff.

Tipsters, through Crime Stoppers, must offer information that leads to the recovery of a gun, an arrest and a weapons charge. If all that happens, callers get the cash. Those involved may remain anonymous.

"We are interested in getting guns out of bad guys' hands," said Mayor Bill Foster. "Not trying to get guns out of law-abiding citizens' hands."

The mayor, the chief and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri each made that point several times — weapons owned by criminals, not regular folks, are the target of this effort.

The program, funded by a $47,000 grant, is not a new one for the police department.

Nearly four years ago, after a rash of shootings — including one that killed 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton — people were desperate for action against gun violence.

City officials unveiled the bounty program in late April 2009, just weeks after Paris' death. That year, 106 tips sparked 43 arrests and 21 seized firearms. Those figures steadily dwindled until, in 2012, it resulted in no arrests or seizures.

Over the last three years, 856 guns have been stolen in St. Petersburg. It's difficult to estimate the number of stolen guns used in crimes, officials said, because the weapons are seldom recovered.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, and amid a national debate about gun rights and regulation, local law enforcement agencies and politicians have wrestled with how best to respond.

In Hillsborough County, authorities have decided to hold a gun buyback. People will be allowed to drop off guns Saturday at various locations in exchange for $75 and a voucher for Lightning and Rays games.

But authorities in Pinellas, including Harmon, are skeptical of the effectiveness of gun buy back programs. They say those programs do more to get old guns out of closets than off the streets. Still, they too are urging people to turn in unwanted firearms from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every Saturday in February — although no will get money or sports tickets.

Times staff writer Mark Puente contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@tampabay.com.

St. Pete police re-launch their gun bounty program 01/31/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 31, 2013 6:22pm]
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