TAMPA — For the first time in four years, the Tampa Police Department bought back guns from residents Saturday, a preventive effort to keep weapons out of criminal hands in a year marred by an uptick in gun violence and shooting deaths.
Funded by a $50,000 donation from the Tampa Bay Lightning, the buy-back program offered $50 to residents who handed over unwanted but functioning firearms. They did not have to give their name, just a zip code for data purposes.
Tampa police Chief Eric Ward and Mayor Bob Buckhorn arrived at River Tower Park at 9 a.m., an hour into the buy-back. A hundred guns had already been dropped off. By the end of the day, officers received 521 firearms, each exchanged for $50.
"Every gun we take off the street is one that doesn't get into a kid's hand," Ward said. "Throughout the nation, there's an increase in violence, and Tampa is not immune."
After a bloody start to the new year, with the number of homicides almost doubling that of last year, the mayor, chief and former Chief Jane Castor have been rallying in Tampa's most crime-ridden neighborhoods, pleading for an end to a no-snitch culture they say ties law enforcement's hands.
"Cities across the country are just awash with illegal guns," the mayor said. "I can tell you, doing nothing is not an option."
Retired Tampa police Capt. Brett Bartlett, a member of the pistol team, ushered gun owners through a car line under shaded trees, inspected their firearms and sent them away, cash in hand. He said most of the people participating support the mission of the department: to keep unused or unwanted guns out of the hands of criminals.
The dozens of officers on site collected rifles, shotguns and pistols. A few sawed-off shotguns were turned in.
Officers tagged each firearm, ran the serial numbers through a database to see if any had been reported stolen, then set them aside in bins and boxes. Eventually, they'll be melted down and destroyed.
That part of the program incensed at least a dozen local residents who set up camp in the park beside the police operation, trying to keep buy-back participants from selling their antique or heirloom firearms for what they considered far too little money.
"We're here buying weapons that need to be saved," said Tampa native Walter Sullivan, 59.
Sullivan sat and stood among others carrying an American flag and signs that read "ADOPT-A-GUN $60+ GOOD GUNS 4 GOOD HOMES."
Most people drove past, bewildered, on their way to the police operation, but 68-year-old Rainel Ayala perked up when he heard someone shout out to him "we'll give you more money!"
Money, he said, was the main reason he'd come by. For 25 years he'd kept a small pistol in his home for safety, but never once shot it. He grew tired of always fearing his young son would find it and harm himself. Plus, he really needed some cash. The police would only offer $50, he said, but the private gun dealers on site gave him $80.
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"Now I don't have to worry about it anymore," he said.
Maria Gil, 84, said she bypassed the people offering more money because that wasn't her primary concern. In her home were several guns that belonged to her husband, dead 11 years now.
"I've had them for so many years and I didn't know what to do with them," she said.
Bartlett said Gil's situation is why the gun buy-back is so valuable. Most illegal guns end up on the street through car burglaries or home invasions, he said. Helping people get rid of guns they aren't using is just one way to get ahead of the violence.
"The goal is not to solve crime today," he said. "It's to prevent crime."
Contact Katie Mettler at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @kemettler.