Mounting public pressure over the years combined with concern and backlash around the recent flare-up of gun violence in Santa Barbara and beyond has spurred the organization of the city’s first ever gun-buyback event. From 8 a.m. to noon this Saturday at the Earl Warren Showgrounds, firearm owners can trade their weapons for Vons gift cards — $100 vouchers for handguns, shotguns, and rifles, and $200 for assault weapons. Vons offered the event’s organizers — the Coalition Against Gun Violence, which launched a fundraising campaign many months ago and is working closely with the Santa Barbara Police Department — a 5 percent discount on the gift cards.
Police spokesperson Sgt. Riley Harwood said participants should drive to the buyback with their unloaded guns stored in the trunks of their cars. They’ll be directed into marked lanes in the showgrounds parking lot where officers will remove the guns themselves. Participants remain completely anonymous, Harwood went on, promising that no photos or videos will be taken of people or their cars. After checking to see if a firearm is lost or stolen, the gift cards will be distributed, but organizers say they reserve the right to limit the number of vouchers an individual can receive regardless of how many guns they surrender.
It’s not uncommon for gun dealers to show up at buyback events, offering participants cash for their unwanted firearms. Harwood said while police won’t allow that to happen, they’ll let dealers distribute business cards and chat with owners as long as they don’t get in the way. There’s also the possibility that the dealers may try and trade guns they couldn’t sell and that gun-rights advocates could picket the event. Harwood, who recently attended a buyback in Los Angeles, said his office is planning for all contingencies. At the L.A. event, Harwood said he witnessed a couple AR-15 rifles being turned in, one still in its box with a price tag attached.
It’s hard to say how many guns will be collected on Saturday. Historically, participants are older, law-abiding citizens who drop off dusty firearms recovered from deep in their closets. Rarely do criminals or gang members surrender their weapons. But even if one unwanted gun is taken out of circulation, explained Coalition leader Toni Wellen, the event will be a success as it may prevent a suicide, accidental shooting, or dangerous theft. “It’s so critically important,” Wellen said, noting that Pasadena — which is a smaller city than Santa Barbara — collected 133 guns during its recent buyback. “If we get close to 100, that would be a big win,” she said. “But since we’ve never done this, it’s difficult to predict.”
Wellen thanked local media outlets for spreading the word about the event, and talked about a crowd-funding effort launched by UCSB students and alum that is funneling cash to organizers to buy more gift cards. The online campaign launched nine days ago and has already raised more than $6,500. Wellen said while buyback logistics have been in the works for some time, the recent shooting in Isla Vista intensified their and the Santa Barbara community’s focus on curbing gun violence.
While the Coalition is covering the cost of vouchers, the police department is donating its time and resources to staff the event and transport the weapons down south for destruction, Harwood said. The department routinely drives seized guns and drugs to Long Beach, where they’re fed into a giant grinder, but the department is thinking about switching to a big smelter in Fontana that may prove quicker and more efficient. Harwood noted that gun owners can always turn unwanted firearms into police at their Figueroa Street headquarters.