By Barbara Zaragoza
The San Diego Police Department, Southern Division, held its first ever Gun Buyback program on Saturday, January 30th at the Otay Mesa Campus of Southwestern College. About twenty police staff, including cadets, retired volunteers and officers were on duty to give community members who handed over their firearms $10,000 worth of Walmart Gift cards.
The Southern Division—which covers thirty-one square miles along the U.S.-Mexico border—has 85 detectives and officers serving approximately 100,000 residents. The region averages about two homicides per year.
Rudy Tai, who has been the Southern Division captain for about the last twelve months, initiated the buyback for the South Bay because, “Anytime we can get guns off the street, it’s a prevention method for us.”
He explained that often weapons are used in accidents involving children. Other times family members who might own multiple guns pass away and for whatever reason, the guns end up on the street.
“If we can get one gun off the street, we know we’re having a positive effect and creating a safer community,” Captain Tai said.
His department collaborated with the District Attorney’s (DA’s) Office, which supplied the gift cards. Jesse Navarro, Special Assistant of Community Relations for the DA, said “It’s kind of slow because it’s out of the way, but it will catch on.”
He recalled that buybacks in the Southeastern Division of San Diego began about five years ago and initially the interest was low, but once community members realized they could receive compensation for the buyback, the events became increasingly successful. Now, about once every six months the Southeastern Division hosts buybacks where cars wait in long lines and officers collect hundreds of guns.
For the gun buyback along the border, the DA’s office obtained $10,000 in gift cards through asset forfeiture monies—that is, money taken from criminals, which can then be used for certain limited programs that benefit the community. Participants in Otay Mesa received $50 for handguns, $75 for rifles or shotguns, and $100 for assault rifles, with no questions asked.
Carlos Lacarra, Community Relations Officer for the Southern Division, said, “We don’t take any personal information. We just give them a gun receipt because that’s our protocol.”
Lacarra explained that at the end of the buyback, police officers transport the guns in a van to their secure armory. Officers then do checks on each serial number. If a serial number shows that a gun has been stolen, officers must return the weapon to the owner. All the other firearms are given to a contracted company that then destroys them.
At the Otay event, twenty two handguns, thirteen rifles, fourteen shotguns and one assault rifle were turned in, including a sawed off shotgun. One retrieved gun was likely a stolen government 1911 .45 with shaved off serial numbers. Another was an illegal makeshift firearm manufactured by an individual.
The non-profit Casa Familiar, which serves the low-income San Ysidro community, also collaborated with the Southern Division to spread the word and support the effort. Community Development Officer, David Flores said, “One of the things we have been promoting is health in the community… When the Captain approached us about doing a project like this, we said we’d never done anything like this, but it makes sense for us to just continue to extend our reach into making sure that San Ysidro families and South Bay families are healthy and safe. So if there are three guns that are removed off the street, if there are ten guns or more, then we feel like we did something to make sure that those do not fall in the hands of children.”