By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — Imagine a situation where parents inherited a handgun from a family member then stored it in a box in a closet, thinking it was safe for the time being.
Then the unthinkable happens.
Their inquisitive child finds the gun, and maybe it’s loaded or it was stored along with some bullets, and a tragedy ensues. Imagine that same gun was stolen during a break-in, and somehow it ended up on the street, and in the hands of a criminal who uses it in a robbery, or maybe a home invasion, such as the kind that happened in Haverhill this summer when two men were shot to death.
Police say these are the kinds of situations they hope can be avoided by giving residents a chance to turn in their unwanted guns with no questions asked.
Recently, the city amassed a small arsenal of weapons when it held its first gun buyback program at the Citizens Center. Police said residents turned in 24 handguns, 15 rifles and shotguns, 15 non-working guns, about 200 rounds of ammunition, including some armor-piercing bullets, as well as a Vietnam War-era hand grenade that was turned into the state police for destruction. A few pellet rifles were turned in as well.
Police spokesman Lt. Robert Pistone said it was a good deal for residents, as the city handed out gift cards for each weapon turned in, up to a maximum of three gift cards per person. Mayor James Fiorentini said he budgeted $2,500 for gift cards, but the demand exceeded expectations. Residents received $50 cards for a working rifle, and $100 cards for working pistols. In all, the city gave out $2,400 in gift cards for pistols that were turned in and $750 for rifles and shotguns that were turned in.
“Most of the people were pleased to get rid of the guns as they were afraid that they may have eventually ended up in the wrong hands,” Pistone said.
Police said they plan to hold another buyback program in the future as this one netted an unexpectedly large amount of weapons.
“There are now 39 less guns in the city that our citizens did not want,” Pistone said. “That’s 39 less guns that could have been stolen and introduced to the criminal market, or 39 less guns that some child could have found and tragically hurt or killed themselves.”
Pistone said the serial numbers of all the weapons will be checked against a list of stolen guns, then the weapons will be delivered to the state police to be destroyed.
“We will never know the good that came of the program, but I do know that it did no harm and the chance that we may have saved one tragedy is well worth the effort,” Pistone said. “You have a class of people who have guns at home and don’t secure them properly, so if their home gets broken into you have guns on the black market used in the commission of crimes.”
Fiorentini said this program has been implemented in many cities across the United States and is a proven initiative to help keep stolen guns off the streets. Public Safety Commissioner Alan DeNaro said this national initiative has worked in many communities and that he wanted to try it in Haverhill.
Officials said the buyback program was such a success that police were short 10 coupons. Fiorentini said residents who did not get their gift cards will receive them in the mail.
“Several people told me they inherited guns, that they never wanted them in their house and were afraid someone would find out about the weapons and would beak in and steal them,” Fiorentini said. “One man told me he had them hidden away and was afraid someone would find them.”
Police said residents turned in 24 pistols, 15 rifles and shotguns and 15 non-working guns, including some rusted parts for a machine gun. The weapons collected included .22 caliber rifles, 12, 16 and 20 gauge shotguns, as well revolvers and semi-automatic pistols ranging in size from .22 caliber to more powerful .357 caliber handguns. Also turned in were hundreds of rounds of ammunition, including about 50 rounds of armor piercing bullets that police believe were from the 1960s and were made for a Russian pistol. Police said these kinds of bullets can pierce certain protective vests, resulting in injury or death to a police officer.
“Having the armor piercing rounds turned in was worth it alone as these could be used to kill police officers,” training officer Scott Ziminski said.
Pistone said that although weapons that were turned in might have some value on the open market, the only way the buyback program can be effective is to ensure the guns are destroyed.
“It certainly wouldn’t be very ethical if the city paid its citizens $100 for their gun and then turned around and made a profit because the owners were unaware of the potential higher value,” he said. “It also wouldn’t be right to run this program with the idea of the citizens thinking they were turning in guns to be destroyed and then we resold them.”
Pistone said the city is not in the gun business, and that the idea of the program is to give citizens an opportunity to anonymously turn in guns that they do not want for whatever reason.
“The hope for us is that we may have averted a tragedy with one or more of these guns not getting into the wrong hands at some point,” he said. “This program was 100 percent voluntary, no questions asked. Our intention would never be to take away our citizens rights to bear arms lawfully.”