5,337 guns are taken off the street in L.A. County

Los Angeles County’s gun exchange program collected 5,337 weapons in 2009, including 144 assault-style rifles.

The Sheriff’s Department and supporters of the “gifts for guns” program handed out more than $428,100 in gift cards throughout the year at supermarket parking lots around the county in exchange for the weapons.

“I tell the deputies if it is a gun that could harm one of our deputies, then it is a gun we want off the street,” said Lt. Anthony Lucia, who oversaw the collection of 281 weapons this week at a Ralphs market in Compton. One man alone there turned in 58 weapons, mostly small-caliber firearms.

Handguns, rifles and shotguns were exchanged with no questions asked for $50, $100 and $200 gift cards from Ralphs, Food 4 Less or Target.

Sheriff’s officials have collected weapons in the Antelope Valley, San Gabriel Valley, Santa Clarita and southeast L.A. County.

Gun buyback programs have attracted attention in cities across the nation, but studies of their effectiveness in St. Louis in 1991 and 1994 found no demonstrable impact on firearm homicide and assault rates. Nonetheless, the L.A County Sheriff’s Department has made it a staple of the department, and officials believe it is making a difference.

Almost every month, one of the sheriff’s substations has gun donors lining up in their cars and deputies loading weapons into shopping carts to be eventually destroyed at a scrap metal recycling yard and turned into reinforcing bar used in construction work.

“We use the rebar to build schools and other places to help the communities,” said Sheriff Lee Baca.

The gifts for guns program started five years ago in Compton. The city of Los Angeles this year also conducted a similar program that during the summer took nearly 1,700 weapons off the streets.

In recent months, Baca has begun collecting narcotics, prescriptions and needles at drop-off mail-type boxes.

As part of the “safe drug drop-off,” deputies have gathered about 800 pounds of prescription medications and 6,175 needles at the special mailboxes.