Mall parking lots were packed with after-Christmas shoppers. But nowhere were the lines longer than at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena and the Van Nuys Masonic Temple, where thousands of people came to exchange their guns for Ralphs gift cards.
Cars queued up for blocks at the drive-through events, with the city giving cards worth up to $100 for handguns, shotguns and rifles, and up to $200 for assault weapons. There was a bit of haggling involved, but the guns were all taken.
“What do you got?” an officer in Van Nuys asked a man in his late twenties as he pulled up in a green Mazda.
“Just one handgun, I’ve had it since high school,” the man replied.
“Will you take $50 for this?”
Many came bearing more than one gun. They pulled 22 pistols from the trunk of one white Honda, a haul that earned the driver $1,000.
Two men in a pickup truck with two children in the back seat handed over a rifle, a pistol and a MAC-12, altered with a silencer.
Organizers and some participants credited collective outrage and anguish over the gun rampage in Newtown, Conn., for the turnout. But motivations were often a bit more complicated.
“That young guy shot up all the kids and they blamed the mama because the mama had the weapons in the house,” Valerie Butler said, in explaining why she was waiting in line two hours in South Los Angeles to get rid of an old handgun.
Yet Butler, 50, said she was not getting rid of both of her guns.
“Just one,” she said, and laughed. “There’s a bunch of nuts out here, and they’re coming in when you’re sleeping. You got to protect yourself.”
Cities across the nation, grasping for ways to react to a series of mass shootings this year, have organized gun buybacks to get weapons off the street.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa pushed the city’s annual event from Mother’s Day to Wednesday in reaction to the killing Dec. 14 of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. By the afternoon, the event had already surpassed the 1,673 guns collected last year, and officials were scrambling to get more gift cards, which were donated by Ralphs.
Many of the drivers said they were turning in their guns because they rarely used them and were eager to snag grocery cards.
“If I could get $100 of free groceries, it’s worth it,” said Charles Edwards, 60, waiting in line next to his old .22 revolver after driving to Los Angeles from Fontana. “I wouldn’t do it for $40. That’s why people are here. They feel bad about all that’s happening, but times are tough.”
He still has a shotgun at home. “That’s all I need,” he said.
Edwards said authorities needed to better organize the buyback so the lines weren’t so long. He watched numerous people sit in line for a spell, then just drive away, he said. “I thought I could just drop this thing off. They need to have this move faster.”
Most of the weapons recovered were “mom and pop guns,” police said — hunting rifles, shotguns — but they got a few dozen assault weapons as well.
They checked to make sure the guns were empty, and double-checked by pulling the triggers in clearing barrels — metal rubbish containers filled with sand. Then they put them into trash containers like bundles of sticks after a windstorm.
“I had a question, one after another: ‘Do we really need this? Does this really make us safer?’ ” Villaraigosa said at a news conference at the Sports Arena. “I say, ‘Look, the Police Department is here because they believe in this program.’ ”
He said the buyback program had taken in 8,000 guns since it began in 2009 and was just one part of a comprehensive police strategy that has reduced violent crime in recent years. Police Chief Charlie Beck said it was a critical component.
One of the first guns collected was a camouflage Bushmaster XM-15, the same kind of gun used at Sandy Hook Elementary.
But this was one of the rarities. Loretta, 50, from South Los Angeles was bringing in her great-grandfather’s antique rifle — one of them anyway. “I got the other well-hidden,” she said.
Alex Reyes, 47, rode his bike to the Sports Arena from East L.A. with a 68-year-old, six-shot .38 revolver and a .22 target pistol. He said he came in to do “a good deed” after the Newtown shooting, getting rid of all of his weapons. “Just me and Jesus Christ,” he said.
Sandra Lefall, 38, came to the site with Newtown heavy in her heart. She had been thinking about coming since she first heard the awful news. “I’m bringing in a 9-millimeter handgun because I want to get it out of the house because I have teenage children. I would hate for them to do what that guy in Connecticut did.”
By 2 p.m. in Van Nuys, the police began telling people they were out of gift cards.
“I’m not giving this away for free,” said Sam Ferrell of Reseda as he took a drag of his cigarette in his truck.
Ferrell said he was hoping to sell his stepson’s handgun. “There are too many kids being killed by these things,” he said.
He said he didn’t plan to turn in any of his own guns, but that he was glad his stepson didn’t have his.
“I need my gun, but not everyone who has one needs one,” he said.