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L.A. buyback nets lots of firepower: Is our love affair with guns on the rocks?

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In an inspired bit of municipal governance, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the LAPD held the city’s annual gun buyback program yesterday -- about five months earlier than its usual Mothers Day date -- to acknowledge America’s growing problem of gun violence in general and the recent Newtown, Connecticut shooting in particular.

Lots of People -- Lots of Guns

Even before the 9:00 a.m. start time gun owners waited in long lines of cars at the Masonic Temple in Van Nuys and the Coliseum downtown to exchange weapons for $100 Ralphs Grocery Store gift certificates -- $200 for assault rifles.

Drivers simply pulled up to the collection area, opened their trunks and an LAPD officer scooped up the unwanted weapons -- no questions asked, no forms to fill out, no names given.

According to the Daily News, by 9:50 a.m., the city had collected 185 guns, including LA street gangs’ gun-of-choice: two fully-automatic Tec-9s (machine pistols); one AK-47, star of international conflict zones; and the hottest item in American gun shops today -- the weapon used to kill the Newtown children, the now infamous Bushmaster assault rifle.

Participants’ reasons for turning in their guns were almost as varied as the guns themselves. Many saw the buyback as an opportunity to rid themselves of a household threat while getting free groceries in the bargain. Danny Reyes of West LA told the Daily News he wanted to get rid of two handguns his brother feared might be illegal. A woman from Burbank said that receiving the grocery certificate made her feel like she got paid for doing something she had wanted to do for a while. “Not something I want to hold on to,” said the woman.

Since it’s inception in 2009, the program has netted over 8,000 guns. Although the buyback was held last Mothers Day, only seven months ago, CNN reported that over 1,800 guns had been collected yesterday by 3:30 p.m., exceeding May’s entire take -- with many cars still waiting in line.

A Grain of Sand from America’s Gun Sahara

According to the FBI, we Americans own about 200 million guns. That’s two hundred million.

As critics of gun buyback programs repeatedly point out, the guns collected at these events represent a mere droplet in America’s enormous gun bucket. True, but gun buybacks are valuable in other ways, some obvious -- such as, every gun removed from circulation is a gun that won’t wind up in the hands of a killer -- and some not so obvious.

According to a 2009 report in the American Journal of Public Health, a person with a gun is 4.5 times more likely to be shot during an assault than those without a gun. Interestingly, for gun owners who have “at least some chance to resist,” the probability of being shot is even greater (5.45).

With other risk factors associated with guns in the home, such as curious and playful children, bad tempers, depression, accidents etc., yesterday's buyback participants clearly made a wise personal safety decision by ridding their households of such efficiently lethal gadgets.

Attitude Adjustment

However, these programs’ most valuable contribution may lie in their symbolism: large crowds of regular Joes and Josephinas enthusiastically tossing their firepower into the police dumpster.

Americans’ love affair with guns runs deep -- breaking up will not be easy. We glorify these damned things in movies, toys and lore. Every young American boy exposed to mass media has learned to associate guns and gun violence with heroic, take-charge winners. Every American man has envisioned himself starring in a Walter Mitty fantasy, saving the day by either shooting evil marauders or keeping them at bay with a gun until the cops arrive -- the “You guys take it from here" daydream.

But newspaper and TV images of Americans lining up to throw their guns away counters the gun-as-friend notion and may help transform our attitudes about guns from “cool” to “what the hell am I doing with this .38-caliber rattlesnake in my home?” At the very least, gun buybacks may cause people to think of the gun they have at home for protection as a necessary evil, not something they want.

The incomprehensibly cruel gun violence at Newtown has Americans talking about guns and gun policy again, at long last. Turning this dialogue into meaningful action will be very difficult and will require efforts on many fronts. With its final take of 2,037 guns, including 75 assault rifles, the Los Angeles gun buyback yesterday was just such an effort. Well done, Los Angeles!

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