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Wis. buyback program will turn guns into garden tools

About $76,000 already has been pledged in private donations to assist with the cost of the gun buyback

By Ashley Luthern
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MILWAUKEE Devon Harris was among the many neighborhood residents who had dropped by outreach programs at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Milwaukee.

Harris, 19, even brought his young nephew several times last summer because he knew it was a safe place, Pastor Diane M. Olson said.

Harris was found shot to death in his apartment April 12.

“I was really devastated,” Olson said. “He was always a polite, respectful rather soft-spoken young man, at least in my presence.”

Olson invoked his memory as she led the opening blessing of a morning breakfast meeting Tuesday of clergy, city leaders and police who gathered at Our Savior’s to announce details of Milwaukee’s Ceasefire Week, scheduled for May 12-18.

Among the slate of events is a gun buyback at Tabernacle Community Baptist Church that received the backing of Milwaukee police, clergy leaders and business owners, including Marty Forman, owner of Midwest Forman Recycling on the city’s north side.

“I always thought it was a good idea. It so fits what we do,” Forman said of the gun buyback. “The world of recycling is taking the things that society no longer needs and remelting them into a form that you do need. It saves resources, and in this particular case, it will save lives.”

About $76,000 already has been pledged in private donations to assist with the cost of the gun buyback, with support from many other scrap metal companies, he said. No city taxpayer money is involved.

The guns will be melted and forged into garden tools “to bring life to the city,” Forman said.

The gun buyback and other Ceasefire Week events are a way for people to live their faith, said the Rev. Don Darius Butler of Tabernacle Community Baptist Church.

“When this opportunity came to us because we’re in a community with high crime, high violence, we wanted to be a part of the counter-narrative. We wanted to really offer witness. That’s the real heart of our commitment,” Butler said.

Making Their Push
Faith leaders in Milwaukee had advocated for city tax money for a gun buyback program and convened a news conference last fall to call attention to the issue. They pointed to successes at other gun buybacks around the country, such as Camden, N.J., where authorities collected more than 1,000 guns as they pressed their case.

Gun buybacks, however, typically don’t attract the guns most frequently linked to firearm homicides and suicides -- pistols -- according to a 2002 study by the Firearm Injury Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

The study compared nearly 1,000 handguns collected from 1994 to 1996 in Milwaukee County buyback programs to 369 homicide-related and 125 suicide-related handguns used in the Milwaukee area from 1994 to 1997.

More than a decade later, experts still have concerns about the effectiveness of gun buybacks, Stephen Hargarten said Tuesday. Hargarten, emergency medicine department chairman at the Medical College of Wisconsin, was one of the study’s four authors.

“It can potentially have an effect because those are the guns that are involved in an accidental discharge or adolescent finding a gun,” he said of firearms typically turned in at buybacks.

Gun buybacks can target guns more likely to be used in homicides: pistols instead of revolvers, for example, he said.

Details of the gun buyback, such as the amount of money offered for different types of firearms, are still being organized.

“I know it’s not a panacea, but it works,” said the Rev. Mose Fuller, a vocal advocate of the gun buyback who has experience organizing buybacks at St. Timothy Community Baptist Church.

Police Chief Edward Flynn described the gun buyback as an organizing event that is part of a much larger anti-violence effort.

“To me, it is a very important symbol of community rejection of violence,” he said.

The Police Department is a response to violence, not a solution, the chief added.

“One piece of dealing with (violence) is reforming gun laws and putting bad guys in jail,” Flynn said. “Another piece is a strong moral voice in the neighborhood that rejects the use of violence to solve disputes.”

Help From Clergy
Clergy members are positioned to serve as that moral voice, Mayor Tom Barrett said.

“I am not naive enough to think that the people who are getting in trouble are sitting in your pews on Sunday morning at 10 o’clock,” he said.

“They’re not there, but they may have a mother there, they may have a grandmother there, they may have an aunt, they might have someone who loves them who is there and that is where I believe you can help us. We are in this together,” the mayor said.

Copyright 2014 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel