Curtis Mason dropped off three small-caliber handguns at yesterday’s Computers for Guns event and came away with a fresh Dell laptop and a sense of relief.
Mason’s 17-year-old nephew who lives in Baltimore had started to acquire handguns, so when the 55-year-old Towson resident heard on TV about the event, he realized he had a chance to help the boy he’s been trying to mentor.
“I was very concerned about these guns. What would happen from them? Would they fall into the wrong hands?” Mason asked.
“I told him ‘You don’t have to go down there. I’ll handle the logistics,’” he recalled. “I said ‘Think smart, not stupid. Think education, not guns.’ I was shocked he didn’t resist.”
Mason said while the boy’s father has been “over in Afghanistan,” he’d been trying to help the youngster with his high school studies and steer him away from trouble.
“He’s turning 18 on Thursday,” Mason said, heading off to collect the laptop he planned to give to his nephew. “He’s getting an early birthday present.”
It was just one of many stories behind the guns – more than 50 of them, organizers say – turned in at the event sponsored by the local non-profit Digit All Systems and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.
After several weeks in which Baltimore has seen an alarming upswing in street violence – 22 homicides in the last three weeks, the latest in Greektown last night – “Stop Shooting, Start Coding” provided a welcome change in the narrative.
“This is a celebration of education over violence,” said Digit All’s founder Lance Lucas, standing in the lobby at the Downtown Cultural Arts Center on Howard Street in a sharp suit, ushering participants into a big room filled with music, ample air conditioning and a party atmosphere.
“Get it off the Street”
First, though, participants had to unload their guns.
Wrapped in t-shirts, towels, newspaper and plastic bags, guns of all kinds were removed from pockets, purses and shopping bags. There were lots of small-caliber “Saturday Night Special”-type handguns, a .357 Magnum in a cardboard box, and several long guns, including a double-barreled shotgun, the kind that can be sawed off and made concealable.
Marcel Simpson, 56, didn’t want to get into specifics about what kind of gun he brought in or why he had it.
“I came in to do the right thing – to get it off the street,” he said, adding only that he got the gun from someone else “and might have saved his life or saved someone else’s life” by turning it in to police, who will melt it down.
Simpson, an MTA employee, said he has no computer at home and was looking forward to using his laptop “to read news, look at websites and do positive things on the Internet.”
Frank Lapira, 39, of Pikesville, brought in a .22 caliber revolver he said he bought for $35 two years ago. “I’ve had it locked in my toolbox but still I didn’t feel comfortable,” Lapira said. “I have a three-year-old and a nine-year-old.”
The .38 Under a Librarian’s Bed
One of the participants with the most specific plans for their laptop was Rene Wright, who brought in “an antique pistol I inherited from my grandfather.”
“I’m starting a business in Highlandtown making wedding cakes and I needed a computer,” said Wright. “I thought this was such an exciting opportunity.”
Gloria Wilson, a 62-year-old who retired from work as an assistant at a Johns Hopkins University library, said she was happy to trade away the .38 she has kept for a longtime “wrapped up underneath my bed.” A user of the public library’s computers, Wilson said she is looking forward to keeping up with the news and emails on her new laptop.
Another older participant, who declined to give her name, told The Brew in what sounded like a German accent that she was 79 and acting as “a gofer” for her husband, a gun collector, who was waiting in the car.
“I just want to get rid of this hot thing in my pocketbook,” she said. “I have no idea about [guns] I wouldn’t touch one with a ten-foot pole.”
Watching the firearms pile up on the floor in a stairwell felt very satisfying to Baltimore Police Captain Bernard G. Douglas.
“Over 28 years as a police officer, I have seen all sorts of violence from all sorts of weapons,” Douglas said. “Any time you can remove weapons – I mean, take 50 guns off the street – that’s a big win for the community.”
Education and Employment
After each person dropped off their gun (or guns), they got a playing card entitling them to a computer. (The cards were handed out by a cheerful young woman who later broke down in tears, recounting how she lost her son’s father to gun violence.)
“I’m going to make you listen to 60 minutes of music before you get your laptop,” Lucas said to one participant, as a band played and volunteers helped make sure guests got their share of potato salad, fried chicken and soft drinks.
“I wanted music to soothe them. To make it entertaining,” Lucas said. “Most gun buybacks are a church or someplace solemn.”
Lucas, who grew up in Baltimore, said he is hoping events like his can point the way toward “logical long-term solutions, not personality-based reactive solutions” to the city’s persistent bloodshed.
“Look at the unemployment in neighborhoods like Rosemont – 15%, 20%,” he said. “If there was a Ford plant over there, there would be no crime like we’ve been having.”
“We’ve got to look at the link between lack of education and poverty,” he said. “And we’ve got to change peoples’ expectations about our community.”