Away from mass shootings, ordinary Americans get killed by guns every day. In San Diego, a community comes together to make a dent in the problem. Here’s my reportage for huck magazine.
It’s a chilly December morning in Southeast San Diego. Once, this part of town was a byword for deprivation and violence.
But things are changing: a modern tram whizzes past affordable houses being built, and where once booze shops dispensed liquid amnesia from behind iron bars, a community centre has risen, complete with a parade of family restaurants and a Starbucks.
Despite the ungodly hour, the Bryco Center – a brownfield site outside a warehouse – is humming with activity. On the parking lot, a local TV transmission van marks the spot like a beacon; nearby a female journalist is already interviewing the assembled notables.
At the moment, she’s talking to the imposing figure of the Reverend Gerald Brown – a US marine-turned-pastor who speaks on behalf of the United African-American Ministerial Action Council.
The San Diego Gun Buyback started with a tragic killing, explains Brown. Even as he recalls the bloody event, his baritone voice soothes the soul.
“In 2008, two of our kids, Monique Palmer and Mike Taylor, got shot in a random act of gang violence. They were just fifteen. Now, sadly, this wasn’t the first time something like this happened. Usually, the community comes together and collects money to help with the funeral. But my predecessor came up with a new idea.
“He said, ‘let’s do something constructive with all that money: let’s use it to get rid of some of those guns that kill our children.’
He put a call in to the District Attorney and asked if he would match the amount raised by the community.
“The DA agreed, and so we had our first Gun Buyback. Since then, we’ve had one every year – and so far we’ve taken around 1,450 firearms out of circulation – and today we want to add to that number.”
So, what’s the connection with skateboarding?
“Right now, skateboarding is the thing for kids,” Brown smiles. “Back when I was young, we used to have bikes, but now kids use skateboards to get around – you see them everywhere.
“So by offering skateboards as well as gift vouchers, we hope that kids will bug their parents to come here and trade in an unwanted gun for a longboard. It makes a great present too, with Christmas just around the corner.”
As Brown speaks, a police SUV swoops by and parks emphatically like an automotive exclamation mark. The legend ‘CHIEF 1’ on its bonnet proclaims that the wiry woman behind the wheel is San Diego’s top cop, Shelley Zimmermann.
San Diego’s Top Cop pays a visit
She high-fives the Reverend, as if merely arriving on the scene were an occasion to be celebrated. If she’s worried about an ongoing controversy over the shooting of an unarmed, mentally-ill man by one of her officers, she’s not showing it today.
“This event is a great example of community policing,” explains the Chief, who – despite her sweet and winning smile – has been far quicker to fire police officers than her predecessor.
“What you see here is different sections of the community coming together to tackle gun crime – the local church, anti-crime initiatives and the skate community.
“We, the police, are only here to facilitate the event, making sure it is secure and that the guns are kept and destroyed safely. We ask no questions, we’re not interested where a gun came from, whether it’s legal or not, who’s turning it in.”
What if one of the guns was used in a crime? Wouldn’t your no-questions-asked approach mean that you’re effectively destroying evidence?
Zimmermann is unperturbed. “We don’t run any tests on the guns we collect – all we do is note down registration numbers. So yes, if a number is flagged on the system, we take another look at that gun.
“If it’s not flagged or the serial number has been removed, we destroy the gun. Even if it was in fact used in a gun crime, at least now it will be out of circulation.”
That is Lisa Ortiz’s hope too. Clutching her lapdog, Lisa has come along to watch the Gun Buyback on behalf of Mothers with a Message – a tragic club uniting mums whose kids have killed or been killed.
Their mission is to speak to at-risk youth and prisoners of the grief a mother feels when a child is murdered or locked up. As a result, they hope, young people will make better choices for their lives.
“Chico was my daughter’s dog, and now she’s gone, I carry him wherever I go,” says Lisa. “He’s all I have left. He makes me feel closer to her.”
The snaggletoothed pet looks content in Ms Ortiz’ arms, exuding a cheerfulness at odds with his owner’s forlorn air.
Ms Ortiz’ daughter, Marcella Peraza, was killed at a birthday party six and a half years ago – by Christoper Sanchez, the young man who had taken her there.
According to police, Sanchez had left the party after getting into a fight, then returned around 2:30am and began shooting into a crowd of guests outside the house. A stray bullet ricocheted off a car’s windscreen wiper and hit Marcella, who was running for her life.
“Marcella was my only daughter,” Lisa said in court at the time. “Before her life was taken, she gave me so much love and happiness. She had grown from my daughter to my companion. Marcella was young, charismatic and beautiful.
Without Marcella, life is empty, confusing and I look forward to nothing, except being with her when I die.
The judge convicted Sanchez of first-degree murder, sentencing him to eighty-five years to life. To add to the tragedy, Sanchez was later shot dead by prison guards during a riot. His head was so badly injured the undertakers had to remodel his skull, his mother, Sonya Veregas, tells me, her ears tearing up. “And so I had to bury my son in a beanie.”
Six years on, there has been some healing. Through Mothers with a Message, Lisa and Sonya – who used to fight each other in court – have built a friendship based on their shared pain and hope for the future. Where once they cried in their own separate pain, they share laughter together.
SKATERS FOR PEACE
While we speak, we’re joined by two men: the taller one in the ponytail and baseball cap is Neil Carver, founder of Carver Skateboards, the other – short, innocuous-looking – is ’70s pro skateboarder Harvey Hawks, a man whose life illustrates how an outing with a gun can turn into a tragedy at the twitch of a finger.
On a summer’s afternoon in 1986, the smiling chap before me was a dangerous man: drunk, angry and in possession of a shotgun. He came from a massive row with his ex; driving down the highway, he got into an altercation with a van.
The family in the van were rushing their son to hospital, who had been in a motorbike accident – Harvey misinterpreted their hurry for aggression.
He pulled his weapon, which was on the backseat, and fired it while still driving.
The shotgun slug – a single bullet devastating at short range – killed off-duty policewoman Patricia Faye Dwyer and gravely injured her friend, Wendy Varga.
“I didn’t know what had happened until four days later, when the police came to arrest me and told me I had killed someone. When they did, I had a bottle of Coors in my hand. I knew that moment that I would have to change my life.” Hawks sobered up while serving twenty-six years in prison (nine years in excess of his sentence).
“Every day, I regret what happened,” he explains. “I always think of the wonderful woman whose life I took. It’s something I can never undo, but every day, I can at least do something to make amends.
“I do it by being part of this project. We can all be emotionally off-balance at times. But if people didn’t have access to a firearm when they’re angry, they wouldn’t use it. So anything we can do to get a firearm off the streets, that’s our goal.”
For Harvey, the Second Amendment right to bear arms is outdated.
“The Second Amendment was written when people used to hunt for food, when we had no standing army, and when we’d just fought a war against a foreign force.
“Not only that, weapons were so much more primitive. Now the situation has completely changed. The assault weapons we have today are so powerful, it would have been unthinkable back then.”
Neil Carver – surfer, designer, accidental activist – agrees. He’s lived in Venice, LA, since it was a grotty slum where gunpowder mingled with the sea breeze in the air. When primary school children and their teachers were massacred at Sandy Hook, Neil felt he had to act.
“When I saw these primary school kids being shot, my wife and I were horrified. I was wondering, ‘what could I do to make a difference?’ Then I thought, ‘maybe I can turn guns into longboards.’
“To give a kid in a household that had a gun before a skateboard is to plant a seed that offers meaning during those difficult years of adolescence.”
For Neil, skateboarding isn’t just a sport, or a way to get around: it’s a way of life, a mindset.
“I’ve heard from skaters over and over again how skateboarding saved them from their circumstances. At the most basic level, a skateboard is a form of transportation.
“This idea, to ‘transport oneself’ is not only a literal way to get some distance from your immediate surroundings, but a metaphor for how a skater can immerse themselves in a different reality while they focus on the act of skating.
“Since so much of the pressure and danger of gun violence is geographic, it’s an empowering act to create a different context, one that we make for ourselves. So, like swords to ploughshares, we should turn guns into skateboards. Even if one skateboard helped prevent just one act of violence, it would be worth the effort.”
Getting the first longboard exchange off the ground wasn’t easy, but after doggedly pursuing the LAPD, Neil took part in a Gun Buyback in San Pedro.
After that, he contacted Michael Brooke, who runs Longboarding for Peace, an international movement of skater activists fighting for peace and justice as far afield as Palestine.
Now they work together, hoping to take the concept to other troubled spots in California, and to encourage people all over the US to follow suit.
By now, the exchange is underway. There’s a fascinating array of rides – from bog-standard family carriers to Harleys and vintage cars.
Not everybody wants to give their name, but most are happy to talk. It quickly becomes apparent that turning up here is a convenience and an act of prudence, not necessarily an anti-gun statement.
Jeffrey, astride on a gleaming silver Vespa, brings a gun from the Korean war. Having inherited it from an uncle, he’s long wondered how he could get rid of it – this event was the perfect opportunity.
Jen, a bubbly Chinese-American, winds down the window of her SUV and tells me she’s dropping off an old gun she’s just replaced with a new and better one. A pensioner tells me he has cancer and doesn’t want to leave a gun behind when he’s gone.
Then there’s an old black lady in her Sunday best driving an immaculately-kept white 1970s Cadillac. Aged ninety-one, she too thinks the time has come to dispose of her gun.
Abraham, twenty-one, came in a beat-up sports car with his friend, dropping off an old “Jack Sparrow gun,” but Harvey tells me that people get killed by antique guns all the time. “From the day a gun is manufactured, it’s lethal even after a hundred years,” he says.
Listening to people, it seems guns are everywhere: one man has found his in a car park, another in a flat after a tenant had moved out.
Most people opt for the gift vouchers (amounting to $100 or $50, depending on the gun). The longboards (which cost $220 each) usually go to parents and grandparents. José Abados is one of them.
“As a landlord, I have a special permit to carry a gun,” he says. “But now my son is getting older, I’m really worried that he’s going to find it and hurt himself, or us. So it’s much better to give him a longboard instead.”
At the end of the event, forty longboards have been given away, in addition to $200,000 worth of gift vouchers donated by the County Sheriff. The Gun Buyback has taken 240 guns, among them two AK47’s, two Uzis and a .410 shotgun, which is now illegal.
It’s a handsome loot, but still a drop in the ocean: in 2012, in California alone, one million prospective gun-buyers applied for a criminal background check – a system you have to pass through to buy a gun from a federally registered dealer – and every time there’s a mass shooting, there’s a new rush for firearms.
Gun control in the US remains a divisive issue. And while the people drawn here today all agree on one thing – that guns falling into the wrong hands pose a threat to the safety of their families and community – the harmony ends there.
Some hold up their uninfringed ability to bear arms as an inalienable constitutional right, as hallowed as George Washington’s wooden dentures.
For them, San Bernardino – a mass shooting in which fourteen people were killed and twenty-two injured – is all the more justification for packing heat.
Others see the Constitution not as immutable scripture, but a living document that can and should be adapted with the times.
Others still, like San Diego police officer Chad Crenshaw, say it’s not so much about politics, but about personal responsibility.
“This,” he says, making the gesture of pulling an imaginary trigger, “is gun control.” But is it possible to tackle this problem – a problem most agree is both dangerous and real – without panning out to the broader picture?
The political battle is a bitter and often personalised ideological war in which every inch of ground is contested. Obama’s modest proposal after Sandy Hook was to close a loophole that exempted those who bought guns online or at trade shows from background checks.
Even though the measure had and continues to have overwhelming popular support, it fell victim to a filibuster in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Tired of playing nice, Obama has now made these defeated measures law on his own authority – and has promptly been sued by conservative advocacy group Freedom Watch.
This is a familiar pattern: every time stricter gun control measures are passed, be it on federal, state or even municipal level, a lawsuit promptly follows, funded by the deep-pocketed gun lobby.
California is a case in point: many of its stringent gun control provisions are currently being challenged as unconstitutional in the courts. Overcoming these political, legislative, judicial and cultural challenges will take some doing.
The next major clash is already on the cards. Gun control is bound to be a major issue in the presidential election later this year.
Not only that, in California, gubernatorial hopeful Gavin Newsom aims to get a proposal on the ballot that would require background checks for ammunition purchases, which would be a first in the US.
It would also force gun owners to surrender large-capacity magazines. To many gun advocates, this planned confiscation proves that the government ultimately wants to take away people’s firearms.
Against this backdrop, what good can a limited local initiative collecting a small number of unwanted guns possibly achieve – well-meaning though it may be?
What’s the point in taking a few hundred guns off the streets when at the same time, they are being replaced in their millions, leading to what the New York Times called – in a powerful piece titled ‘End the American Gun Epidemic’, their first front-page editorial since 1920 – “the unfettered spread of ever more powerful firearms” and “a moral outrage”.
These questions are on my mind as I ask Reverend Brown for his verdict at the end of the day. Doesn’t even he lose faith sometimes at what seems like a losing battle?
“Not at all,” he says, examining the stack of doomed weapons piled up in a police van. “Each one of these does a lot of damage, and though we’ll never know, I’m sure we’ve saved some lives today.”
Some, perhaps, but not nearly enough. Ultimately, America’s most potent weapon against its domestic state of emergency is the ballot box.
In the meantime, communities like this will continue working to make a dent, buying back one gun at a time.