More than 100 guns brought to buyback
CHAMPAIGN — Sherry Rogers knows what guns can do to a family.
Her cousin, 20-year-old Desirae Austin, was shot and killed at the corner of Thornton Drive and Cruising Lane on July 4. Austin was a mother, a sister and a cousin, Rogers said.
"This should have never happened," she said.
Or take a string of three gun-related deaths in eight days in Champaign-Urbana this May. The victims were 22, 20 and 3 years old, and the deaths prompted local law enforcement officials and community leaders to hold a joint press conference asking residents for help to curb the gun violence.
Young adult pastor Terry Austria's Stone Creek Church organized the funeral for 3-year-old Mekhi Woods, who was shot by his 14-year-old uncle on May 16. On Saturday, the church put up the money for $50 Visa cash cards for every working gun handed over to police during a buyback event.
No questions asked.
"We're trying to help people come out of destructive patterns," Austria said.
Police collected 104 guns from Champaign County residents on Saturday. Some were in good condition, some potentially expensive collectors' items, some were missing pieces and some had a bit of rust. A few were sawed-off shotguns, designed to be concealed and whose owners could be convicted of a felony just for carrying them.
But they all had the potential to fire a bullet, and police say that's what's most important.
Urbana Police Chief Patrick Connolly said he is not naive enough to believe that career criminals are going to bring their guns to police for a $50 gift card.
"The hardcore drug dealers and hardcore armed robbers are not going to be the ones turning it in," Connolly said.
But maybe there would be someone who had their gun under a mattress for years and did not even think about it. It could fall into the hands of a family member and then turn up on the street.
"They can't even tell us when the gun was stolen, and those are the people we're trying to reach," Connolly said.
Connolly said the Champaign County group learned from others' mistakes when they organized Saturday's event. He pointed at an anecdote from a St. Louis-area gun buyback, for which organizers promised $50 cash per gun — so a gun dealer brought a box of 17 broken guns, Connolly said.
Saturday's event had a two-gift-card limit, and the guns had to be functional. The event also was limited to Champaign County residents, although police would have been happy to take more than two broken guns for free and from anyone.
All the guns were tagged, inventoried and pictured. Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb said they will be held as prescribed by state law and eventually disposed of.
One major difference between the Champaign County event and some others, police said, is that all the guns were first inspected for functionality. If they could not fire, the owner would not get the $50.
Last month, the Champaign-based Guns Save Life visited a Chicago gun buyback event, where they sold dozens of old or broken firearms to Chicago police. They used more than $6,000 to help fund a summer shooting camp in Bloomington, which teaches kids about gun safety and shooting sports.
Guns Save Life President John Boch said he was not willing to comment on his group's activity in Chicago or on the Champaign buyback event given the recent violence in Aurora, Colo. But he told the Chicago Sun-Times in June that the guns were "rusty, non-firing junk" and that his group would use the funds "to help introduce the next generation to shooting safely and responsibly."
Austria said the blowback he has heard since announcing the event weeks ago has been frustrating.
"I have a problem with that, especially with the gun violence that's going on in Chicago," Austria said.
He said he also has heard from people who say the buyback is an anti-gun rally. Austria said the only goal is to keep guns out of the hands of people who are underage or unauthorized to carry firearms.
"We are not anti-gun," Austria said. "We are not trying to erode the Second Amendment."
About halfway through Saturday's event, Austria had already declared it a success. He had just taken a call from a man who was encouraging his friends to turn in their guns, but they were too scared to bring them to police themselves.
"We know that they're going to be used for illegal purposes," Austria said.
Austria said, instead of having each of them bring the guns individually, he told the man to collect the guns from his friends, put them in his trunk and police would take them.
"If it's just for that trunk of guns, I'd go home happy right now," Austria said.
He said it has been "a major area of prayer for the last seven months." He chooses not to believe the criticism that hardened criminals wouldn't show up.
"I'm a man of faith, and we've been praying that people's hearts will change," Austria said.
Not everyone in attendance on Saturday had guns to turn in. Rogers said her presence was to show support for what she called an important event and to thank the organizers.
If they could even get one gun that would otherwise had led to a shooting death like her cousin's, Roger said, then the effort is worth it.
"It's an experience that I pray no other family ever has to experience ever again," Rogers said.