By Elizabeth Daley
The one thing gun rights advocates and public health experts agree on is that offering money in exchange for weapons doesn’t reduce crime. Usually young men don’t participate in gun buybacks, usually the most dangerous weapons aren’t collected, and, usually, giving someone $100 does not change anything in the long run.
But could providing a free education in exchange for a weapon reduce violence? A new Pittsburgh-area program called Guns For Opportunities is offering a welding education and union membership in exchange for a gun, testing a novel approach to crime prevention in an area that needs all the help it can get.
While gun violence is declining in many cities across the country, in Pittsburgh it’s on the rise. In 2014, the city experienced more homicides than in any year since 2008. Almost half of the city’s gun homicides remain unsolved, though most took place in public.
Yet dedication to stopping violence is evident. Signs reading “Stop Shooting, We Love You” adorn windows in some of Pittsburgh’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods. Police have employed high-tech tools like ShotSpotter, an auditory tool used to alert police to gunfire in areas where shots go unreported. Meanwhile, in nearby Braddock, John Fetterman, the town’s omnipresent mayor, takes crime personally. He gets a tattoo of a date in black ink on his arm each time someone is murdered in his community. His most recent reads: “09/10/14.” It’s the day 16-year-old Vernon Rogers of Pittsburgh was shot multiple times and left to die on a Braddock street.
Vernon’s death was tragic, yet not unusual. He was young, black, and things like this happen everyday.
But Vernon Rogers had plans, he dreamed of becoming a football player. He was good at repairing things around the house and played baseball at age five for the Homewood Midget League. He was the oldest son and always felt the need to help out, according to his obituary. Shortly before his death, Vernon himself sought help, asking continuously for mentorship. “The family made many attempts however, sadly he passed before it was set in place,” read his obituary.
According to public health professionals, Vernon was a victim not just of gun violence, but of the systemic issues that lead to it. “In communities that have higher rates of gun, violence there are a host of other problems ranging from homelessness and unemployment to a lack of educational opportunities,” said Jon Vernick, co-director of the John’s Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research.
[blocktext align=”right”]“To anyone who thought ‘maybe I have gone too far’ — this is their chance.”[/blocktext]Braddock, the eastern Pittsburgh suburb where Rogers was shot, is the testing ground for Guns For Opportunities. The area was once was home to around 20,000, but is now a shell of its former glory. Vacant buildings abound and unemployment is high, but innovative solutions have taken root in the community that now numbers just over 2,000. The Braddock Free Store, where the first Guns for Opportunity exchange is taking place, is a community resource for those who need access to free clothing and other household items, and is just one of many grassroots efforts.
The Guns For Opportunities program is itself somewhat grassroots. It has no connection to any government entity and is entirely sponsored by the Boilermakers Union, Local 124. Fetterman called the program “a passport to a middle-class career that’s going to be forever in demand.” He applauded the union for meeting community members “where they’re at” by offering to waive GED requirements and helping applicants obtain treatment for possible drug problems. “To anyone who thought ‘maybe I have gone too far’ — this is their chance,” Fetterman said.
Traditional gun exchange programs typically offer participants money or gift cards in exchange for weapons and are often operated by police or government officials. The small amount of cash given in exchange for a gun is often just a stopgap solution to systemic problems. “Having a job is essential to reducing violence,” said Josh Horowitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a policy advocacy group. Horowitz, who, like Vernick, is not impressed by traditional gun buyback programs, was excited to learn about Guns For Opportunities. “All the risk factors for violence include socioeconomic status, and losing a job is correlated with an increased risk in violence, so the idea that you are taking a gun off the streets and giving an opportunity is a huge thing,” he said.
In 2011, another Vernon Rogers, 20, would have done well to exchange his gun. He was sentenced to life in prison for shooting a man to death in another Pittsburgh-area community.
Judge Joseph K. Williams III issued a mandatory minimum life sentence, but told the defendant he felt sorry for him, adding that sentencing in cases like this was one of the saddest parts of his job. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (http://www.post-gazette.com/local/south/2011/07/14/Man-gets-life-in-prison-for-McKeesport-murder/stories/201107140398), Williams wondered aloud “what a 20-year-old can grasp about the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison.”
“Pausing to compose himself and take a sip of water,” the Post-Gazette story continued, the judge described the difficulty of seeing the effects of violence on loved ones and mothers.
“I see them recoil and bend in pain,” Judge Williams said, according to the Post-Gazette.
Guns recoil; they also backfire. In technical terms, the recoil caused by a gun exactly balances the forward momentum of projectile and exhaust gases, according to Newton’s third law.
A bullet moves forward but the gun kicks back. The shooter and the shot, both caught up in momentum, a forward backward motion, a moment of perfect equilibrium and clarity, the things you shouldn’t have done.
On the day of the gun exchange in Braddock, it is cold, but Mayor Fetterman appears in shorts, his usual attire. The event might be described as casual — men openly carry weapons over their shoulders, walk up to the colorful trailer housing the free store, and deposit their artillery with the Allegheny County Sherriff’s Office. After handing over a gun, they are asked for their names and get an information packet and a poker chip, their golden ticket to a welding education.
One man who turns in a weapon complains that the process of taking down names violates the exchange’s “no questions asked” promise. Bernie Duffy, the Boilermakers Union’s drug rehabilitation specialist who is managing the event tells the man that they just need names to match up. “You can say your name is Roger Rabbit for all we care, just as long as the name you give here matches the name you give at the union — but eventually to get a paycheck you’re going to have to give your name — I don’t know what to tell you,” he says in a raspy voice. Duffy is himself a boilermakers’ success story. He started working full time for the union in 1999 after serving seven years in the state penitentiary. “Without a doubt we know that if you’ve been stuck in this rut, you grow up in the same area and you see violence and don’t know anything else you think that’s the way of life,” Duffy says. If someone asks him about his history he is honest, but, he says, “If I did it, so can you.”
Duffy is friendly and encouraging to those who take each poker chip, but knows entry into the union doesn’t guarantee success. Just this week he had to send 15 people to rehab, he says. “In the past when the whistle blew, you couldn’t walk across this street without crossing all the people — they used to call them mill hunkys,” he says. “As soon as the whistle blew they had a drink. A lot of guys — they got hurt and you know how guys are — instead of going to the doctor they self medicate. People use alcohol to unwind.” Still, Duffy is hopeful that the union will provide a better life to those who seek it. “We are trying to get people cleaned up and help them enter a program,” he says. “They’ll be a productive member of society and the salary ain’t bad either.”
Starting salary for welders is $24.71 per hour and it only rises from there. According to the union, there is more work than ever as welding has become integral to natural gas extraction operations, which are omnipresent in Allegheny County. “We need these guys as much as they need us,” says a union member working the event.
In one sense, offering jobs to people who might not otherwise be able to find employment is a smart move — it may at least guarantee loyalty and commitment, if not enthusiasm. “If you give these guys an opportunity that no one else would give to them they are thankful. It’s like nobody ever trusts us like you trust us,” Duffy says. Offering jobs in exchange for collateral is similarly motivating — each weapon turned in may be seen as a man’s promise to himself, a down payment in kind.
The table where the sheriff’s office is placing all the collected weapons fills up quickly with a diverse group of guns. Each time a new person turns in a weapon, the officers working the table remove bullets from the chamber and tag the weapon with a plastic zip tie. The weapons will be destroyed after it’s confirmed that they aren’t stolen. They are not going to be used to solve crimes, “You’ve been watching too much CSI,” one sheriff says. Periodically, reporters and passersby poke their heads inside the barely heated trailer to ogle the table. “I’ve never seen a gun up close before,” says one woman who looks inside.
The event seems to attract young men exclusively, the demographic that Vernick said is most impacted by gun violence. Most of the men don’t want to speak with reporters, but the few who do say they are looking to improve their lives.
The men told me they had never been offered such an opportunity before. The gun exchange program was almost as well publicized as high profile crime, likely broadening its reach.
Devin Luck, 25, of Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, learned about the program from the news and said joining the boilermakers was something he could do to change his lifestyle. “Guns are cheap, classes are expensive,” he says.
Luck, a tall African-American man with dreadlocks, is a father of two young children, and showed up to the event with his cousin Brian Williams, also 25. Williams was disappointed he couldn’t participate in the event because he didn’t own a weapon. “Let’s go to Dick’s lemme see if I can buy one,” he says.
The exchange program would have been perfect for Williams because he didn’t have a GED, and couldn’t ordinarily join the union without one. When Luck said he had two weapons, I asked him why he wouldn’t give one to his cousin to exchange. “I only got one more gun and that’s for protection,” Luck says.
“I got held up at gunpoint before I ever got my hands on a gun,” adds Luck, who remembered facing a gun at ages 15, 17, and 19.
[blocktext align=”right”]“Crime is booming. If it happens often enough you don’t care anymore.”[/blocktext]“Crime is booming,” he says. “If it happens often enough you don’t care anymore. It’s like fight or flight — do something.” Luck says eventually he fought back because he didn’t want to lose his stuff, and true to his name, he survived.
Another man who traded in a weapon, learned about the event from family. “My mom told me about this, I decided to look it up because I didn’t believe it,” says Trevor Straus, a 19-year-old white male from Pittsburgh’s Penn Hills neighborhood. “I didn’t think the boiler’s union would give away six months of school just for a gun — it seemed too good to be true.”
The weapon Straus turned in was old and inoperable. “I never even shot that gun, you know what I mean, it was just sitting there collecting dust,” he says.
Straus and Luck both illustrate flaws in traditional gun buyback programs: Straus’ gun didn’t work and Luck has another working weapon at home.
“There is no compelling evidence that the buyback programs that have been studied are effective at reducing rates of street crimes and there are at least three reasons why that’s the case,” Vernick said. For one, the most at risk populations — young men — don’t participate. Second, the weapons that are collected are often not the most lethal automatic types, and third — the biggest problem of all — “even in the most ’successful’ buyback programs you don’t get too many guns. The biggest buyback programs typically get 1,000 guns,” Vernick said.
Assuming each person is paid $100 per weapon, “That’s $100,000, so given the absence of effectiveness that’s $100,000 that might be spent on other things that would be more effective,” Vernick said, adding, “Even if you do get 1,000 guns that’s probably not a substantial share of the guns in circulation on the street.”
In one afternoon the Braddock program collected about 30 weapons of all types. Some were the most dangerous automatic kind, some were sawed-off shotguns. However, with such a small sample and with a program in its initial phases, Vernick was unwilling to make any statements regarding the efficacy of the program.
“It sounds like a wonderful program, why require that you turn in a gun to participate?” he asked.
Still, Vernick said buyback programs could have a few positive impacts, including galvanizing community members against violence — “as long as it’s the first thing the community does, not the last.” He said buybacks may remain popular because, “Relative to the other things communities can do, buybacks are easy. You don’t have to fight for the right to do it or enact new laws.”
While gun buybacks may not be effective against crime, Vernick and Horowitz, who became an anti-gun advocate after a friend shot herself to death, said studies have shown that removing guns from homes can reduce rates of gun-related suicide and accidental deaths. “In the U.S. every year there are 33,000 deaths by gunfire, but those deaths are in many different categories,” Vernick said. “More than half are suicide, next homicide, then accidental deaths, so there is no single approach that is going to address all the various reasons for all those types of incidents.”
Hunting is a popular pastime in Western Pennsylvania and the deputies managing the gun exchange might be described as gun aficionados. One of the responsibilities of the sheriff’s office is licensing thousands of county gun owners. As the sun begins to set, the sheriffs examine their sizeable stockpile. “Look at this pearl-handled one, this must have once been someone’s pride and joy,” says deputy Mark Lewis, fingering at one of the many weapons on the table before him. “This is the Turkish version of a Swiss gun,” he adds, picking up another weapon.
The sheriff’s office had never managed a gun exchange event and though it was cold, deputies seemed as pleased to be helping out as they were unsure that taking guns was actually helpful.
Lewis, the most outspoken of the deputies on duty, says he realizes that hardened criminals would not likely show up to turn in weapons and that new weapons would always be created. “That’s what industry’s for — they’ll make more,” he says, adding, “I’m a capitalist.”
Lewis spoke of the event as an effort to get guns out of the wrong hands, but as a proponent of legal gun ownership, he recognizes the rights of legal gun owners: “this is what built our country, guys using guns.”
The idea of guns being in the “wrong hands” is particularly useful in states with heavy support for unrestricted gun toting. Places where people strongly believe that guns don’t kill people, people kill people.
“I think everyone here respects the second amendment,” says Allegheny County Sheriff William Mullen. “This is an effort to remove weapons from the community to try and reduce murders and weapons for shootings.”
In the United States, gun ownership is written into the Constitution as a protection against tyranny. Placing restrictions upon weapons ownership would limit the rights of individuals to stand up against unjust rulers, according to the second amendment.
Gun rights advocates like Rick Ector, 47, of Detroit, criticize traditional buyback events, claiming they seek to limit legal gun ownership. Ector, who is a National Rifle Association Member and a libertarian, has protested such events, setting up shop outside and encouraging people to sell their weapons to him rather than to the police. Ector said that often, sellers who are in dire financial straights don’t get enough money for their weapons and that historically significant weapons may be destroyed as a result of buyback events. “I have witnessed guns that have been turned in at these gun buybacks be souvenirs that have been brought back from the Korean War and the Vietnam War,” Ector said, adding that the events don’t reduce violence. “The gun buybacks only serve one purpose,” he said : “People in elected positions can show that they do something, it’s just a feel good moment.”
Before becoming a gun-rights advocate, Ector was a private citizen who bought a home in Detroit. He purchased a gun to defend his home, but didn’t think much about his weapon until the day he was held up at gunpoint in his own driveway.
“I was coming home early evening and I parked my car in my detached garage and when I got out of my car they were standing right there,” Ector said, describing his two assailants.
“I had a deep serious concern that I was about to get shot.
“It’s almost like time just slows down but your mind is running at one million miles per minute. While I am being robbed, with a gun in my face, in my own driveway, literally, while I was staring down with a gun in my face, I am thinking ‘man why didn’t you get your concealed carry license?’
“I was so lucky,” Ector said. “That was my second birthday, when I got robbed at gunpoint. I was reborn as a gun owner and a gun advocate.”
Ector, who is black, teaches weapons self-defense classes with special sessions designed for women and for black men. “It might make some communities less safe if there are less guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens,” said Ector, who, like Luck, said he was just going about his business when he was held up. “Every time some law-abiding citizens protect themselves, a criminal will think twice,” he said.
According to the Boilermakers Union, 83 people have turned in weapons to Guns For Opportunities and around 70 percent of participants have taken the second step of obtaining a welding education. Duffy said he had to help four people get into substance abuse rehabilitation programs, but those four are doing well.
One of the biggest challenges has been simply getting people to believe that what the union is offering is for real. “A lot of people are still leery when they see the police presence, they’re afraid they’re going to get arrested, then a few hours later the call me saying ‘oh I should have done it,’” Duffy said. Some people are still too scared to take a chance.
[blocktext align=”right”]“All you need is one leader in each neighborhood, and then the rest will fall in place.”[/blocktext]A gun exchange offering an opportunity to those who participate cannot measure its success purely upon the number of weapons it collects. Participants have to complete six months of training and then be able to hold down a physically challenging job. Still, changing just one person’s life may have a ripple effect. “All you need is one leader in each neighborhood, and then the rest will fall in place,” Duffy said. “Believe me, it works. I wish more trades would try this out.”
Though getting guns off the street is a clear goal, the program also echoes the notion of personal responsibility evoked by the popular NRA mantra, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Perhaps, if you change a person’s life, he may be less likely to shoot.
All photographs by Elizabeth Daley.
Elizabeth Daley is a writer from New York City, currently living in Pittsburgh. Her articles have appeared in USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor and numerous publications through her work with Reuters. Follow her @FakePretty on Twitter.
Order our forthcoming Pittsburgh Anthology
Belt is a reader-supported publication. Become a member now — we offer great perks! https://beltmag.com/product/belt-membership/