The United States is awash with guns. In 2008, as Barack Obama took the presidential oath, firearms outnumbered people for the first time – now the ratio stands at an estimated 357 to 317 million. Every year, over 32,000 Americans die by the gun, making the US by far the most violent developed country. Gun deaths have become so routine that an under-26 is now more likely to be killed by a bullet than in a car crash. And while mass shootings grab the headlines, it’s everyday killings that silently pile up the bodycount. In San Diego, churches, the police and skaters have come together to tackle the problem: drop a gun, no questions asked, and get a gift card or longboard in return.
It’s a chilly December morning in Southeastern 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.
Police keep notes on guns but ask no questions. Photo: Larry Johnson
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 journalist (pretty blonde, tight jeans) 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, he speaks on behalf of the United African-American Ministerial Action Council.
The San Diego Gun Buyback started with a tragic killing, recalls Brown, and even as he recalls the bloody event, his baritone 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. So 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. Skateboards are light, they’re easy to carry, you can take them on the bus or the trolley. 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. 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 an unarmed, mentally-ill man by one of her officers, she’s not showing it today.
Shelley Zimmermann thinks the Gun Buyback is a great example of community policing. Photo: Larry Johnson
“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 skater 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.”
I’d love to talk more to Shelley, to find out what it was like when she infiltrated drug cartels and prostitution rings in her nine years as undercover agent. But there’s no time, the TV journalist is already hovering and I move on.
Stacking box-fresh longboards onto a display is Dennis Martinez, a fifty-something tough guy who, with his imperial beard, looks like Napoleon III in streetwear. Once a champion skater, he turned addict and troublemaker, then kicked the habit. A pastor now, he ministers to the imprisoned, runs a faith-based rehab and orchestrates “Off the Streets”, a youth diversion programme designed to discourage kids from pursuing a delinquent life.
Dennis is hard to pin down; for days, I’ve hunted and harried him without success, always a step behind. His phone is ringing all the time – one minute he dashes off to watch his 13-year-old daughter’s school play, the next he’s troubleshooting at his sober house (a client doesn’t want to take his drugs test), then he’s rushing to hear the deathbed confession of a man succumbing to his gunshot wounds.
From left to right: Prison pastor Dennis Martinez, Harvey Hawks and Neil Carver. Photo: Ariana Drehsler
“I’m not against the Second Amendment Right to bear arms”, says Martinez, “especially with what happened in San Bernardino. But we want to get unsecured, unwanted firearms off the streets so they don’t fall into the wrong hands. Gangsters target the homes of old people for burglaries, they follow unsuspecting victims home from shooting ranges, and that’s how a lot of guns that are later used in crimes get into circulation. An event like this really helps to make the community safer.”
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 contented 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, in the back.
“Marcella was my only daughter”, said Ms Ortiz 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.”
Liza Ortiz lost her daughter Marcella to a shooting. Photo: Ariana Drehsler
The judge convicted Sanchez of first degree murder, sentencing him to 85 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.
While we speak, Martinez’ fellow pastor Larry Johnson – tall, bespectacled, white beard, of austere bearing – is tirelessly filming. Now he’s trained his lens onto two men exchanging jokes: the taller one in the ponytail and baseball cap is Neil Carver, the other – short, innocuous-looking – is 70s skating legend 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 had a motorbike accident – Hawks may well have misinterpreted their hurry for aggression. He pulled his weapon, which was on the backseat, and fired it whilst 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, served 26 years in prison (nine years in excess of his sentence), and reformed. Now Hawks works with Johnson and Martinez, and puts his freedom to good use by fighting gun crime.
“Every day, I regret what happened”, explains Hawks, “I always think of the wonderful woman whose life I took. Its 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.”
Hawks signs a longboard. Photo” Ariana Drehsler
Unlike Martinez, Hawks thinks 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 or so powerful, it would have been unthinkable back then.”
Neil Carver – surfer dude, 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, Carver 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, Carver took part in a gun buyback in San Pedro. After that, Neil contacted Michael Brooke, who runs Longboarding for Peace, an international movement of skater activists fighting for peace and justice as far afield as Palestine. It was Brooke who got Neil in touch with the Hawks and Martinez – now they all work together, hoping to take the concept to other troubled spots in California, and to encourage people all over the US to follow suit.
Photo: Larry Johnson
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 turns out 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 and a white, immaculately-kept 1970’s Cadillac. Aged 91, she too thinks the time has come to dispose of her gun. Abraham, 21, came in a beat-up sports car with his mate, 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 – a sobering thought. Listening to people, it seems guns are everywhere: one man has found his in a car park, another in 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. 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. A handsome loot, but still a drop in the ocean: in 2012, one million prospective gun-buyers applied for criminal background in California alone – and every time there’s a mass shooting, there’s a new rush for firearms.
242 firearms destined for the smelter. Photo: Larry Johnson
As we wrap up, I ask Reverend Brown for his verdict. He says he’s happy, but when he thinks of the bigger picture, doesn’t he lose faith at what seems a losing struggle?
“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.”