Within hours of launching the first gun-buyback program in more than two decades, Seattle police took in so many guns they had to shut down the site Saturday and turn away scores of people after running out of gift cards to hand out.
People on foot and in vehicles were corralled into a parking lot underneath Interstate 5 between Cherry and James streets, where they traded unwanted weapons for gift cards of $100 for handguns, shotguns and rifles, and $200 for assault weapons.
“We prepared the best we could, having no idea on the great turnout,” said Seattle Police Chief John Diaz.
By 11 a.m. Seattle police had collected 160 weapons, including three 12-gauge repeater shotguns, also known as “Street Sweepers,” and an old rocket-launcher tube.
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The total number of weapons collected was still to be tallied, and police said they won’t have a total number until Monday.
Not all of the guns brought to the buyback were handed over to police, however.
Officers stood by as makeshift gun shows sprang up on the sidewalks, just steps away from the buyback tents, as gun enthusiasts and collectors waved wads of cash for the guns being held by those standing in line.
“I’d prefer they wouldn’t sell them,” Diaz said of the people in line making deals with the gun buyers.
Some people saw the event as a way to make some money while others came in the spirit of a gun-buyback program, he said.
Albert Coburn, of Seattle, was standing in line with two rifles from his father, weapons that he had no use for. “Instead of selling them, I’d like to see them get out of circulation.”
Some in the long lines lost patience and gave in to the people who surrounded the parking lot with signs saying “Cash for guns.”
One man jumped out of his vehicle as he was waiting in bumper-to-bumper traffic at the buyback and asked how much the gun enthusiasts and collectors were willing to pay for his three guns. He pocketed $500.
Diaz acknowledged the police were ill-prepared for the crowds and that some people were frustrated by the snarled traffic and two-hour waits. Although the next buyback hasn’t been scheduled, he said he would look for ways to be more efficient.
The gun buyback, which started at 9 a.m., was supposed to run until 3 p.m., but police began turning people away just before noon after giving out $80,000 in gift cards. Once they ran out of cards, they provided IOUs.
Dean Sabol, of Shoreline, who was turning in his grandfather’s shotgun and rifle, said the police were understaffed and slow, creating a free-for-all of buying and selling literally just a few feet away.
“It’s worse than a gun show,” Sabol said as he stood in line.
Police wandered the streets advising people to turn in their guns so the guns could be destroyed instead of selling them to gun enthusiasts and collectors. It’s legal for private individuals to buy and sell guns.
“Why not offer them cash versus a gift card?” asked Schuyler Taylor, of Seattle, who used to work at a gun retailer and had hopes of buying a gun. “I’m still taking the guns off the streets; they’re just going in my safe.”
Mayor Mike McGinn said at a news conference the private transactions are a loophole that needs to be closed. “There’s no background check, and some (guns) could be exchanged on the streets that shouldn’t be in circulation.”
On the national front, congressional leaders are contemplating legislation that would regulate the private sale of guns.
Despite guns being sold for cash, McGinn said he saw the buyback program as part of an overall solution to gun violence.
“A lot of gun deaths are due to accidents or guns stolen from houses, so it does make a difference,” he added.
Theresa Swan, of Edmonds, saw the gun buyback program as a win-win for her. After her father died more than a year ago, she discovered he had a pistol and a rifle.
“They’re old and rusty, and I didn’t know how to dispose of them,” said Swan.
Seattle police partnered with King County, local businesses, the Seattle Police Foundation and community groups to hold the buyback program.
The department will check if any of the buyback guns were stolen and, if so, try to return them to the rightful owners. Otherwise, all will be melted down.
“I’m sure there were probably a couple of sales” on the nearby streets, said Seattle police spokesman Mark Jamieson. “But I would say the vast majority of people came to this event … because they wanted to make sure the guns were disposed of properly and receive a gift card. That was accomplished.”
In 1992, Seattle police collected more than 1,200 guns in a four-day buyback program and twice ran out of money to give to gun owners.
Seattle Times staff writer Sandi Doughton contributed to this report.