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Observations from Yesterday’s Gun Buyback and a Conversation with a Street Vendor of Bikes

A vendor sells salvaged bikes along Manchester Avenue. Under the ordinance proposed by councilmember Joe Buscaino, this kind of activity would be criminalized. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

THIS PAST FINE AND SUNNY Saturday, I headed to South L.A. to see how the Anonymous Gun Buyback was going. In an effort to get firearms off the streets, the city had set up six sites around town where people could drop off their weapons -- no questions asked -- in return for gift cards. You could get up to $100 for handguns, shotguns, and rifles, and up to $200 for assault weapons.

Shooed away from the site manned by the LAPD's 77th Division, I headed to the Watts site, where officers turned out to be very friendly and more open to chatting with me (once they ascertained I was not packing a weapon).

The day started off well, said the Lieutenant from the Southeast Area. People had been lined up down the street just before they opened. But things had slowed down considerably after that, he said, guessing that they had had about 100 people come through over the course of the day.

I asked about the value of doing a buyback, given that the guns turned in are not ones that were likely to be used in crimes. The people I saw turning in weapons leaned more towards the elderly end of the spectrum than that of the young criminal upstart, and they were handing over enormous rifles, not the assault weapons favored by some gangs.

"There is a law enforcement value," said the Lieutenant. Beyond giving the police an opportunity to be a visible and positive presence in the community, taking the self-defense-type weapons out of circulation meant that grandchildren couldn't accidentally shoot themselves and that the weapons couldn't be stolen and used to commit crimes.

As far as gang members turning in weapons, the Lieutenant acknowledged that "the gangs need weapons to do their business" and that they could make a lot more money selling their assault weapons than trading them in for grocery cards. Meaning that it was highly improbable that any gang members would be stopping by that day to say hello and drop off their excess stock of Uzis.

I was thus not surprised to hear that, of the potentially millions of guns floating around L.A., the estimated number of "hot" weapons the Lieutenant got in that day totaled exactly one.

As such, it is unlikely that the handful of guns collected at the buybacks have contributed to the recent reduction in gun violence, contrary to Chief Beck's claims. It doesn't necessarily mean that the program is a failure. After all, someone turned in an anti-tank rocket-launcher last year. That's a win, right? If the city genuinely wants to reduce the influx of weapons, however, it would be better advised to focus on addressing the activities in which guns play an integral role.


ON MY RIDE HOME from Watts, I decided to stop along Manchester Ave. and check out César's extensive bike and tool collection. I have always wondered about the stories behind the folks that randomly set up the equivalent of a yard sale in a yard that is not their own. They proliferate on the weekends -- there was another guy set up across the street from César selling many of the same things -- and a number of them offer bikes.

Business was slow and César -- a very amiable fellow in his early 20s -- was feeling talkative.

He got most of his bikes from the yunqui, he said, meaning the junkyard. People often tried to sell him what he assumed were stolen bikes, including kids so eager to get rid of a hot fixie that they might ask for as little as $20 for it. He didn't want to trade in stolen goods, he said. And besides, it wasn't worth it. The police leave him alone if he can produce the receipts for the things he bought at the junkyard.

As he was explaining this to me, an older, heavyset gentleman with a somewhat down-trodden aura ambled up pushing an older model Cannondale Adventure 2 bike in questionable condition. He began by engaging César with questions about how much it would cost to fix the brakes and the like. His dismay at the answers made clear that what he really wanted was for César to take the bike off his hands.

The bike was his 22-year old son's. The son had been whisked off to jail recently and apparently wouldn't be back for several years. The father wasn't sure what his son had done -- neither the son nor any of his other seven children talk to him much, he said -- but he knew he didn't want the bike laying around the house anymore. Someone had already stolen a dog out of his yard and he felt no need to invite people to come back and steal something else.

César offered him $40.

Then, he stole a glance at me.

I just told her I don't buy bikes off people, he said to the father in Spanish, nodding in my direction.

And, I don't. But I make an exception in this case.

After the man left, César excitedly packed the bike into his over-stuffed van.

I'll keep this one for myself, he said in Spanish. It's a good one!

He wanted to start riding more and thought it was the perfect bike for the task.

I don't ride much now, he said, but I lift weights.

I eyed up his skinny frame.

Well, they're not very heavy -- only 25 lbs., he said, catching my glance. But I do it every day for an hour. Here I am with my weights, he showed me a photo on his phone. Do you want to see a picture of my parents?

Then it was his turn to give me the eye.

You look like you ride your bike a lot, he said. And, I'm sorry, but I also think you might be "gabacha" (a gringa).

I'm sort of gabacha..., I answered, explaining my heritage and Spanish accent.

And, yes, I ride a lot. This is my car, I gestured down at my bike.

You don't get tired coming down from Echo Park? Riding the bike the whole way?



He pondered this for a minute.

Suddenly, he nodded and clapped his hands, as if he had made a decision.

I'm going to have to fix up that bike.

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