After three days of unqualified success, a guns-for-cash exchange program run by D.C. police in Northeast Washington ran out of money yesterday, and dozens of residents who had brought illegal guns were turned away.
D.C. officer Andre Wright, who created the no-questions-asked, five-day program, blamed a bureaucratic snag. The nearly $50,000 program, jointly funded by the District police and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, paid residents $100 for each operable gun, but not all the money from HUD was available in time, Wright said.
"I spend my life chasing down people with guns, putting my life on the line every day," said Wright, chief investigator for the gun unit in the 6th District. "I am married with two beautiful children. And today we are having to turn people back onto the streets with live guns in their hands."
Ken Darnall, an official in HUD's office of the inspector general, said last night that his agency initially offered only $5,000 for the program. But because of its success, the agency increased the figure to $30,000 by Tuesday. Because of the last-minute increase, he said, his agency couldn't transfer the money in time.
"It was a situation where we didn't want to stop, pull the rug from underneath the program because the guns were still coming in," Darnall said.
Wright said he expected the money to flow again today, the program's final day. The cash-for-guns exchange is set to resume at 2 p.m. and continue until the money runs out.
Until yesterday, Wright saw reason to rejoice, although officers had to turn away about 10 people Wednesday night when they ran out of money about 90 minutes before they were to close for the night. The program has netted about 350 handguns, rifles and shotguns, including a Thompson machine gun, AK-47s and Uzi-style guns.
So many people handed over their guns on Monday, the program's first day, that Wright decided to stretch the money available by ending payments for shotguns and rifles. Some people continued to surrender those weapons, he said, but they weren't paid for them.
The program, billed as a gun amnesty, sought to reduce the availability of guns, particularly in public housing in the 6th Police District, which includes parts of Northeast and Southeast, Wright said. He said officers handed out about 1,100 fliers about the exchange at public housing units, but opened the program to everyone.
He said that the department committed $17,500 to the program. After the police money and some of the HUD contribution was spent, however, the federal agency was unable to transfer the rest of its money into the proper account by yesterday, Wright said.
Wright said he hopes the people return today to surrender their guns. He knows not all will.
"It takes a lot for people to bring in guns from their homes and trust us," Wright said. "For the longest time, it was us versus them. They had to trust that we would not arrest them, and pay them $100. And now? What do they think?"
At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the program was up and running. Gun owners stood 40-deep in line outside the police station on Benning Road NE. Hip-hop music blasted from a radio station's recreational vehicle parked outside.
One woman in line said she was unnerved by her 4-year-old son's incessant talk about her .32-caliber gun. So she was giving it up.
"Someone gave it to me for protection," said the woman, 27, who identified herself only as Tanya. "But my son kept telling everyone I got a gun."
Owning a handgun is illegal in the District, unless it was acquired before 1976. District police last sponsored a gun amnesty program in 1994, Wright said.
Besides lowering the gun supply, this week's program may reap other benefits.
Wright said the guns will undergo ballistic tests to see if they were used in crimes. He said one of the guns may have been involved in the slaying of Helen Foster-El, a 55-year-old grandmother who was fatally shot while trying to protect children from a gunfight near her Southeast Washington apartment building.
Under the amnesty program, police agreed not to prosecute anyone for turning in an illegal gun, but the weapons can "still help close cases," Wright said.
Most of the gun owners in line Wednesday night were tight-lipped. But those who would speak to a reporter had a story to tell.
Walter McDowney, 37, of Laurel, was holding a Russian .32-caliber gun in a black holster that he said he had gotten from a war-torn building in Beirut in the early 1980s, when he was a Marine. The weapon has sentimental value, he said, but his son has turned 16, and he's concerned about it being around.
"I just don't want him to get a hold of it, he said. "My son is more important."
One man said he found .22- and .38-caliber pistols in his 18-year-old stepson's room while he was preparing to paint the house.
"Him and me have had a lot of problems," he said. "I don't know if it was for me. I wasn't taking any chance."
Wright said he hopes to offer another guns-for-money exchange around Christmas -- but next time, he hopes to partner with private industry.
Staff photographer Lois Raimondo contributed to this report.