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Toy gun buy-back program unlikely

  • Santa Rosa Police Lt. Lance Badger holds an actual AK-47, left, next to a replica airsoft model carried by Andy Lopez, 13, when he was killed on Oct. 22 (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

A proposal under review by Sonoma County officials to initiate a toy gun buy-back program appeared to be scuttled this week at a meeting of Sonoma County's Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force.

Such buy-back programs provide money, gift cards or other toys in exchange for families turning in toy guns, toy knives and even video games.

But evidence of the lasting value of such efforts is in short supply, county officials said.

“When we looked for research into the effectiveness of the programs, there was little or none,” said Terese Voge, a health program manager with the county's Department of Health Services.

Voge helped research the issue and craft a recommendation that will be brought to the Board of Supervisors later this year.

Several community members present at the task force meeting objected to the county even considering the idea in the wake of 13-year-old Andy Lopez's fatal shooting by a sheriff's deputy last year.

Lopez was carrying an airsoft BB gun while walking down Moorland Avenue Oct. 22 when Deputy Erick Gelhaus shot and killed him. Gelhaus later told police he believed the BB gun — made to look like an AK-47 assault rifle — was a real gun. Gelhaus, who yelled at Lopez to drop the weapon, told investigators he felt threatened by the way Lopez raised the gun as he turned.

But a buy-back program to reclaim toy guns like the one Lopez was carrying wouldn't address the fundamental issues that some residents said were raised by Lopez's shooting, including police use-of-force and distrust by residents of law enforcement agencies.

“What I want to know is, who brought this topic up originally? It's such a diversion, such an insult,” said Santa Rosa resident Gail Simons.

The topic is one of 11 possible initiatives that the county Board of Supervisors in December asked its staff to research when it crafted its response to Lopez's death.

County staff said there was little to no evidence that toy gun exchanges reduced the number of toy guns on the street, though the programs were sometimes valuable in increasing public awareness or building relationships within the community.

Staff members recommended the county forego setting up its own program but support any groups that come forward wishing to pursue their own efforts.

County officials also recommended continued support for a bill in the state Legislature that would require imitation firearms sold in California to have bright coloring, so that they aren't mistaken for real guns. The bill, coauthored by Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, has cleared the Senate and is now in the Assembly's public safety committee.

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