Nine police departments in southern Maine will hold “gun give back” events next month during which residents can turn in unwanted firearms that will be used to make gardening tools.

Modeled after prescription drug disposal events that have become increasingly popular in Maine, the gun give back program will allow residents to anonymously hand over guns to police for safe disposal. The firearms will then be donated to an organization that uses materials from the guns to create gardening tools that will be distributed to Portland-area schools with gardens.

The Guns to Garden Tools program will be held on May 11 at police departments in Portland, South Portland, Gorham, Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth, Wells, Falmouth, Yarmouth and Brunswick.

“Many households in Maine have old, unwanted guns and ammunition tucked away, ignored and forgotten,” Portland interim Chief Vern Malloch said in a statement. “They are in dresser drawers, shoe boxes, basements and attics. Part of the reason we hang onto them is because folks simply don’t know what to do with them. These unwanted guns offer a unique challenge when it comes to disposal. There really is no safe way to throw away a gun.”

Many police departments across the state already accept unwanted firearms and ammunition for disposal. But the Maine Gun Safety Coalition – an organization active on both safety education and firearm-related policy issues – helped organize the event to coincide with Mother’s Day on May 12 and “spring cleaning” season.

“This is completely voluntary and there are no questions asked,” said Geoff Bickford, executive director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition. “We hope people take advantage of the program. It is really in keeping with our tradition … to support measures around firearms that help to keep our homes safe.”

Firearms that are turned over to police during the May 11 event will be disabled and given to RAWtools, a Colorado-based organization that uses the materials from guns to make handheld garden tools.

Gun give-back or buy-back programs are increasingly common across the U.S., particularly at larger cities where gun violence is a problem. Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Atlanta all have offered gun buy-back programs in recent years.

Several towns in Maine have held gun give-back programs as well. In 2013, for instance, the towns of Cumberland, Falmouth and Yarmouth, as well as state police in Gray, collected 68 guns and a large amount of ammunition during a one-day donation program in which usable firearms were later sold to raise money for Special Olympics programs.

Last year, the town of Yarmouth collected about a half-dozen guns and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition during a one-day give-back event.

Yarmouth Town Councilor Timothy Shannon believes such events also can help change the conversation around guns at a time when any talk of “gun control” can elicit strong emotions and political pushback from those concerned about preserving gun owners’ rights.

While Shannon describes himself as a strong advocate for “reasonable regulation” of firearms, he said give-back programs are not about taking guns away from anyone.

“It started a conversation that avoids that clash because instead of talking about rights, we started talking about wants: Do I want that gun or do I need that gun?” Shannon said.

Maine has among the lowest gun-related homicide rates in the country despite the large number of firearms in households, largely because of the state’s long-held hunting tradition. But Mainers are more likely to commit suicide with a firearm than residents in most other states, according to federal data.

Police will run a firearm’s serial numbers – if available – through databases to determine if it was reported stolen or used in a crime. However, Bickford stressed that the give-back program is anonymous and anyone turning in a gun will not be obligated to fill out any paperwork or answer questions about the firearm.

Falmouth Police Chief John Kilbride said his department typically receives a handful of guns – and a larger amount of ammunition – from owners each year. He views the give-back program as an extension of that ongoing service for individuals.

Officers familiar with firearms also will be on the lookout for potentially valuable antique firearms to alert owners about other options before they donate them.

“A Civil War-era musket that comes through the door, we’re not going to take and shred it,” Kilbride said. “We are going to have that conversation with them.”

But David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, took issue with the way the give-back program was originally proposed because the garden tools would be auctioned off in Maine to benefit RAWtools and the Maine Gun Safety Coalition’s program to distribute free trigger locks.

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the Maine Gun Safety Coalition are often on the opposite sides of gun control policy debates. Trahan objected to municipal agencies’ involvement in a program that would help funnel money into what he sees as a “political organization.”

But even with the garden tools now being donated to Portland-area schools, Trahan questioned whether the give-back program is legal because police departments are destroying items of value. Instead, Trahan suggested Maine should change its policies to allow confiscated firearms to be sold as state surplus, with all proceeds benefiting domestic violence prevention programs.


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