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More than 2,500 guns turned in during Hillsborough swap

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 11:28 AM
TAMPA -

In a scene reminiscent of the 1973 oil embargo, dozens of motorists waited more than an hour each today in a long line at a former service station on North Nebraska Avenue.

Not for gasoline, but to turn in weapons as part of a Hillsborough County sheriff's gun swap program offering cash and tickets to sporting events in exchange for unwanted weapons.

So many people turned out to hand over weapons during Operation Gun Swap that deputies ran out of cash. In addition to more than 2,500 rifles and hand guns, two people turned in rocket launchers.

"We never imagined this would be as overwhelmingly successful as it was," said Sheriff's Cpt. Chad Chronister, who ran program.

"I came down all the way from Port Richey," said Deborah Norris, 48, who turned in a .380 pistol at the abandoned Sunoco station, which served as a defacto arms bazaar. "My daddy went crazy with this gun and my husband had to take it away."

Norris said the weapon "was unsafe to have in the house."

In return, she got two tickets to any Tampa Bay Rays home game and a voucher for $75.

Deputies at the service station – one of five locations set up throughout the county for people to turn in unwanted weapons – ran out of money shortly after 10 a.m. Norris and scores of others may go to the same five locations next week – between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday -- to pick up their money.

Chronister said the locations were stocked with a total of $55,000. He said the cash came from private donations and forfeitures from drug busts and other illicit activities. The Rays and Lightning, he said, each donated $35,000 worth of tickets and promised to donate as many more as needed when those ran out.

"There is no taxpayer money involved," Chronister said.

The sheriff's office said 2,541 weapons were turned in - including the rocket launchers, which were dropped off in Dover and Progress Village. And those were not the most unusual weapons. Sheriff's spokewoman Samara Sodos said someone turned in a flute fashioned into a gun. The fully operational single-shot bolt action weapon fires a 22-caliber bullet.

While many of the swapped guns were inoperable, many were in working condition. One person even turned in a Winchester rifle worth about $1,000, Chronister said.

Regardless of condition or value, all the weapons – many containing fully operable sights – will be melted down.

At least 10 of the weapons that were turned in turned out to be stolen. They will be returned to their owners, officials said.

As people waited in the long lines, Chris Anderson held out a white sign expressing his interest in buying guns.

"I am a hobbyist," said Anderson, 43, who owns an auto repair business in St. Petersburg. "I have a concealed weapons permit and I am looking for something small, like a .40 caliber or a small .380."

Anderson said he was willing to pay as much as $500 for something that struck his fancy.

"They can buy them as long as they stay on the sidewalk and don't solicit in the street," said sheriff's Lt. Rodney Harkins.

Several deputies participated in the Operation Gun Swap. Some gathered weapons from cars; others handed out sports tickets and money while it lasted, and then vouchers. Two deputies logged the weapons' serial numbers into computers.

"We did this in 2007 and found two guns that were stolen and returned them to the owners," said Chronister, who said deputies also looked to if any of the guns were used in crimes.

Chronister said he was not surprised by the long lines created by the buy-back, which took place about three weeks after Hillsborough County commissioners rejected a call for a similar program.

He said since 20 children were massacred at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in December, "we have been getting phone calls and emails from people who want to turn in their guns."

The goal, he said, was to take guns from those who didn't want them without having deputies spend hours on paperwork for individual calls to pick them up.

Today's haul was double the number of weapons collected in any other single-day buy-back event anywhere in the United States, Chronister said.

Alan Thralls, 64, could have been the Operation Gun Swap poster boy.

"I turned in two pistols and two rifles because I didn't want them around my house," said Thralls, an auto mechanic from Tampa. "About 15 years ago, someone broke into my house and stole some guns from me, and I didn't want that to happen again."

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