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Farmington gun buyback planned before COVID

Police chief hopes it is well-received by community
Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe discusses crime and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's public health order on guns and drugs during a Sept. 12 interview at the Farmington Police Department. (Crystal Shelton/Special to the Tri-City Record)

A gun buyback program through New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence is coming to Farmington Dec. 9, with the purpose of providing Four Corners residents a safe alternative to discarding unwanted guns.

The nonprofit organization partnered with the Farmington Police Department to host the event from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the parking lot on the corner of Municipal Drive and Navajo Street across from the Farmington Municipal Courthouse.

Police Chief Steve Hebbe said he’s not sure there have been gun buybacks here in the past, but it is “completely voluntary.”

“I don't know if we've done anything like this in San Juan County before, but it has been done around the state,” he said.

Gun buyback programs have been increasing across the state since Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared gun violence a public health crisis. The New Mexico State Police have organized them in Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Española.

“These are opportunities for our communities to come together and make a real impact on gun safety,” New Mexico State Police Chief Troy Weisler said. “We aim to reduce the risks associated with firearms by providing a safe, anonymous way to surrender unwanted weapons.”

The Farmington buyback, although having the same goals as Weisler mentioned, was not planned as part of the governor’s initiative. Hebbe said this has been in the works since before COVID.

“It wasn't something that I'd ever done in my career up in Anchorage, and obviously, we hadn't done it in Farmington, so I was a little unfamiliar with it,” Hebbe said. “We had some discussions about what it looked like and what our goals were. Then unfortunately, COVID hit, and it actually kind of seemed like it stopped for them. They weren't doing as many, and I wasn't hearing from them much. So it's just, it's been kind of a circuitous route to get here, but we're here.”

Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe

This will be the 19th gun buyback for New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence. The first was in 2016 in Santa Fe. Since that time, the organization has “taken in 2,000 firearms,” and of those 40% were “semi-automatic and AR-15-style weapons,” according to Miranda Viscoli, co-president of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence.

The guns are dismantled on-site and then taken to Robert F. Kennedy High School in Albuquerque’s South Valley, where they are turned into gardening tools, she said.

New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence pays for the event and provides the gift cars, which will be given to people surrendering their guns. The role of the police department will be a support role, according to Viscoli.

“Our role really is just to check the weapons make sure that they're not loaded, and I think sometimes inadvertently, that still does happen, because sometimes the people turning in guns aren't really familiar with guns,” Hebbe said.

Some of the guns collected at a June New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence buyback event in Santa Fe.

“We'll have people there who can make sure that guns are safe, before we turn them over to this group, and then we'll check the serial numbers to make sure they're not reported stolen,” he said. “And if they are reported stolen, well, then we'll take the necessary police action to reunite the gun with its rightful owner and see where we are as far as making a criminal case.”

Police, however, will not be making contact with people turning in the guns. It is a completely volunteer process and no information is retained on the person turning in the firearm, according to New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence.

“I don't know exactly how this will work. We’re learning too, but I don't think we're gonna even have much contact with the citizens as far as the police go,” Hebbe said. “We're going to receive the gun from them. We're going to check it to make sure it's safe and check it to make sure it's not stolen and turn it back over to them. They'll handle the giving out the gift cards and the contact with the citizens.”

Despite this Hebbe does wonder how an event like this will be received in Farmington, but he looks at with similarity to the Drug Take Back program through the DEA. “This is just a way of partnering with a group that hey, if you want to get rid of your gun, great, bring it in, and these folks will take care of it,” he said.

This is an example of the types of garden tools made at Robert F. Kennedy Charter School by students who use dismantled guns to make garden tools. The guns are dismantled and provided from New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence buyback events.

“I hope people see it as look, this is just a different option, and we're partnering with a group to help you know that this is an option. And if you don't want to do it, that's OK with me too,” Hebbe said. “I know that this the topic has gotten political, and I wish significantly that it had not.”

Hebbe added this is the police “offering people” an opportunity to get rid of some guns, when they might not know how to do so. “If you don't know what to do with some guns, after your spouse passed away, or somebody's struggling, and you want to get rid of them, hey, here’s a way you could do it.”

Hebbe said he also is “fine” with people who do not want to trade in their guns. “I hope the community sees it that way is as this is the police department doing everything we can to provide you with options to help you.”

There have been cases in the area, where guns potentially should have been removed from a home because a family member was suffering from mental illness and then used the gun on themselves or others. But with an event like this, it is not the police telling people to surrender their guns, Hebbe said.

“You know, maybe your husband was a hunter. Or maybe, you know, once upon a time you had guns but now somebody in your family is struggling with mental health and you just want to get rid of the gun but you don't really know how, oh, you know, OK, we'll give you a way of doing it,” Hebbe said.

“It's completely no pressure, of course, you know, there's nothing from the government saying, ‘Oh, you need to turn in your guns,’” Hebbe said. “This is just if you want to do it and you've run out of options, you don't really know where to turn – here's a way you can go.”

Those turning in guns will receive a gift card valued at between $100 and $250 depending on the type of gun, and according to Viscoli. Gift cards will be from Chevron Gas, Target, Walmart, Amazon, and Smiths.

New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence also will be handing out gun locks to gun owners free of charge during the event.