NEWARK -- More than 700 guns — including an AR-15 high-capacity assault weapon similar to the one used in the Newtown, Conn., school shooting — were turned in this weekend in Montclair during a countywide gun buyback program.
The cash-for-guns program was held at five churches in Essex County, including in Montclair and Newark.
In Montclair, 716 weapons were collected at the Union Baptist Church on Midland Avenue, where local and state police officers could be seen on Friday and Saturday.
"We did get some of the weapons we do see common in crimes," said Montclair Police Department Deputy Chief Todd Conforti. "We did get the weapons we were looking for, along with other weapons that people turned in which are safer in our hands."
The four other sites around the county hauled in 1,054 weapons.
The flow of people coming into the Union Baptist Church was steady on both days, said Conforti. He added that there were a number of handguns — including 9mm pistols and .40-caliber handguns — and assault weapons turned in.
Janet Hubert, a resident and mother in Montclair, said she was "very on-board" with the program, and added it should be done once a month.
She also said she felt the program would probably not get the most dangerous weapons off the street.
"It's an opportunity ... to be able to sell it back and not get in trouble," said Hubert. "The sad part about it is, the people that should not have them are not going to sell them.
"It's great to get them out of homes, but the wrong people are participating," she said.
Jessica Henry, an associate professor in Montclair State University's Department of Justice Studies, said the effectiveness of the gun buyback program is self-evident.
"The reality is that this particular buyback got 1,770 guns off the street," said Henry. "Every time we remove a gun from the streets or from someone's home, we are reducing the likelihood that another act of gun violence occurs."
The only limitation to the buyback, added Henry, is that it was restricted to Essex County.
Three of the 716 guns collected were found to be stolen, and will be returned to their owners. The other guns will be melted down and destroyed. In addition to a AR-15 rifle, someone turned in a “pen gun” at the Union Baptist Church.
"Any weapon you get off the street that could fall into the wrong hands is a positive thing," Conforti said. "We got a number of weapons we are going to destroy, and that is a success for me."
Resident Pat Kenschaft said the real weapon for curbing gun violence is legislation.
"I strongly want background checks, I want to abolish automatic rifles for ordinary mortals, and I want [to abolish] high-capacity magazines,"Kenschaft said.
Even though Montclair is less than one-fifth as populous as Newark and has a far lower violent-crime rate, the township's gun buyback accounted for nearly half of the overall weapons collected this weekend.
Participants from outside Montclair may have felt safer handing in weapons there, state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa said during a press conference in Newark on Tuesday, although he was unsure exactly why the take in Montclair was so high.
“I can’t explain why we got more than 2,000 weapons in Trenton either,” Chiesa said.
“The reality is we’re all in the same community. ... The state approach, the comprehensive approach, is the way to go,” said Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
The buyback program allowed gun owners to turn in up three guns each and to receive as much as $250 per weapon, no questions asked.
The county buyback is the third held in New Jersey in recent months, following buybacks in Camden and Mercer counties. The three buybacks yielded about 5,400 weapons, with the Essex weapons purchased with $242,000 from the state’s crime forfeiture fund.*
This weekend's buyback collected 1,000 more weapons than were recovered in December 2009, the last time a buyback was held here, said Anthony Ambrose, the chief of detectives of the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, which helped coordinate the effort.
A conference table at Newark’s emergency services operations center was piled high Tuesday with a diverse cache of firearms, including 70 guns that were illegal to own because they had high-capacity magazines, sawed-off barrels or for other reasons. At least six had been stolen, and one had been used in a Newark shooting, said Samuel DeMaio, the director of the Newark Police Department.
Those taking part in the buyback had various motives for giving up their weapons, Chiesa added. Some mentioned the desire to get guns out of their house following the Newtown shootings.
“One of the things we found in Newark was that they just didn’t want a gun in the home anymore” because of Newtown, DeMaio said.
Chiesa said the buyback has gone a long way towards making New Jersey streets safer.
“There’s no other way to get 5,400 guns off the streets that I know of,” Chiesa said.
*Correction - The article origially stated $242,000 was used to purchase all the weapons, This amount was spent just in Essex.