When we got there at 8 AM there was already a mile long line with hundreds of cars in front of the Bryco Center in San Diego, stretching over the hill and out of sight. The sun was already blazing, promising that the day was going to be a scorcher. We were there for the second Guns for Longboards exchange, organized in conjunction with Longboarding for Peace, a non-profit that helps promote peace through longboarding. Some of their programs include skate summits with Israeli and Palestinian youth and after school programs for at-risk kids.
The first Guns for Longboards exchange was held in San Pedro, Los Angeles in 2013. It began when Neil Carver and his wife Jen Wolf watched the events of Sandy Hook unfold. Deeply affected by the tragedy, they thought kids should be learning and playing, not dealing with gun violence in their school. Yet they felt helpless to do anything about it. How could they, regular folk without any political connections or special skills, make a difference?
“Like swords to plowshares, we should turn guns into skateboards. Even if one skateboard helped prevent a single act of violence it would be worth the effort.” Neil said.
He got on the phone and started calling the LAPD and the Mayor’s office, intent on starting such a program. It was not easy reaching someone who could help, with unreturned messages and months of unfruitful emails. The project seemed to be impossible, until Neil reached Ben Meda from the Los Angeles PD gun division. It turned out that there was a guns-for-gift-cards exchange being organized in conjunction with Ralph’s supermarket, and it was happening in a week! After some cajoling he convinced the chief of police and the mayor’s office to let him bring some skateboards to the exchange. Even though promotion for the event did not mention skateboards, enough participants were enthused by the option that all 12 Carver skateboards were traded for guns, one a semi-automatic Uzi, another an assault rifle.
Around this same time ex-pro skater Harvey Hawks was trying to get released from prison. He had served his full 25-year sentence for his own deadly act of gun violence, and he was now finding it impossible to get released. The parole board was unmoved by his rehabilitation even though he’d turned his life around and become a model prisoner, dedicating his time to helping at-risk youth and counseling other prisoners looking to turn their lives around, too.
In the early 1980’s Harvey was a pro skater on the rise, his photos published in Skateboarder magazine, and sponsorships with major brands. It was here that Michael Brooke first saw his skating, and instantly became a fan of his raw style. But then Michael heard about the shooting and Harvey’s conviction. Time passed and he kind of forgot about it while Harvey quietly served his time. Several decades later he heard about Harvey again, and discovered that he had done exactly what the system was intended to do; that he had been turned his life around and had dedicated it to helping others avoid his fate. But now he was being held beyond his sentence without the possibility for parole. In part it was because there was no one willing to speak out on Harvey’s behalf, so the parole board simply kept delaying his release.
In the face of such unfairness Michael began writing letters to the parole board, and published an article in Concrete Wave magazine describing Harvey’s turnaround and current plight. At last the parole board saw Harvey for who he had become and approved his parole. Thankful for the opportunity, Harvey continued his work with at-risk youth, as well as collaborating with other paroled skaters like Dennis Martinez to mentor kids. He read the article on the Gun Exchange in San Pedro that Michael had published, and realized it was the perfect way to give back to the community in a way he understood all to well. He felt that had someone helped him like that, all the lives that were destroyed that day could have been saved.
He already had many of the elements in place to organize this; through his youth work and parole status he was already friends with many officers at the San Diego PD, and had connections with youth programs and outreach ministries, all of whom wanted to help. So Harvey reached out to numerous skateboard companies, including Carver, Madrid, Jet and Loaded, seeking donations. He gathered over 50 boards, storing them in his small apartment for months as he waited for the SDPD to schedule the next event. And this time the media was aware of the skateboard exchange component and were able to let gun owners know of the option beforehand.
The event on Saturday was the biggest in the program’s 7 year history. Activists and police walked alongside the lined up cars, thanking them for their patience and getting a head start on the paperwork for the exchange. Many people wanted to know more about the skateboards. Were they new? Could they trade in any type of gun for them? Their interest was already piqued by the time the drivers arrived at the head of the line. Volunteers were on hand to help explain the different boards, and some gun owners even test rode boards to find the right one for them. You could see the stoke on their faces as they loaded the boards into their cars.
Being from a beachside community, the San Diego PD is full of surfers and skaters. One off-duty officer came in to exchange a gun himself, intent on getting a board to warm up his surf moves on before paddling out. All morning officers opened car trunks to retrieve firearms and carry them into the Bryco warehouse, piling up hundreds of handguns, shotguns and assault rifles. The officers were visibly relieved every time a handgun or assault weapon was turned in. For them it’s one less gun that can be turned on them during the commission of a crime, one less gun stolen from its owner in a home robbery, one less opportunity for deadly violence, whether accidental or intentional.
The folks at this event were not your typical gun activists, and this was not exactly an anti-gun event. This event was not about taking guns away from individuals who want them and know how to keep them safely, but about removing guns from homes where they are not wanted; where a young child can accidentally find it, or where a home robbery could put a gun in the hands of a criminal. There are approximately 232,400 firearms stolen each year, and nearly 1,000 accidental deadly shootings in the US every year. Even so, there are many different perspectives on the event. Some argue that these guns are worth more than the gift cards or skateboards, and that they should be sold off in an auction. Unfortunately this just puts those ssame weapons back in the public’s hands, callously placing the value of a gun above the value of a life. Others believe that we have a Second Amendment right to own firearms. As Tim Minor, one of the owners trading in his gun said,
“I’m not the guy with a gun going around holding up whiskey stores,” he told Marie Coronel of channel 10 news, “I’m the guy who gets guns stolen from.”
These gun owners were all not motivated by money, but instead were acting for the greater good. In a way it’s the ultimate act of responsible gun ownership, to recognize when their firearms are best protected from misuse by trading them in.
At the event this morning over 300 unwanted firearms were taken off the streets. One individual even brought in a hand grenade.
Late in the morning, close to the end of the event, a small group gathered around one of the guns. Harvey watched somberly as an officer tagged it and placed it on the big pile on the table.
Harvey’s hand shook slightly, his jovial composure broken. It turned out to be the exact type of gun that Harvey had used in the commission of his crime. It was an intense moment, and everyone could feel it. Heads lowered, a friend put his arm around Harvey, lightly patting his back. He found it hard to be around the table now, and left quickly, seeking solace amongst his friends and the skateboards, outside in the sun.
Photos – Lance Dalgart