40 firearms collected during annual Augusta gun buyback event

At about 11:20 a.m. Saturday, people were lined in the hallways of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, shoe boxes in hand.

They were waiting their chance to exchange the boxes, which contained unloaded handguns, for prepaid gift cards in the second annual Gun Buyback Day.

Handguns weren’t the only weapons being exchanged.

Some marched into the building with bolt-action rifles or single-shot shotguns hoisted on their shoulders.

Robert Azar, of Augusta, brought both.

“I’m bringing in a 12-gauge shotgun and a .22 (pistol),” he said, motioning to the box in his hand. “I don’t want them in my house anymore. I have two grandchildren and they come over often.”

Azar said the guns were given to him by his son, who wanted them out of his house two years ago. When he heard about the buyback, he loaded up the guns and made the short trip to the church. The money was worth more to him than the guns, he said.

At the front of the line, Peggy Ritter, of Augusta, handed her aunt’s .32-caliber pistol to the event’s coordinator, Niki Watson.

After the gun was cleared and deemed to be in working order, Ritter was given her $75 gift card.

“You just turn the gun in and that’s it,” she said. “I think it’s a great program. It gets a lot of dangerous guns off the street.”

Watson said she raised more than $1,900 in gift cards through her charity, Future Successors. The cards were purchased with the help of local donors and businesses.

By 12:25 p.m., all but two of the gift cards were handed out.

“This was way more successful than I had planned,” Watson said. “The word is getting out there. People are wanting to donate their guns. We should always try as a community to eliminate this problem before it reaches our homes.”

Watson said she flies into Augusta from New York every year at her own expense for the buyback.

The Augusta native tallied the race and gender of every gun owner that handed in a firearm. After no black men turned in guns last year, Watson said four completed the exchange before noon.

She said the no-questions-asked policy might have something to do with the increase.

“They’re scared,” she said. “They think they’ll get arrested, so I tell them that the cops won’t be collecting the guns. I’ll be collecting them.”

Once the guns were cleared by Watson, Richmond County sheriff’s deputies were on hand to zip tie the weapons for security.

For those who still had guns at home, free gun locks were stashed in a nearby box.

Watson said 40 guns were collected during the event – 30 of them handguns – which will be taken to the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office for safekeeping. Investigators will run the serial numbers to check for weapons that have been reported missing, and the remaining weapons will be melted down.

She said some guns didn’t have serial numbers.

Deputy Cory Carlyle said he volunteered his time to assist with the event.

“Once the people see the community get involved – like law enforcement – they’ll want to get involved,” he said. “This isn’t the department for us, this is the department for the people. The people have to come out and to put their trust back in us.”

Less than two hours after the event started, Watson’s collections of gift cards ran out. She took out her personal check book and used $300 of her own money.

Delon Smith, of Augusta, was among the last to approach the crowded table in the center of the room. He handed in a gun that he found at his grandmother-in-law’s house after she passed away.

Smith said had already decided how to spend the money.

“This is going to my kids for the tax-free weekend school shopping,” he said.

After looking over the array of guns on the white folding table, Carlyle reiterated the importance of the program.

“All we need to do is save one life,” he said. “That’s all.”

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