Guns On Parade
On a peaceful Saturday morning, the stories swapped among the men lounging in the front room of Saint Joseph’s Baptist Church had a common theme: the feeling of helplessness that comes from staring down the barrel of a .357 Magnum. Reverend Abraham Woods, pastor of Saint Joseph’s, recalled a face-to-face confrontation with a shaking, gun-wielding teen robbing a convenience store that Woods had entered to purchase a soda. As the sweating assailant held a gun on Woods, the Reverend started to tell the robber who he was in hopes that the kid would surrender-not a good idea. “He was too nervous for an introduction,” Woods recalled with a chuckle. Frank Matthews, community activist and radio talk show host, nodded his head and laughed as he recalled the night he and his dinner companions were locked in a freezer at Shoneys while the restaurant was being robbed. “I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life,” confessed Matthews.
The scene was Saint Joseph’s annual gun buy-back, held each January on the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration. Sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with area churches and businesses, the weapons swap pays people up to $50 cash in exchange for a weapon. At Birmingham’s first gun buy-back in 1994, 411 guns were collected in 90 minutes-a national record according to Matthews. This year, a steady flow of gun-toting citizens waited patiently outside the church door, which was kept locked at all times. Inside, a Birmingham police officer from the Tactical Operational Unit checked to make sure the guns were not loaded. The officer had already emptied bullets from two pistols by mid-morning.
Frank Matthews, a former gang member who was arrested 33 times before he was 19, but who now goes by the moniker “God’s Gangster,” was designated “gun appraiser and negotiator.” Matthews studied each piece quickly, offering $10 to $20 for most of the surrendered weapons. While many people were happy to get what they could for their guns, one elderly gentleman, dissatisfied with Matthew’s $15 offer, said he would hang onto his .12 gauge double-barreled shotgun. Matthews warned him not to leave the gun laying around his home because his grandchildren might get hurt. “I ain’t got no grandkids!” the disgruntled fellow shouted as he left. “We got a couple of Uzis, and that’s a blessing,” sighed a middle-aged woman as she jotted down the serial numbers of surrendered weapons. Behind her was a long table covered with rifles, pistols, and the pair of coveted Uzis. “This is the gun of choice,” said Matthews, holding up an Uzi [also known as a "street sweeper"] as he repeatedly pulled out, then reinserted, the gun’s clip with considerable dexterity. “When a gang gets hold of an Uzi, it does something to the identity of the gang. Gives them more status,” explained Matthews. One of the Uzis fetched $30, while a .357 Magnum brought $35, the highest pay out of the morning.
A woman in a Betty Boop sweatshirt turned in her .38 Special because “the permit had expired, and I don’t want it no more.” A visibly uncomfortable man handed Matthews a .300 Winchester Magnum. “That’s a terrible gun, isn’t it?” noted Reverend Woods. “You could almost hold off an army with that thing.”
Another woman arrived with a gun-wielding tot. “I’m bringin’ in my little boy. He’s already killed 10 people this morning,” she laughed, as the four year-old aimed his plastic pistol and imitated gunfire at everyone in sight. The kid surrendered his weapon to Reverend Woods, who gave him a glimmering locomotive engine in exchange. “Toy guns and play weapons of destruction; we must do something about the terrible romance people develop with guns at an early age,” noted Woods who shook his head at the pile of approximately 60 weapons collected at the church. “It’s a meaningful way to pay tribute to Dr. King. He was the ‘apostle of nonviolence.’ We are our brother’s keeper, but he’d be appalled to find that many of us have become our brother’s killer.”