UPPER MARLBORO – R. Sean Benoit, medical director of trauma services at the University of Maryland Prince George’s Hospital, is no stranger to operating on gunshot wound victims.
Over the past three years, the hospital staff has treated more than 700 of these patients, more than half of whom came from Prince George’s County. Some of his patients have been as young as 14 months old.
“I’ve been operating on these kids for more than 20 years and I’ve always wanted to do more than fix them up and send them back,” Benoit said. “One of the things I’ve wanted to do is try to get these weapons off the street.”
In 2012, Benoit worked with the Prince George’s Police Department to initiate “Gift Cards for Guns,” a gun buyback program in which people could anonymously exchange their guns for open gift cards.
“It was an amnesty program,” said County Deputy Chief of Police George Nichols. “People wouldn’t have to worry about getting arrested or having an investigation or questions.”
This year, on Nov. 18, people turned in 160 guns, including one semi-auto rifle, three musket rifles, 22 rifles, 31 shotguns, 35 semi-automatic handguns and 68 revolvers.
During the event, participants pulled up at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden with the gun in the trunks of their cars. Once members of the police department retrieved the gun, the driver could go inside to collect the gift card.
This year, the program distributed almost $20,000 in gift cards. People would receive a $75 gift card for turning in a shotgun or rifle, $125 for a handgun and $175 for a semi-automatic weapon.
Benoit said they hold the event “around the holidays so people can get money for Thanksgiving.”
Inside the church, hospital staff offered information and trainings available on trauma and how to assist people with bleeding wounds.
“There are a lot of really great stories about how this program has been made available to the community, and it’s come at the right time for them,” said James Marshall, the pastor of Zion Church, one of the partners of the event.
He described an instance this year when a woman turned in a handgun she discovered in her son’s room.
“It was a blessing for her in the sense that she was able to get $125 for a firearm she already wanted to be out of her house, and she didn’t want her children to have access to,” he said.
Marshall said people who turn in the guns range from firearms collectors to the family members of people with guns who are leaving home, have died or are incarcerated.
The funding for the gift cards come from multiple sources, including individual donations and donations from partnering organizations.
The police return any stolen guns to their owners and have the others dismantled and melted down.
“We believe that all of us have to come together to do our part to keep the community safe,” Marshall said. “The real heart about this is saving a life. And we believe this event does just that, it saves lives.
“Now there are 160 guns that are not on the street going into the new year, and we can only imagine the number of lives that can be saved. There’s just the sense of safety that these guns won’t run the risk of falling into the wrong hands of people who may use them for ill-will.”