Shell Shock


Res­i­dents of Hous­ton, Texas can sleep a lit­tle eas­i­er now, know­ing that near­ly 900 small and medi­um-sized arms are off of their city streets this month, thanks to the may­or’s year­ly Guns For Gifts pro­gram. But for many of the vol­un­teers and core staffers behind the gun give­back ini­tia­tive, there are sure to be a few sleep­less nights.

Lucin­da Mar­shall, a long­time Hous­ton res­i­dent and first year vol­un­teer, has found her­self toss­ing and turn­ing in the nights since the gun give­back end­ed. “It’s ter­ri­fy­ing,” she says, hold­ing a steam­ing cup of cof­fee under her bleary eyes. “The pub­lic just sees the sta­tis­tics and thinks ”˜well it’s good all those guns are gone’. But they don’t under­stand the process.” Mike Wahl, a for­mer beat cop and three-year vet­er­an of the incen­tive pro­gram, agrees. “Every sin­gle per­son I’ve talked to in the years I’ve been doing this has come away with great pride for mak­ing the streets safer, but even more anx­i­ety. It’s tough even for me to come back, but at the end of the day I know that what I’m doing is right.”

On its sur­face, the sim­ple mechan­ics of the gun give­back pro­gram seem fair­ly straight­for­ward. Any­one with­in 30 miles of the down­town Hous­ton Police Depart­ment head­quar­ters — a range that includes the city lim­its of Hous­ton prop­er and much of Har­ris Coun­ty — is free to turn in their hand­guns, rifles, or small ordi­nance devices in exchange for a tick­et. The paper tick­ets can then be exchanged for goods on the spot, includ­ing home elec­tron­ics, books, canned goods, fur­ni­ture and more. All of the items are either donat­ed from local busi­ness­es or are the result of police seizure. The ben­e­fits for the city are three-fold: few­er guns on the streets, few­er cobra neck­laces in the impound lock­ers and all of the pos­i­tive press that comes with such a program.

Yet, for those run­ning the gun give­back on the day of the event, it’s an unre­lent­ing nightmare.

A mob of impa­tient Hous­to­ni­ans gath­er down­town well in advance of the 9am start time, jock­ey­ing for line posi­tion in order to secure the best exchange items. And, since the give­back pol­i­cy is one tick­et per gun, the hearti­est morn­ing folks are also the most well-armed, stuffed to the gills with hid­den sin­gle-shot pis­tols, Marine-grade assault rifles, and even (in one instance) a Gold­en Gun. Ten­sions mount in the moments before the doors open to the pub­lic, lead­ing to push­ing and shov­ing despite many ear­ly-goers being strapped with ancient grenades and cocked shotguns.

As the doors open, a sea of armed and angry gun-wield­ers burst into the large hall, trip­ping over each oth­er and inad­ver­tent­ly dis­charg­ing their firearms in the process. From the vol­un­teer table, the scene is some­thing akin to the old world style of bat­tle, where front line men in bun­dled coats were lit­tle more than bul­let fod­der. Except here, the bul­lets are indis­crim­i­nate, and the ran­dom shots are com­ing from the brigade itself. “We tell them, every year, to remove the bul­lets, but… ugh… they just don’t lis­ten,” says Wahl.

Those for­tu­nate to reach the tables unscathed imme­di­ate­ly dump their loaded wares, spilling out car­tridges and knock­ing off safeties with aban­don as they scream for their pre­cious exchange tick­ets. After all, the ear­ly prizes are cer­tain­ly the most valu­able. “Last year, some­body took home a horse,” says Wahl, the offi­cer-turned-vol­un­teer. “It used to belong to a car­tel mem­ber who fan­cied him­self a rac­ing man, but when he got tak­en down the chief said ”˜what the hell are we going to do with a horse?,’ and sent it over to us.” Oth­er osten­ta­tious items have includ­ed hydrauli­cal­ly-enhanced cars used in smug­gling rings, a Renoir paint­ing that hung in the pri­vate home of a wealthy oil busi­ness­man before he was mur­dered by his wife, and a rare Super‑8 film of The Bea­t­les doing improv comedy.

Wahl gri­maces as he feels the phan­tom pains of a pinkie toe that was blown off two years ago at the gun give­back pro­gram. “I’d be lying if I said it was­n’t a bit like my time on the force, though”, he gleams as he rubs his foot. “It cer­tain­ly gets the old juices flow­ing.” For oth­ers, the thrill has been replaced with mem­o­ries they won’t soon forget.

Lucin­da Mar­shall sighs over yet anoth­er cup of ear­ly morn­ing joe. “I see them just at the moment I’m about to fall asleep. As the hori­zon line falls away in front of me, here they come, push­ing, shov­ing their way towards me, some with more than two arms just so they can hold all of their guns.”

By the third hour, things are rel­a­tive­ly calm at the give­back, as most of the best trade pieces have already been pur­loined, but you can nev­er be too safe. Last year, just before the pro­gram shut down for the day, an octo­ge­nar­i­an with a sin­gle-bar­rel shot­gun entered, using the gun as a cane. Before ever reach­ing the table he stum­bled and dis­charged one shell straight through the floor and into the men’s restroom below. Thank­ful­ly, only a His­pan­ic mem­ber of the jan­i­to­r­i­al staff was killed, and peo­ple were get­ting his name wrong all the time anyway.

Now, with the 2013 Hous­ton Guns For Gifts already on the cal­en­dar for next fall, Mar­shall is unsure if she’ll return. Sure, there’s the sat­is­fac­tion of tak­ing guns off the streets and pro­vid­ing a ser­vice to her com­mu­ni­ty, but the haunt­ing images and blood-speck­led ID badge don’t make the propo­si­tion very entic­ing. Still, she’s got eleven months to decide. Until then, she jumps when­ev­er a car door slams too loud­ly, and will often leave a store if a crowd forms. For Mar­shall, Wahl and many oth­ers, it’s all an unin­tend­ed con­se­quence of a pro­gram that just keeps on giv­ing.