Politics & Government

Tacoma officials want drop box to encourage anonymous surrender of guns

Tacoma city officials want to create a drop box where people can anonymously turn in unwanted guns.

Their first challenge? Finding a place to put it.

The city already lets people turn in guns for destruction without getting their names on a police report. But there’s no way for people to anonymously surrender a firearm without calling the police to arrange a pickup, or unless they take the gun directly to a police station, officials said.

That’s where the drop box comes in: In theory, it would provide a secure receptacle where people can turn over firearms without talking to an officer or even being seen by police.

City officials suspect the proposed drop box might encourage more people to surrender their guns — especially young people who are the target audience for the city’s year-old gun safety campaign.

State law makes it illegal for anyone under 18 to carry a firearm, except in special circumstances such as hunting.

“This is for those youth who may not feel comfortable contacting law enforcement,” said Melissa Cordeiro, the city’s gang reduction project coordinator.

Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell said the drop box project is “still in the planning stages.” But he said he supports the idea, which city officials said they haven’t seen tried anywhere else.

“The main intent and goal is just to get these weapons off the streets,” Ramsdell said.

He cautioned, however, that letting people drop off guns anonymously doesn’t mean that police will promise amnesty to someone who turns in a weapon after using it in a crime.

If a gun shows up in the drop box that matches the description of a gun used in a shooting the day before, it still may be tested and potentially linked back to its previous owner, officials said.

Ramsdell said the proposed gun turn-in box would have to be more secure than, for instance, a slot for returning books at the library, although the concept is similar.

Cordeiro compared the proposed drop box to a receptacle where people can bring unwanted or unused prescription drugs, but with more elaborate safety measures in place.

“I want to be very cautious with how it rolls out, because this is not prescription medication; these are guns,” she said.

Finding a business or agency willing to host the box is the first thing the city must figure out, Cordeiro said.

Assistant Police Chief Mike Ake said it would have to be in an area where young people would feel safe dropping off a gun while also ensuring that the guns deposited there aren’t easily accessible to others.

He said one option could be having a drop-off slot attached to the outside of a building, which could relay a gun safely to a secure box on the other side of the wall.

City officials would also need to take steps to prevent guns from accidentally discharging if they happen to be loaded, he said.

“You don’t want to just drop off a gun and it hits metal,” Ake said. “You want to have some soft Jello- or foam-like substance so that when a gun is dropped off, it is done safely.”

Officials are still working out how often the box would be emptied. Ideally, police would retrieve each gun shortly after drop-off, Ake said.

But figuring out a way to do that without having the box under surveillance — which would destroy its promise of anonymity — is a challenge, Cordeiro said.

“Nobody’s never done this before that we’re aware of,” Cordeiro said. “That’s why we have to be really careful and really think it through.”

The anonymous gun drop-off is being proposed as part of a gun safety education program the city started last year. During the first year of the campaign, city officials worked to ensure that people could surrender guns anonymously through police.

This year they’re wanting to expand the program through the proposed anonymous drop box, Cordeiro said.

City Councilwoman Victoria Woodards said she pushed for the city to expand its gun safety campaign following the accidental shooting death of 17-year-old Jalon Bea in October 2013.

At Bea’s memorial service, Woodards urged young people to turn over their guns to help prevent more tragic shootings. She said she and other council members quickly realized there was no good way for teenagers to do that.

Woodards said even if the anonymous drop box nets only one or two guns, it would be a success in her view.

“If we get one or two, guess what? That’s one or two more guns not being accidentally or intentionally used,” Woodards said. “That’s one less gun on the street.”