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DATE: Dec. 1, 2006

SOURCE: San Francisco Chronicle

Truly lame idea for gun exchange

Chip Johnson

Friday, December 1, 2006

Oakland's latest pitch for violence prevention, a gun-exchange program in two of the city's toughest neighborhoods, would work well as a comedy skit.

This Saturday in Sobrante Park and next week in DeFremery Park, city officials will reward anyone who turns in a gun with two tickets to the Dec. 15 concert by hard-rock band Guns N' Roses at Oracle Arena.

Offering Guns N' Roses tickets in the northwest Oakland neighborhood known as "Ghostown" and Sobrante Park on the east side of town is like giving cats free tickets to the dog show.

What's next, a free pass to Michael Richards stand-up act? There is surely a disconnect between the city's promotional plan and the marketplace.

"Guns N' Roses -- the band?" asked Mike Magardo, a 34-year-old Oakland resident. "I think that's a little off the mark. In general, the folks who would show up for a gun exchange in those neighborhoods either don't know or care who Guns N' Roses are."

When I asked the question of more than half a dozen people on the street, both white and black, their responses were pretty much the same.

"Why would any youngsters want to go see Guns N' Roses," Andrew Smith, 32, asked.

Mark Lipsett, a 45-year-old banker, said, "That seems crazy to me. How about Raiders tickets, Warriors tickets, a pizza coupon, just about anything," he said.

Etah Allah, 31, who grew up in West Oakland, summed it up nicely.

"I wouldn't give them a sling shot," he said. "In fact, given some of the things that (Axl) Rose has said about black folks, I think I should get a gun for just going to the concert," he said, bringing a laugh from his friends.

Joe DeVries, who runs Oakland's violence-prevention program with tax funds from voter-approved Measure Y, says the Guns N' Roses promotion is admittedly not a great match. But he hopes it's the start of a program that will expand to include acts that speak to younger black audiences.

"I recognize that Guns N' Roses isn't a band that a lot of Oakland kids listen to, but there are so many stolen guns used in crimes in this city we'll take any guns we can get," he said.

The latest gun exchange project was inspired by DeVries' experience with a half-dozen AmeriCorps workers employed in his office. Oakland's most successful attempt at a gun exchange was in October 1996, when officials offered computers for firearms. Authorities received more than 200 guns that day.

After a couple of recent killings in the city, DeVries asked his workers, most of them between the ages of 19 and 22, if they could get a gun if they thought they needed one.

"They laughed and then rattled off the names of nearly a half-dozen people who had them," he said.

A few months later, when a group of workers were confronted at a store at 32nd and Market streets by a man who flashed a weapon, the workers drove off and returned 20 minutes later. Two of them were now armed, DeVries said.

It was a prime example of how quickly a perceived slight on the street can escalate to violence, he said.

DeVries said he is focusing on corporate sponsorship to fund more gun exchanges, and he welcomed the gracious offer from the band, which is donating tickets valued at $25,000 -- a truly generous offer.

The only problem with Saturday's promotion is that if scores of African Americans were to take the bank up on its offer, the result could incite violence rather than abate it if the band plays some of its greatest hits.

In "One in a Million," released during the band's heyday in 1988, Rose sings: "Police and n -- , that's right, get out of my way. Don't need to buy none of your Goldchains today."

I don't want to stereotype too much, but verses like those aren't going to go over very well with a young Oakland crowd.

Linking good causes like gun exchanges with popular promotions has merit, but the message and the audience must be somewhere close to on the same wavelength.

Kudos to the rock 'n' roll band, but DeVries and the city would have been wiser to aim their push at the upcoming Jamie Foxx New Year's Eve Celebration at the Oracle Arena, formerly known as the Oakland Arena.

Foxx is one of the hottest, perhaps the hottest, young black male actors and musicians in entertainment today. His comedy and music resonate with young black men and his voice carries a weight and authority that comes from shared experiences.

That's a promotion that could gain traction in neighborhoods where gun violence threatens everyone's safety, and provide an on-point message to an audience that is ready and willing to listen.

And DeVries is right about one thing: The mere suggestion of gun-exchange programs has already led to a few brainstorming ideas.

"How about a job offer that paid real money to live on, so I don't need a gun?" said Allah, a tow-truck driver.

Chip Johnson's column appears in the Chronicle on Tuesdays and Fridays. E-mail him at chjohnson@sfchronicle.com.


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