San Diego What if you threw a party and nobody showed up? How would you feel? Or, worse, what if you threw a party and the only people who showed up weren't invited and you had to tell them all to leave?
That's what happened Saturday, October 9, when the San Marcos Sheriff's Department hosted a gun buy-back. The 8:00 a.m.-to-noon event was advertised in several San Diego County daily papers. Bring in your SKS Sporter rifle -- which Assembly Bill 48, signed into law by Governor Pete Wilson on September 27, 1998, made illegal to possess effective January 1, 2000 -- and walk out with a $230 voucher from the California Department of Justice.
Flavio Alfaro, an evidence custodian for the Sheriff's Central Investigations Division, would be the master or ceremonies for the day, assisted by Deputy Kevin Price. When I arrive at 8:00, Alfaro is already inspecting guns in the back of an SUV parked across the parking lot from the front door of the station, while two bearded men look on. After a minute or so, one of the men closes the hatch and they drive off. Alfaro walks over and introduces himself. "Those guys had three guns between them," he explains. "They were SKSs but none of them were the SKS Sporter. They were all the Chinese 56 models, which are perfectly legal."
Alfaro, dressed in jeans and Nike T-shirt, his black hair cut short, gestures toward the floor-to-ceiling front window of the station. "The one on that poster in the window, that's the actual SKS Sporter; that's the one we're taking vouchers for. They all pretty much look the same. But there are a few different characteristics about the firearms. The Sporter doesn't have a bayonet, and it doesn't have a provision for a bayonet. The model 56 and the other types of SKSs are a little longer and have a lug to attach a bayonet. Also, the legal SKSs have a ten-round fixed magazine. If you release the magazine, it just kind of swings open, but it doesn't come off. The Sporter has a detachable magazine. You can take it completely off and attach an extended one, a 30-round AK-47-style magazine. That's the reason they're making it illegal.
"There are four different SKSs in all," he continues. "There's the Sporter, the Model 84 -- which is already on the assault-weapons list because it does accept a detachable magazine -- the Chinese 56, and the Russian 45. They have fixed magazines. The only reason they're making this firearm illegal is because it accepts a detachable magazine for additional firepower. The SKS Chinese 56 and the Russian 45 have fixed magazines."
Is the Sporter used in a lot of crimes?
"You know," Alfaro says, "working in Evidence, I keep a chain of custody of all the guns that are confiscated by the sheriff's department, and most of the guns that come in that people commit crimes with are handguns, not so much rifles. I think I've seen one SKS Sporter come in through Evidence in the eight years I've been there."
If I come in with my SKS Sporter, how many questions will I be asked?
"It's no-questions-asked," Alfaro says. "All I do is take a look at the firearm, and if it's an SKS Sporter I'll go ahead and take it in and we'll do the paperwork. If it's not, I let them know it's not the type we're buying back."
My instinct tells me they don't want me to carry my SKS through the front door of the sheriff's station. Alfaro's laughing confirms my instinct. "What we're asking them to do," he says, "is to go ahead and leave their firearms in the trunk of their vehicle and come into the station and let us know they're here for the buy-back program. We'll go ahead and walk out to their vehicle with them and assess what type of firearm they have. If it's the SKS Sporter, we bring it inside and we run the gun in a system called the Automated Firearm System, or AFS, to make sure it's not stolen. We run the make and the serial number. If it is stolen, obviously they're not going to get a voucher. We'll take it and try to find the owner. If we can't, we destroy it."
Do you arrest the guy who brought it in?
"I leave that for the deputy," he answers. "I'm sure he'll have a few questions for the guy who brought it in."
While we're talking, a large man with a bald head dressed in denim shorts and a maroon T-shirt walks by us and into the station. Alfaro calls after him. "Good morning, sir. Are you here for the buy-back?"
"Yeah, I've got two SKSs."
"Let's go take a look at them."
As we walk through the parking lot toward the gun owner's vehicle, Alfaro asks him how he heard about the program.
"In the paper," he answers, then opens the back driver's side door of his Chevy Blazer. Flavio leans in and picks up one gun. "Okay," he says, "this one here is a Chinese 56 model. See the Chinese writing there." He points to some characters etched into the outside of the gun's chamber. "That says Chinese 56. It's made by Norinco. This one was manufactured with a ten-round fixed magazine, although it's been modified to accept a detachable magazine. But even though it's been modified, this won't accept an AK-47 magazine. It will only accept an SKS magazine. This gun is totally legal and does not qualify for our buy-back program."
Alfaro picks up the second gun. The stock in this one is black where the other had been a wood grain. Cobwebs and grease cover the firearm. "This one here is...very dirty," Alfaro jokes as he rubs some grease away to read the markings on the gun. "This is also a Chinese 56. It's an older one. How long have you had it?"
"Geez, forever," the owner says.