Thirty years ago, John Kee carried several kinds of guns with him for protection while selling drugs in north Charlotte’s Double Oaks community: a .38-caliber pistol, a 9-millimeter handgun or a sawed-off shotgun.
Now the 51-year-old leads a church in that neighborhood, New Life Fellowship Center, which just completed its seventh annual Christmastime program of offering gift cards in exchange for people dropping off their guns at the church.
Kee offered a simple reason for the program. “I want to clean up what I poisoned.”
The project grew out of another program, where young men could go to the church on Samuel Street and play basketball, checkers or anything else to keep them off the streets at night, Kee said. He knew they sometimes carried weapons, and decided to offer gift cards to help get rid of guns in the community.
The program brought in about 120 guns the first year, and they were turned over to Charlotte-Mecklenburg police to be destroyed, Kee said. The church plasters signs around the city to attract support for the program, and there are no questions asked about the weapons.
The number of guns turned in had held steady over the years until this year, when only 41 guns were dropped off at the church between last Thursday and Saturday.
Kee is not sure of the reason for the drop-off.
This year for the first time, he said, some gun-rights advocates set up across from the church offering money for guns. But he doesn’t think they had many takers or made a big impact on what the church was trying to do.
No matter the total turned in, Kee said he is pleased with the results. It just means there are fewer guns on the streets that could be used in a crime.
Kee is aware of the knock against such exchange programs – that they represent a fraction of the total guns available in the country and have not been proven to reduce crime.
“I absolutely believe this helps the community, even if it’s just 30 or 40 guns,” Kee said. “We’re doing a service.”
Some of the weapons the church took in this year were “choppers,” he said, street slang for sawed-off shotguns. One person who brought in that type of weapon was about 14 or 15 years old, the pastor said.
Young and old alike dropped off firearms, Kee said, including a grandmother who brought in a semi-automatic.
One parent found two guns in the closet and brought them in before a church service. And a widow brought in her late husband’s rifle because it was just sitting around the house and she had no use for it.
People received Walmart gift cards for the weapons: $25 to $50 for handguns and up to $100 for assault rifles and shotguns.
Kee said the church will offer the program again next holiday season.
It’s his way, he said, of doing right by his neighborhood.