Fla. police using sneakers-for-guns progam to curb violence

By Henry Pierson Curtis
The Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO Sneakers-for-gun exchanges today in Orlando follow another weekend of violence that threatens Central Florida's image as a family-friendly tourist destination.

Five patrons suffered wounds and an Orlando police officer returned fire early Sunday when a massive gunfight erupted at Tropical Magic nightclub.

It was the 15th shooting reported in less than a year at the busy intersection of John Young Parkway and West Colonial Drive just steps from Orange County sheriff's headquarters.

Cops and deputies don't expect any criminals today to trade their weapons for pairs of Nikes.

"The goal is to remove unwanted guns from homes so we don't have to worry about them getting stolen in a burglary and used later against citizens," said Orlando police Detective Barb Bergin of Crimeline. "Lots of people don't know how to get rid of guns safely."

Sneakers and $50 gift certificates will be offered while supplies last at two locations from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

In Orlando, the exchange will be outside the Florida Citrus Bowl at 1610 W. Church St. In the county, it will be outside the Pine Castle Woman's Club at Oak Ridge Road and South Orange Avenue.

Police Chief Mike McCoy and Sheriff Kevin Beary ask that all guns be brought in unloaded, and they promise the exchanges will be anonymous.

Reducing gun violence has become a critical political issue as a result of last year's record-breaking 49 murders in the city and 64 more in the unincorporated county. Elected officials, hoteliers and tourism experts say more of the same could devastate the region's economy.

Sunday's 4 a.m. shooting during an appearance by Movado, a Jamaican reggae star, led to the confiscation of 10 handguns discarded by patrons who fled the nightclub, police said.

Henri Chaumin, the owner of Tropical Magic, said the shooting began when someone in the crowd of about 1,000 slipped a handgun by his security force and fired a shot into the air.

Orlando police Sgt. Roger Brennan of the homicide unit said one patron was shot inside the nightclub.

The other four victims were hit in three parts of the parking lot when the gunplay continued even as police tried to clear the area.

Multiple-victim shootings used to be rare in Orlando, but Sunday's was the fourth in the city in less than 12 months.

"It's not unique to Orlando, and it's not unique to Florida," Brennan said of a nationwide surge in shootings and murders. "It started two years ago when the numbers started going up."

In the year's worst nonfatal incident to date, seven teens were wounded at a gas station in June in a shooting linked to a dispute between the L Dogs and the Parramore Snakes, Orlando street gangs.

Police and prosecutors often blame the gunplay on social collapse in poor, minority neighborhoods that are home to most of the victims and shooters.

Easy access to weapons includes gun shops selling 30-shot assault riles for as little as $400 and hundreds of guns stolen yearly from cars and homes in Orange County.

"It's crazy out there," said sheriff's Cpl. Dave Spall, whose squad seized a rifle, two shotguns and a stolen pistol from a drug house Sunday on 41st Street.

Friday night, deputies raided a keg party on Clear Lake after tipsters told 911 that men with AK-47s were providing security for more than 200 teens and young adults, records show.

Some of the teens at the illegal house party confirmed that at least five "security guards" armed with AK-47s, a shotgun and pistols had been collecting a $5 cover charge for beer and music, according to reports and interviews.

"When the cops came in, they scattered like cockroaches," Josian Roa, 18, who was at the party, said in a telephone interview. "When I see AK-47s and stuff like that, it's kind of weird. But there's a lot of them around."

Copyright 2007 The Orlando Sentinel

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