Groups across the country and in North Texas have been organizing gun buybacks for decades. But one local program stands out: the guns collected are turned into art.
Peter Johnson is the founder of a group called Dallas Common, and he guesses he’s taken more than 20,000 guns off the streets in the last 30 years. Gun buybacks are sometimes criticized as merely symbolic, but Johnson believes they make a difference.
“The gun buybacks that I have done do not solve the problem of proliferation of guns in our society," Johnson says. "But my guarantee, if I buy a gun off the street Byron takes it and melts the barrel and the breach so that it will never, never shoot again. It will never, never injure anybody, or kill anybody.”
Byron is metal sculptor and welding instructor Byron Zarrabi. For the past six years, he’s been turning the buy-back guns into pieces of art. One of his works is called Urban Harvest. It’s a big basket full of guns and ammo.
“I had built the basket out of steel. It looks like those bushel baskets you collect apples," Zarrabi explains. "And then put the guns in there. They individually had to be painted and welded and retouched.”
He’s also taken automatic rifles and made them the arms of an old-fashioned plow. The sculptures travel to churches and public meetings. Some have gone to city and county leaders supportive of gun buy-backs. A few years back, Peter Johnson sent a couple to a US Conference of Mayors.
“New York City wanted to buy some of my guns when Laura Miller was mayor," Johnson remembered. " I wanted them to stay here in Texas, because this is not really about money.”
What it is about, he says, is sparking debate. Like the piece that got artist Zarrabi talking with his son and his elementary-school pals.
“They were all looking at it and they were like saying wow this is so cool. And I had to tell them it’s not cool. That’s the whole point of the sculpture." Zarrabi says. "That’s what really worries me is this sense that our youngsters are thinking that this is a cool thing. It’s a cultural problem.”
Zarrabi is mulling over his next project: what to do with a box of disabled automatic rifles and shotguns from a gun buy back in DeSoto.
“Especially with the recent events," Zarrabi says. " I’d like for them to be something functional, maybe a park bench. You know, something that’s used and seen every day.”
The artist hopes it will be a reminder of what he calls the dangerous arms race in cities across the U.S. He says he’s not anti-gun. He’s a hunter, went to a military school and qualified as a sharpshooter. But he says guns out on the streets are out of hand.
That gets an “amen” from Peter Johnson.
“Our propensity for guns and violence is a dark, dark cloud over our head," Johnson observes. " I’ve got friends in this city right now that are riding around with an automatic machine gun in the trunk of their car. Why would you need that in the trunk of your car? Who are we afraid of? Who are these guns to kill, each other?”
Exactly the questions Byron Zarrabi wants to raise with his art.