Peter Pringle's America: The disarming Mr Mateo

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SEVEN HUNDRED down, 1.7 million to go. I refer to the remarkable efforts to reduce the private arsenal of guns in New York.

Since Fernando Mateo, a Dominican immigrant, came up with the ingenious Christmas idea of swapping guns for toys and netted 317 guns of varying nastiness in three days, murder-weary New Yorkers have talked of little else. Mateo has had calls from London, Australia and France, to name a few, asking how to start similar programmes, and Americans have been wondering, mostly under their breath for fear of tempting fate, if this could be the start of a grass-roots gun control movement.

Why not? Americans are good at this kind of thing. Once they figure out what kills them, they have no equals as advocates of survival. In the early Eighties it took a few spunky women, fearful for their offspring, to start Mothers Against Drunk Driving and push legislatures, courts and police departments into a national crackdown on drinking and driving. Over the past two decades Americans have banded together against the tobacco lobby and drastically cut consumption of nicotine. In the Sixties some people began lobbying for clean air. By 1970 even Richard Nixon had signed on.

Maybe it was the spirit of Christmas, but Mateo's idea spread quickly. He put in dollars 5,000 and then raised another dollars 25,000. Foot Locker, a chain of shoe stores, also put up dollars 25,000 and the New York police benevolent association chipped in dollars 5,000.

The police commissioner - who had been deeply sceptical about the toys-for-guns scheme, saying it was like taking chicken soup for the flu - was a quick convert. 'Sometimes chicken soup works,' he admitted. In three days the scheme brought in almost 40 times as many guns as the police had collected in Mateo's crime-wracked neighbourhood of Washington Heights in a whole year under their dollars 75-a-gun amnesty. A 12-year-old brought in a gun, as did a man in a wheelchair.

No one is under any illusion that Uzis, .357 Magnums and 9mm machine pistols will be handed over peacefully by the city's criminal elements. In the drug warehouses, the scheme will melt with the snow. And a dollars 100 toy at Christmas could be - and in some cases certainly was - traded for another, bigger weapon. But buy-back programmes have succeeded in other cities.

In Oakland, California, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, tickets to sporting events and concerts were offered in return for firearms. Churches have organised amnesty schemes in which the guns are collected by local clergy to avoid contact with the police. The trick now is to keep the movement going beyond Mateo's self- imposed deadline of 6 January - when many Dominicans observe Christmas. The signs are hopeful.

Revolt against violence on the streets is in the air. The daily diet of murders and mayhem from the 200 million privately owned guns in the United States is finally persuading Americans that they face a critical national problem. President Bill Clinton is a forceful advocate of gun control. After decades of pandering to the gun lobby, Congress has passed the Brady Bill, which requires a checking period before a firearm can be bought. New Yorkers elected a Republican mayor, Rudy Giuliani, for his law-and-order platform.

Black clergy and politicians are using their pulpits to speak out against black gunmen. Jesse Jackson is leading the fight in the inner-city ghettos with his cry against guns: 'Ban 'em, burn 'em and buy 'em'. Black rappers, the role models who have made millions out of talking up violence, are confronted with radio stations demanding that they tone down the lyrics. New groups have names like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Qwest and Get Set, whose latest lyrics dismiss the Brooklyn manhood code of violence and include: 'What we need throughout the whole damn land/Is another definition of the Black Man/A definition that says put yourself in check/By supportin' self and family get the most respect.'

In the absence of a coherent government plan to rid the country of guns, corporate America is the key. There is a fledgling popular movement to boycott products advertised during violent television programmes. Over Christmas, Wal-Mart, one of the largest chain stores, sensitive to the power of the consumer, took handguns off its shelves.

In his small way, Fernando Mateo struck another chord. He is not a rich man, just a concerned citizen. He grew up poor, the son of a cab driver in a perilous New York neighbourhood. He dropped out of school at 15 and owned a gun for self-protection when he was 21. He struggled to get his carpet business off the ground, and when he finally made it, after hard work and prayer, he followed the Dominican tradition of 'La Promesa', in which a sacrifice is made in return for an answered prayer. In 1977 he started a small community programme to teach non-violent ex-convicts to become carpet layers. Guns for toys was a follow-up. Now a national figure, he is calling on Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and General Motors to contribute a car a month for a raffle. Everyone who turns in a gun will get a number.

While corporate America decides whether to get behind Mateo's 'Promesa', New Yorkers face a grim reminder of what happens when people wait for somebody else to take action. In Times Square on New Year's Eve the National Deathclock started ticking. An electronic billboard three-and-a-half storeys high, sponsored by a New Jersey businessman, will show the number of guns in circulation and the number of handgun homicides - now about 37,000 annually. Thanks for your idea, Mateo.