Stick ’Em Up!

Phoenix Rising, a sculpture fashioned from roughly five thousand melted guns, now lies in two pieces in a storage facility. Hennepin County officials are reluctant to say exactly where, because its current condition “is not the presentation the artist had in mind.”

The mawkish symbolism of the mythic bird reborn from ashes certainly makes it easy to guess what the artist did have in mind. But since 1992, when Hennepin County melted the weapons from its “Drop Your Guns” buyback program, the birth of a firearms-free utopia appears to have been aborted. Instead, Hennepin County has issued just about four thousand new permits to carry guns, as a result of the Personal Protection Act. This has led some to wonder if the sculpture should be melted again and recast as Don Quixote.

In America, there are approximately two hundred and fifty million firearms. Despite this penchant for personal protection, the U.S. is a world leader in homicides. So municipalities across the land have made sporadic attempts to mop up some of the excess with buyback programs and amnesties. Though Hennepin County will be smoke-free long before it becomes gun-free, the 1992 buyback, costing about two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, ranks as one of the most successful programs of its kind. But across the river, Ramsey County lived up to its quaint reputation with a program that entered people in a raffle in exchange for turning in weapons. Seventy-one capital citizens dropped off guns for a chance at Twins tickets and hotel coupons.

A similar tale has been playing out over in Iraq. The U.S. Army reported grand success with a program in Basra earlier this year that bagged four thousand AK-47s. And in June, a program in Karbala yielded “dozens” of weapons. But U.S. Army press releases have yet to boast of similar results in Najaf. There, Marines had surrounded the city and were in running firefights with the Sadr militia. Early estimates put the turned-in weapons total in Najaf at two.

Possibly the largest turn-in ever took place Down Under. After the 1996 massacre of thirty-five people in Port Arthur, Australia, citizens responded by relinquishing more than six hundred thousand weapons. The Australian government continues to fund buyback programs to this day. Violence perpetrated by humans is down, but, according to a recent report in the Guardian, crocodile attacks are up.

If there’s final proof that every gun turn-in program begets unintended consequences, Cynthia Gerdes has it. Since 1994, Gerdes has sponsored several toy gun turn-ins at her Creative Kidstuff toy store locations in the Twin Cities. When we spoke recently, she was unable to guess how many guns she took in. “We would fill boxes the size of thirty-three-gallon trash cans many times over. Thousands,” she said. Many of the toys are so realistic, she added, “they make the hair stand up on the back of my neck.” Gerdes always carts the weapons home for disposal to prevent them from being “recycled” out of the commercial dumpsters. Sadly, one was recovered there by a visiting nephew who took it to school and was promptly suspended.

Back at the Hennepin County Government Center, plans are underway to re-install Phoenix Rising on a lonely-looking footing poured on the plaza facing Fifth Street. The pylons surrounding the footing are there because the slab is not level with the plaza pavers, explained senior project manager Shirajoy Abry. It would not do for a citizen to trip and fall so close to the seat of litigation for the county. Nor would that be the first trip to court for the bird. The melting of the guns in 1992 was temporarily halted due to litigation by gun owners who wanted the inventory checked for their own lost or stolen weapons.

Later in the decade, the sculpture was mothballed during government center renovations and left in storage. Last April, just before the most recent attempt at installation, the five-hundred-pound aluminum base for the sculpture was stolen from the St. Paul shop where it was fabricated. A new one is being manufactured now, said Abry. How the fates may intervene this time is anyone’s guess. “I don’t even want to think about that,” said Abry. —Joe Pastoor