EAST PALO ALTO -- Cars lined up on both sides of University Avenue, snarling traffic in this city for hours Saturday as drivers queued up at City Hall to unload what added up to an arsenal of nearly 400 firearms -- everything from old hunting shotguns to military-style assault weapons fitted with high-capacity "banana" clips and silencers.
It took less than three hours for $52,000 in privately donated cash to disappear in a flurry of parking lot transactions with cops from East Palo Alto, Palo Alto and Menlo Park. The purchased guns filled a police trailer and are now headed for destruction.
"I think it was a huge success," said Roger Lee, 41, a Palo Alto father of three young children who works in venture capital and founded the nonprofit Protect Our Children to raise money for the gun buyback. "I feel our community is safer as a result."
Lee was inspired to organize a gun buyback by the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The deranged young gunman used his mother's Bushmaster assault rifle to murder her before attacking the school, where he later killed himself in an orgy of violence that shocked the nation and reignited the debate over gun control.
"I was horrified by what happened that day," said Lee, whose children, ages 8, 6 and 3, are close in age to the Newtown victims. He felt the best he could do to honor the lives lost in Newtown was to "remove as many guns
Lee put out feelers and quickly teamed up with another Palo Alto man, James Cook, who works in the solar power industry and is the father of a fifth-grader. Together, they raised the $52,000 in six weeks from more than 100 donors in Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
"It really struck a nerve," said Lee, who has received inquiries about starting similar programs from Santa Cruz to Connecticut. "People care about this issue."
Indeed, a simultaneous rally protesting gun violence in front of Palo Alto City Hall drew a crowd of about 75 people. Cook spoke to the group before joining the gun-buyback down the road in neighboring East Palo Alto.
"We know for a fact that this is effective just by taking guns off the street," Cook said.
Also speaking was Mindy Finkelstein, 30, of Berkeley, who was among five people wounded in an August 1999 shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles by a white supremacist wielding an assault weapon. He also killed a postal worker.
"There are ways to protect your family from gun violence," Finkelstein said. "And today's gun buyback in East Palo Alto is one example."
Andre Fontenot, 53, an avid duck hunter from San Bruno, was eager to shrink his stockpile of shotguns and reduce any possible threat to his three children, ages 16, 14 and 4. He felt the $200 each they offered for the seven rifles and shotguns he brought was a decent price.
"I have too many of them around the house, and I wanted to get rid of them, especially with kids around the house," Fontenot said of his gun collection. "I keep them safe. But I'm not really big on collecting things, especially guns. I kept the ones I need to hunt and for home safety, and the rest I turned in today."
Fontenot said he would donate the proceeds from the sale to his duck club.
Organizers said it was the first joint gun buyback involving the three police agencies.
Some folks lurked nearby, hoping to buy guns from those lining up to sell them to the police. But the officers had expected them and threatened them with arrest if they didn't leave.
When the money ran out in the early afternoon, officers told motorists waiting along University Avenue about other upcoming gun buybacks. Those who were already in the City Hall parking lot and in the process of selling their weapons were issued I.O.U.s to be paid by the East Palo Alto Police Department.
Some grumbled, but most seemed to feel it was still all worthwhile.
Despite the three-plus hour wait, Robert Miller, 57, of Redwood City said he was happy to trade in an old shotgun he'd owned since 1975 for a $200 voucher.
"It was time to get rid of it," Miller said. "And the less guns out there being abused, the better."
Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/johnwoolfolk1.