As a longtime education reformer and domestic violence counselor in Guadalupe, Ariz., Socorro Hernandez Bernasconi thought she had seen the worst problems facing young people in her town. But in 1990, she came face to face with a new threat to Guadalupe’s youth—the prevalence of guns in the community.
A mother of seven children, and one of the first people from Guadalupe to obtain a college degree, Bernasconi says, “My home was a safe haven—we had no alcohol, no guns…but that wasn’t enough.” Bernasconi says her 19-year-old son Sérgio killed himself at a party with friends while imitating the game of Russian roulette depicted in the movie The Deer Hunter.
In recent years, Guadalupe, a town of 5,400 south of Phoenix populated mostly by Latinos and Yaqui Indians—close to half of whom are under the age of 19—has seen a sharp increase in the number of youth-related violent deaths. Bernasconi says three teenagers died of gunshot wounds in the first month of 1998 alone.
Determined to change the circumstances that she believes helped cause her son’s death, Bernasconi left her job as the director of a local women’s shelter to organize young people against gun violence. She founded a community group called GLAAD (Guadalupe Libre Alcohol, Armas y Drogas) and started a program urging teenagers to give up their firearms in exchange for rewards. With no institutional support or funding, she canvassed local organizations for donations of items she could trade for the guns—acquiring computers from the learning center, bicycles from the fire department, and vouchers for free guitar lessons from area musicians. The teenage members of GLAAD spread the word and, little by little, the guns began to trickle in.
But rather than turning the firearms over to the police department for destruction, as most gun-redemption programs do, GLAAD gives the weapons it collects to local welders who turn them into artwork and tools, ensuring they will not find their way back to the streets.
Inspired by the biblical verse Isaiah 2:4 (“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares”), Bernasconi had a welder make the first rifle GLAAD collected into a shovel, and had another group of guns made into candlesticks for the altar of a Guadalupe church.
“Socorro brings all of us together in teaching our kids not to use guns,” says Ramon Guzman, one of the welders who works with GLAAD. “The shovel at the end of the rifle barrel reminds kids, ‘You use guns, you’re digging your own grave.'” One of Guzman’s creations has been used to bury several of Guadalupe’s recent victims of gun violence.
“We’re experts at recycling,” Bernasconi says. “When it comes to people who are into drugs and violence and destructive ways of life, the pieces we’ve made are symbols of the change they can undergo too.”
In addition to the gun-redemption program, she has instituted a ride-along system in which local kids and community leaders accompany cops on their beats. She has also organized vigils at the scene of violent crimes, and started a college scholarship fund, which has raised $12,000 through youth-run car washes over the last two years.
Most important, Bernasconi has gotten the young people themselves involved in the process of change. “Guadalupe is too small a town for how many people get killed,” says 15-year-old Mary Alvarez, one of the teens who is involved in GLAAD. “Hopefully, getting these guns off the streets will help change that.”