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Identity & Community

Trading Guns for Education Newest Initiative to Tackle Violence in Pittsburgh Region

Deanna Garcia
90.5 WESA

After a violent few weeks in the Pittsburgh region, a local labor union is trying something a little bit different to get guns off the streets.

Many cities hold periodic gun buyback programs in which residents can drop off a gun without fear of arrest and get money or gift cards in exchange. With that same theory in mind, Boilermakers Local 154 is launching the “Guns for Opportunity” program. Through it, a firearm can be turned in, and in exchange, an individual will receive free training in the union’s welding program.

“The Boilermakers want to give an incentive to these young guys,” said Raymond Ventrone, the local’s business manager. “We want to go into these neighborhoods, we want to give them a chance to do something else and we want them to lay down their guns and we want to give them a chance to do something in society, and we want to give them a chance to get a job.”

Casting a Wide Net

The first gun exchange event will be in Braddock, but Ventrone said there are plans to go into more areas.

“I’m going in to these neighborhoods and I’m asking these young guys that have never been recruited before, nobody’s ever done this before, they’ve never gone into these neighborhoods and recruited,” he said. “We’re going to give these young guys a chance to become part of this society and put down their guns and become part of the middle class.”

Ventrone said welders are in high demand and that need will only grow. There aren’t enough local welders to fill the jobs and companies are bringing in people from out of state.

Braddock Mayor John Fetterman said the program is a passport to the middle class for young people who may feel as though there is no opportunity for them, or “who may be on a path that will end in jail or a chalk outline on the sidewalk.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said that is what could help make this program a success. It aims to address more than just the weapons.

“This is the way we address a problem, by going to the root of it,” Peduto said. “Not just to the gun and getting the gun off the street, but the individual behind the gun and giving them opportunity and as we know, opportunity walks hand in hand with responsibility.”

Few Requirements for the Program

The union’s requirement that a trainee have a high school diploma or GED will be waived for “Guns for Opportunity” participants. In addition, Ventrone said a participant will be given time to get treatment for drug or alcohol addictions through another union program. The training will take six months to a year.

“We’re giving them a $25,000 to $30,000 education that they would have to pay for in a technical school,” said Ventrone. “We’re going to give that to them for nothing, not only in the welding school, but in our theory classes also. They’re going to learn everything; they’re going to be boilermakers from top to bottom.”

But, Ventrone said he knows the process won’t be easy.

“We’re going to ask these guys to give up a life that they’ve known, all they’ve known all their life, this is what they’ve been born into and we’re asking them to give up their life of crime to come and do a regular job,” he said.  

Hope through Training and Employment

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald used a line often spoken by Peduto in summing up why he believes this initiative will work.

“The best way to take a gun out of someone’s hand is to put a paycheck in their hands, and I concur with that wholeheartedly,” said Fitzgerald. “We give people opportunities – they’ll take the right path.”

The hope is that this program will prompt other organizations and communities to follow suit. Peduto said this isn’t a hand out, but rather a hand out to help and get people on the right track.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of a community that’s trading guns for an opportunity of life,” said Peduto.

The first gun collection event will be Feb. 24 in Braddock. There, guns can be surrendered without question and individuals will receive a token to take to the Boilermakers to begin the application process.