The small, plain, white coffin was a stark reminder of the toll that gun violence can have on a community.
And even though the funeral was about to begin, no one was sad. Nobody shed a tear.
Instead, everyone in the audience cheered when the casket was closed.
Inside were dozens of toy guns turned in by children ages 6 to 16, who participated in the Toy Gun Exchange on Friday afternoon in the Delavan Grider Community Center.
The children could exchange a toy gun for a new, nonviolent toy such as a basketball or soccer ball. The purpose was to show kids that a toy gun today can be a real gun tomorrow.
“The reason why we turn in toy guns is because we don’t want you to get too comfortable with holding them,” said Leonard Lane, who presided over the fake funeral in front of 65 youngsters in attendance.
“Guns have been killing our loved ones for years. Now is the time to bury the guns because they’ve been burying us for years,” said Lane, who is president of F.A.T.H.E.R.S., which stands for Fathers Armed Together to Help, Educate, Restore and Save. The community group has sponsored the event for the past few years.
Friday, 10-year-old Kamren Black turned in a dart gun and another one that turns into a sword, he said. Violence committed with real firearms is something with which he is all too familiar.
“I’m tired of people getting killed by guns. It’s very sad because some of my family members have been killed by guns,” he said.
In a role-playing demonstration, Kamren helped Buffalo Police Officer Steve Nichols make a point about how toy guns seem innocent but can be very dangerous.
The exercise involved Kamren pulling out a fake gun and pointing it at Nichols, who was in character as a police officer on patrol. Not being able to identify the toy as a fake, Nichols simulated shooting Kamren, who played dead.
“If you point this at a police officer, he could think it’s a real gun,” Nichols told the children.
Darnell Murphy, 11, didn’t hand over any fake guns because his grandmother does not let him have them, he said. But the message of the day’s event was not lost on him.
“They want to make sure kids don’t mess with guns when they’re older,” he said.
Rita Gay came with her twin 8-year-old sons, Zyion and Keyion. She doesn’t buy toy guns for her boys, but she brought them to the Toy Gun Exchange anyway because it’s never too early for them to learn, she said.
“It’s a perfect time to bring them a little reality,” she said.
Another parent turned in what looked like an assault weapon. It even came with its own fake magazine.
“She said, ‘I gotta get this out of my house,’ ” said Murray Holman, of the Stop the Violence Coalition, another sponsor of Friday’s event.
“This is what legislation is talking about banning now,” he said, holding up the toy and the accessory.
When Lane asked the group of children how many of them had received toy guns as Christmas presents, about 20 children raised their hands. He said too many youngsters are getting so used to the toys that many of them are walking around with them tucked in their pants. They think it’s the “in” thing.
“Many of them sleep with them under their pillows. They pull them out of their back pockets,” Lane said.
A lot of teenagers use fake guns and embellish them to look even more real because it’s what they have access to, Nichols said. They spray-paint them and use them to hold people up.
And even though it is a fake, the danger is that the person with the toy could end up being the one who gets hurt.
“If you pull out a toy gun and point it at someone who has a real gun, they will shoot you. They don’t know the difference,” Nichols said.
The bottom line is that kids should not get too comfortable with fake firearms, organizers said. If they get too comfortable at a young age, eventually they may want real guns.
“If you desensitize yourself enough to play with toy guns, you’ll be comfortable enough to pull the trigger on a real gun when you’re older,” said Nichols, who swore in all the kids as junior police officers.
“Kids don’t need to have these,” he added. “There are so many other toys out there.”