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Originally published Thursday, May 9, 2013 at 9:40 PM

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Guns melted into rebar before mayor announced plan for plaques

The weapons collected at a January gun buyback had already been destroyed when Mayor Mike McGinn announced a program to turn them into peace plaques.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The weapons collected at a January gun buyback had already been destroyed when Mayor Mike McGinn announced a program Tuesday to turn them into peace plaques inscribed with the words of Seattle schoolchildren.

Although he knew that the 716 firearms already had been melted down and made into rebar, the mayor at a planned news conference explained that the plaques would be “upcycled from the guns recovered in our gun buyback program.”

Thursday, after KIRO radio reported the blunder, McGinn apologized “for not being more forthcoming at our news conference. We will be using metal from guns acquired at our next gun buyback for our Weapons to Words youth outreach program.”

McGinn had asked that some of the guns be set aside for the art project, but learned the morning of the news conference that they had all been destroyed.

“The fact was I didn’t want this piece of information to distract from the program or the incredible support from Schnitzer Steel and the Chihuly family.”

Other speakers at the news conference also seemed unaware that the guns collected during the January buyback wouldn’t be turned into plaques.

Leslie Jackson Chihuly, wife of the glass artist Dale Chihuly and president of Chihuly Studios, pledged to donate the engraving and placement of the plaques in city parks. She spoke of the symbolism of converting weapons to children’s words.

“We’re taking the guns that were used as part of the city’s gun buyback program, we’re turning them into artful objects,” she said.

Aaron Pickus, the mayor’s spokesman, told KIRO they did not intend to mislead anyone.

“When we learned what happened, we closely looked over a news release to determine if it was accurate, and we decided that it was,” he told the station.

That release included: “Plaques made from metal upcycled from guns recovered from Seattle’s gun buyback program will feature quotes from Seattle students about what a violence-free future means to them.”

McGinn announced the planned gun buyback in early January, flanked by community leaders and members of the police command staff. At the time, the mayor said the collected guns would be melted down at no cost to the city.

Police transported the weapons to be destroyed on April 5, said Seattle Police Sgt. Sean Whitcomb. He said it was the police department’s fault that a few guns weren’t set aside, as requested.

“There was an expectation that we would hold some of the guns back,” Whitcomb said. “Looking back, we didn’t deliver.”

McGinn is running for re-election and has seven opponents, including two City Council members, one former City Council member and a prominent state senator.

One of his challengers, City Council member Bruce Harrell, who also chairs the council’s public-safety committee, said: “Miscommunications between departments happen, but it is the responsibility of our leaders to be transparent about them. The fact that our current mayor promoted information he knew was deliberately misleading is exactly why this city is hungry for new leadership.”

Gun-rights advocates suggested that both the gun buyback program and the peace plaque announcement were aimed more at self-promotion than public policy.

“Not surprisingly, some in the gun-rights community are shaking their heads over this, noting that it smacks of dishonesty from McGinn’s office that has seemed to be part of the gun buyback program from the beginning. It was widely known the buyback would not result in any reduction in violent crime, based on past experience and now the much ballyhooed final use for those melted guns turns out to be all flash and no substance,” Dave Workman, of TheGunMag, wrote in a blog post Thursday.

McGinn’s news conference to announce the Weapons to Words program was one of four held in as many days by the mayor this week.

On Monday he announced that the police would relax some standards, such as the presence of tattoos or piercings, in hiring new police recruits so that the force would look more like the city. On Tuesday it was the peace plaques. On Wednesday he called on city departments to cut their use of petroleum-based fuels. Thursday he announced an initiative to support the growth of Seattle technology startups.

Staff reporter Mike Carter contributed to this report. Lynn Thompson: lthompson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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