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Program encourages kids to turn in toy guns for more 'quality' gifts

Sean Acosta Jr. gives an air hockey game

Sean Acosta Jr. gives an air hockey game to Trey Trice, 4, as he trades in a toy gun during the Long Island Toy Gun Exchange Program on Thursday in Hempstead. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Carl Trice said the Village of Hempstead’s toy gun exchange program event Thursday was a good message for his 4-year-old-son Trey, who traded in a toy gun for a tabletop air hockey set.

“It’s good for the kids, to teach them that guns are bad,” Trice said. “I’m trying to teach him the right way. For me, it’s important to let my son know that sometimes what you see on TV, or maybe out on the streets, is not how life is supposed to be.”

Trey was among about 100 children who gathered at the Douglas Cross Recreational Facility at Brierley Park and received about 200 toys — ranging from Batman action-figure sets and sporting goods to Barbie and Lalaloopsy dolls — after most traded in their water pistols and other replica firearms.

The Long Island Toy Gun Exchange Program was hosted by Hempstead Village Trustee Lamont Johnson and Sean Acosta Jr., co-chair of the initiative launched four years ago by Johnson and Acosta’s father, former New York City police office Sean Acosta Sr. The goal is to teach children about the dangers of gun violence.

“We’re trying to teach children at an early age — we’re emphasizing that there are other alternatives,” said Johnson, who is also a member of the local school board. “It’s very important to let the young children know that toy guns are not toys. They’re very dangerous, and we don’t want a law enforcement official to mistake a toy gun for a real gun. And we don’t want young children to feel that they should play with toy guns, so we’re providing a nice quality gift instead.”

The toys were purchased and donated by the Acostas, who also work closely with Toys for Tots.

“From a very young age, my dad . . . taught me from the moment I could walk that guns are not toys, and would teach me about responsibility,” Acosta Jr. said. “And from learning that playing with a gun is dangerous, I think it will resonate with everyone at the same age I was to be safe.”

The event was held in the wake of the deadly shooting in Jersey City on Dec. 10 in which four people were killed, including police officer Joseph Seals, a 15-year veteran who worked to remove handguns off the streets.

“In light of recent events that have happened nationwide with gun violence and mass shootings, we’re trying to let our children know that instead of playing with guns, we’re offering them toys instead,” said Hempstead Village Trustee Waylyn Hobbs Jr., who recalled how playing with toy firearms was normal for most children when he was growing up. “I think it sends a message of safety to our residents.”

According to the Brady gun safety group, a national organization dedicated to ending gun violence, 21 children and teens up to age 17 are shot each day in the United States, four of whom will die. Nearly 7,800 children and teens are shot each year across the country, and almost 1,500 of them will not survive.

Organizers also noted local victims of gun violence that has rocked the village in recent years, notably the 2016 killing of 12-year-old Deja Joyner, who was shot as she ate dinner in her home on nearby Dartmouth Street.

“We love our children, and we’re trying to get the message to them to stay away from guns of any kind,” said Hempstead Village Mayor Don Ryan.

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