A Separate Peace

updated 01/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

A FEW DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS, FERNANDO MATEO WAS watching the evening news with his son Fernando Jr., 14. Both were sickened by the mayhem and bloodshed. What, Mateo wondered aloud, could be done to get guns off the streets? When his son volunteered that he'd be willing to give up his Christmas gifts if it would mean an end to the violence, Mateo was intrigued. "The next morning it hit me—toys for guns," he recalls. "I thought that a lot of unemployed people don't have money to buy Christmas presents, but if they have a weapon they might trade it in to get what they want."

The result, of course, was the biggest Christmas success story since Cabbage Patch Kids. Mateo, 36, the owner of a New York City carpet-installation business, used a credit card to buy $2,500 worth of gift certificates from Toys R Us. After consulting with police at the 34th precinct in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, the scene of some highly publicized shootings, he announced he would give a $100 gift certificate for every gun turned in to the station—no questions asked. Within a day, dozens of handguns and rifles began to stream in. Even on Christmas Day there was a line stretching down the sidewalk of people waiting to drop off guns. By the end of last week, more than 1,132 weapons had been exchanged—after Mateo sprang for another $2,500 worth of gift certificates. With the program extended to Jan. 6, and plans to expand to other cities during the next year, Toys R Us donated $25,000 in gift certificates, while Foot Locker, Dial-A-Mattress and Kay-Bee Toys pledged a total of $70,000 in exchange merchandise.

Mateo readily admits he was stunned by the results. "I thought we might recover three guns and I'd get the rest of my money back," he says with a chuckle. Police were delighted—but also slightly baffled. New York City already has a gun-amnesty program, under which owners receive as much as $75 per weapon. But in the past year and a half, the 34th precinct had collected only 54 guns. (About 3,500 have been collected citywide.) Why the sudden popularity of the rebates? The reason seemed to be Mateo himself. "By being Fernando's program and having the Toys R Us name behind it, the plan became friendly," says Michael Goldstein, the newly appointed CEO of Toys R Us. "It didn't look like a police program, and so people weren't afraid of getting arrested."

The psychology of the street is one Mateo knows firsthand. Born in the Dominican Republic, the youngest in a family of 10 children, he came to New York as a 2-year-old. His father, Cristóbal, who ran a bodega on the Lower East Side, and his mother, Carmen, who minded the kids, were determined to protect their brood from the wrong influences. They saved enough money to send Fernando and a sister away to private school.

Even so, when Fernando returned to the city for his sophomore year in high school, he quickly fell in with a tough crowd. Every morning before class he got high on pot or cocaine. "I was so disgusted with myself that I dropped out," says Mateo. "I knew if I stayed in, I'd end up a druggie." With $2,000 borrowed from his father, he opened a carpet store at age 17. "I starved the first five years," says Mateo. By dint of hard work, though, he began to prosper and now employs 20 people. Last year he did $6 million in sales. He lives in a 10-room house in Westchester County, north of New York City, with his second wife, Stella, 38, his son and two daughters, Megan, 6, and Hennessy, 5.

This latest venture is not Mateo's first foray into good works. In 1991 he organized several businesses in a job-training program for nonviolent New York City convicts—first offenders who didn't use drugs. He realizes his gun exchange isn't a cure for urban violence, but he professes deep satisfaction at being able to help his adopted land in any way. "This," he says, "was the best gift I could have given this country."

BILL HEWITT
KEVIN D. THOMPSON in New York City

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