A look at the pros and cons of programs that give cash to those who voluntarily turn in their firearms.
The Daytona Police Department collected 32 guns last week, not through typical police seizures, but through a gun buyback program that offers citizens gift cards in exchange for their unwanted firearms. Gun buyback programs are nothing new, but have increased in popularity since the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. resulted in the deaths of 27, most of whom were elementary school students.
Since the shooting, dozens of counties and cities, including crime ridden areas like Camden, N.J. have held gun buybacks in efforts that have taken thousands of guns, including a number of automatic weapons, off the street.
Just how effective are these programs from a policy standpoint? With up to 310 million firearms privately held in the U.S. and about 11,000 homicides involving firearms each year, striking a balance between preserving Second Amendment rights and reducing gun violence has posed a major policy challenge for lawmakers. With the surging popularity in gun buybacks, groups on both sides of the gun issue are again debating the merits of these programs.
Gun buyback programs: the pros…
Here’s how the programs generally work — a city, county or state will fund a gun buyback by offering gift cards or cash to gun owners who turn in old, broken, unused or unwanted firearms. The guns are almost always destroyed by police unless they are found to be stolen or used in a previous crime.
In many cases, the police offer a “no questions asked” amnesty clause to these programs as an extra incentive that encourages the exchange of all types of firearms, including those that are unregistered or stolen.
In some cities, like Daytona Beach, Fla., the “Kicks for Guns” buyback program has become an an annual event. Daytona Beach Police Department spokesman Jimmie Flynt reported that 32 guns were collected Aug. 22 as part of the event. That might not sound like a lot, but eight other counties in Florida participated in this year’s event, each hauling in dozens of firearms. A total of 1,333 guns were turned in during last year’s collection, 36 of which were illegal or stolen.
“People have unwanted weapons, they don’t know how to dispose of them properly, this is a safe way to dispose of them,” said Noel Berry Rauch of the Orange County Sheriffs office in an interview with Orlando’s WESH 2 news.
Many residents who have older weapons or decide that they no longer feel comfortable keeping firearms in their homes can easily drive up, hand over the guns and collect their money.
There was a renewed push in many communities to fund the programs shortly after the mass shooting at an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Conn. led to the deaths of 27 people. A single gun buyback held in Camden, NJ last year led to the collection of 1,137 guns in a single buyback, including several weapons used in previous crimes.
The Camden event was supported with the help of local church groups and included an amnesty clause that helped police haul in more than just the run-of-the-mill sporting rifles. NJ.com reports that police recovered five fully-automatic assault weapons, including two Intratec TEC-DC9 — known as a “TEC-9s” — and an Uzi 9mm submachine gun. They also collected two Chinese SKS assault rifles, one with a bayonet, a 10-gauge double-barreled elephant shotgun, hundreds of semi-automatic weapons and dozens of sawed-off shotguns.
The state attorney general later reported that many of the long guns turned in to authorities had been used in previous crimes, including the murder of Camden city police officers. Ninety percent of the guns collected were functioning.
Police generally increase incentives for illegal and automatic weapons. Following the success of the Camden event, a similar one was held in Trenton, N.J. where police collected 2,600 guns over the two day collection period. NJ.com reports that participants at the Trenton buyback were offered $25 for BB guns, $50 for inoperable guns, $150 for revolvers, rifles, semiautomatic handguns and shotguns, and $250 for assault rifles and illegal guns.
…and the cons
It sounds like a winning system, but many gun owners and pro-gun groups say that the majority of guns handed over during these events come from law-abiding citizens and relatively few weapons used in crimes are actually disposed of. The thinking is that someone bent on malice will carry out his crime with or without the lure of a $100 gift card.
“When you think about people who’d be strongly motivated to retain their weapons – you have to ask why that might be,” said Lance Stell, a professor of philosophy and director of the Medical Humanities Program at the Davidson University. “The offer of low amounts of money isn’t enough to get them to give that up.”
In some cases, the well advertised events attract gun buyers who lure citizens to sell them their weapons for more than the police offer. At a gun buyback in Detroit this month, people with “Guns Wanted! Cash” and “Cash for guns,” signs congregated outside a church offering citizens considerably more than the $25-$100 offered by the police.
“These guys out here are willing to double and triple that,” said Rick Ector, 44, a Detroit gun rights activist who helped plan the protest.
Those with functioning weapons who would like to receive top dollar can always sell their weapons to a gun dealer where they are likely to receive considerably more than the sums offered at gun buybacks.
Meanwhile, even a criminal could sell back an old or broken firearm for cash while retaining a weapons to be used in future crimes.
Several studies confirm that this is indeed the case, including a 2004 report by the National Research Council in which researchers conclude that “the theory underlying gun buyback programs is badly flawed.”
Critics say that the buybacks are a costly undertaking given the need to fund both the incentives for citizens and salaries for officers who have to work extra hours collecting and then destroying firearms.
“Let’s say you pay $100 per gun, and you get 2,000 guns,” says Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “That’s $200,000 — would it be money better spent elsewhere?”
New Jersey Spotlight reported in April that since the Newtown shooting, the state of New Jersey has helped fund five gun buybacks, collecting nearly 10,000 firearms at a cost of roughly $1.2 million.
Most public policy experts conclude that the buybacks take a good number of weapons off the streets, but provide little incentive for criminals to hand over their arms.
Another report, from the Firearm Injury Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin, concludes:
Handguns recovered in buyback programs are not the types most commonly linked to firearm homicides and suicides. Although buyback programs may increase awareness of firearm violence, limited resources for firearm injury prevention may be better spent in other ways.
Gun for bicycles and computers?
Some gun control advocates believe that gun buybacks have not been employed to their full potential.
In Uruguay, a country where President Jose Mujica supports full marijuana legalization and gives away 90 percent of his salary to charities according to a 2012 BBC report, thinking outside the box has become a matter of administrative policy, especially when it comes to gun buybacks.
Gun buybacks in the small South American nation seek to kill two birds with one stone by taking guns off the street and giving citizens something that can help improve their lives in return. It’s been called the “Weapons for Life Program” and has been hailed as a success by policymakers.
Here’s how it works: instead of offering a gift card or cash, citizens who hand over guns are given a computer or bicycle that can help them improve their lives. Policy-makers believe it’s worth the investment.
The country of 3.3 million has the ninth highest gun ownership per capita in the world. Half of the roughly one million weapons in circulation are unregistered and crime remains a major concern.
“These are the same weapons that, sometimes and for various reasons (sale, theft, etc.), can be prevented from entering the market for use by criminals,” says the Interior Ministry.
“We are delighted that the ministry is finally taking action on the matter and starting a campaign to discourage gun ownership,” says Guidobono Gustavo, president of the Association for the Civilian Disarmament. “Effecting this change by using computers or bicycles is unprecedented, but it is welcome.”