As Congress ponders an assault-weapons ban and universal background checks, local authorities across the country are using gun “buyback” programs to try to decrease the numbers of guns in their communities.
And like just about everything else in the gun control debate, the buybacks are becoming a bone of contention between proponents of stricter controls and those who resist them.
Thousands of Weapons Collected
New Jersey has held several buybacks, with the latest, held the last weekend in January in Trenton, reportedly netting more than 2,600 weapons – 700 of them illegal. Most of the guns recovered are destroyed.
The Trenton program was fairly typical: Working guns brought $150 and duds $50 each. Police don’t run checks on the weapons to see if they were used in crimes, and the person surrendering the gun simply walks away with some cash or a voucher.
Trenton authorities paid out $324,000 from state criminal forfeiture proceeds during the two-day event but ran out of cash, so almost $100,000 had to be given out as vouchers, according to the Daily News.
“Often . . . these programs are indeed ‘no questions asked,’” says Jon Vernick, co-director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “But the police will usually check to see if the gun was reported stolen so that it might be returned to its rightful owner, rather than being sold or destroyed.”
Funding for buybacks can come from a variety of sources, notes Vernick, “including public funds, private foundations, individual donations, or corporate gifts.”
Popular, But Resistance Mounts
Other recent buybacks in Seattle, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles have allowed gun owners to turn in thousands of rifles, handguns, shotguns, and even rocket launchers for cash.
Hawaii legislators on Jan. 31 considered a bill that would fund a buyback program in the state with $100,000. And some federal congressmen tried to attach a buyback provision to the fiscal cliff legislation signed by President Barack Obama on Jan. 2.
The NRA has resisted such programs, calling them “complete failures and a waste of taxpayer dollars,” according to an NRA press release about the Hawaii bill. “The average person who voluntarily surrenders a firearm to police is not a criminal and the firearms surrendered are not those misused by criminals.”
An NRA member and lobbyist even threatened to sue in Arizona, where a buyback in Tucson prompted complaints that a state law requires local governments to auction seized or abandoned property.
Efficacy Up For Grabs
Supporters of the programs say they get guns off the street and help to lower crime rates. The Los Angeles Police Department, for instance, says violent crime has decreased 33 percent since the city began its buyback program in 2009.
Many people turning their guns in said they were doing so after the massacre of children in Sandy Hook made them question the wisdom of keeping guns around homes where kids live.
Vernick says he understands why some question their efficacy. “Some critics of buybacks fear that – especially if the incentive is substantial – some participants will turn in one gun and then use the proceeds of the buyback to acquire another,” he explains. “Hard data on how frequently this occurs is lacking.”
In fact the buybacks often turn into impromptu gun shows, with wily private buyers approach people waiting to get in, offering more cash for their weapons than the program would.
But a bigger problem, Vernick says, is that the programs “allow[ ] citizens and communities to avoid the harder task of enacting new policies more likely to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.”
“If buybacks serve as form of community mobilization – to encourage residents to address the tougher issues – then they can serve a useful role,” he says.