NPR: Gun Buyback Programs are Ineffective at Reducing Street Crime

In its coverage of the debate over gun control, last month National Public Radio had on two guests to discuss the overall efficacy of gun buyback programs as a means to reduce street crime.

Gun buyback programs have been popping up around the country with increasing regularity in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, as communities look for ways to combat gun-related violence.

However, amidst the clamor and urgency to ‘act now’ one wonders if any of the leaders within these communities have bothered to ask themselves or those in public office if gun buyback programs actually work.

For many gun owners buyback programs are nothing more than ‘feel-good’ political schemes, void of civic merit, that create the illusion of enhanced public safety while, at the same time, wasting taxpayer dollars.

Furthermore, many question the needless destruction of these unwanted firearms.  That is, why destroy something that could be sold to a law-abiding collector or enthusiast?

The guests who appeared on NPR, Santa Fe Sheriff Raymond Rael and John Hopkins associate professor Jon Vernick, essentially confirmed what gun owners knew to begin with, that gun buyback programs are ineffective at reducing crime.

During the interview, the host of the program, Scott Simon asked Sheriff Rael about his gun buyback program called Operation Safe Streets and what he hoped to accomplish with it.

SIMON: Do you expect any real criminals to turn in their guns?

RAEL: Well, in reality, probably not. Anyone who is serious about stealing a weapon, and using it in a criminal act, isn’t likely to turn it in. But we do anticipate that there will be some weapons turned in by members of the general public who have either inherited weapons, or are concerned about leaving weapons in their homes – loaded or unloaded – and just feel they no longer have any use for them.

SIMON: So I don’t have to tell you, Chief, I’m sure, there are people who – even those that might think a gun-buyback program is a good idea – who wonder if they actually reduce any crime because as you just said, actual perpetrators of crimes are unlikely to bring their guns in.

RAEL: You know, that’s an impossible thing to analyze. I mean, in reality, it may prevent someone from breaking into someone’s home and stealing that weapon. And the other side of the equation is, if you look at – you know, even one tragedy prevented; even one suicide, or one child who accesses an unsecured weapon and has an accidental shooting; I think the program pays for itself, and it’s well worth it.

SIMON: In the end, Chief, what does a gun-buyback program achieve, as far as you’re concerned?

RAEL: Well, I think in the end, as we’re all aware, I mean, there’s millions of guns in the United States, at this point. Do I believe that we’re going to make an impact in reducing the overall numbers? Not immediately, but as time proceeds and these programs continue, and the public becomes more and more aware, there’s always the hope – and the possibility – that we can start getting some of these things under control.

One has to acknowledge the Sheriff’s honesty.  Rael seems to recognize the futility of the program, yet he still has hope that some good will come of it.  And maybe he has a point about reducing the risk of accidental shootings.

Of course, the opportunity costs must be weighed.  One of which seems to be is it worth shelling out hundreds of dollars for firearms (in this case, $150 gift card, for a handgun; $200 for ‘assault’ weapons) that may not even be functional?

Overall, if the money or the gift cards were donated from local businesses or churches or community members then one can reasonably conclude that it’s justified.  However, if the funds come from government coffers, i.e. taxpayer dollars, then there may be reason to rethink the program.

Professor Vernick, who is the associate professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and co-director of the Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research was asked similar questions and he was even more direct about the limitations of buyback schemes.

SIMON: What do you think the evidence on gun-buyback schemes is? Do they work?

VERNICK: Unfortunately, the evidence isn’t very encouraging at all, if one’s goal is to reduce rates of street crime.

SIMON: Well, what do they do?

VERNICK: What we’ve learned is that high-risk people don’t tend to participate. The folks who are at highest risk for being either a victim or a perpetrator of gun violence are young males. But disproportionately, the people who participate in these buybacks tend to be older; they tend to be female.

On top of that, the guns that get turned in don’t tend to be the high-risk guns. The high-risk guns for street crime tend to be newer; they tend to be high-caliber, semiautomatic pistols; they tend to be functional. The guns that disproportionately get turned in, in buybacks, tend to be older; they tend to be revolvers, lower caliber; and worst of all, often they’re broken. So there isn’t good reason to expect, unfortunately, that these gun-buyback programs are likely to reduce street crime.

A few thoughts

My opinion is that instead of buyback programs in the traditional sense there should be government-sponsored auctions that incorporate the gun community.  If someone no longer wants a firearm, give him/her the opportunity to sell it to a law-abiding individual who may want it.  Practically speaking, “taking guns of the street” is the same thing as placing guns in the hands of responsible citizens.

And, if no one purchases the gun the police can still collect it and give the seller a free muffin or a (donated) gift card for participating in the auction.  This way everyone wins.

Obviously, before any gun is auctioned off it should be checked to see if it was stolen or used in the commission of a crime.

So, given the facts, should communities outright junk gun buyback programs? Thoughts?

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