No solution, but gun buybacks can be a small part of overall crime prevention

September 1, 2022 12:02 am

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They’re easy to sponsor and hold. They allow residents, especially in crime-ridden communities around the commonwealth, to feel encouraged. They take a handful of tools of murder off the streets.

Many localities in Virginia have sponsored gun buybacks this summer. They include Richmond, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Roanoke. The town of Dumfries adopted an ordinance paving the way for them.

The city of Richmond collected 474 firearms in August from 160 people, and organizers gave out gift cards of $25 to $250, depending on the type of gun and whether they even still worked. Richmond used $80,000 in federal pandemic aid for the event.

Are these buybacks effective? No, say university professors, independent studies and other experts.

Yet even with that acknowledgment, a few caveats should be added. Gun buybacks aren’t a total failure.

First, the facts:

With an estimated 400 million firearms in America, anything collected by authorities during these events is negligible. Scooping up hundreds of guns means little in the scheme of things.

“Having a gun buyback is like trying to drain the pool with a dropper,” Alex Tabarrok, an economics professor who studies crime at George Mason University, told me Wednesday. “The people selling the guns are often happy to do so. … It’s not changing the demand for guns.”

“It may be good for some publicity,” Tabarrok added, “but it doesn’t do anything.”

That was the same basic conclusion of a study released in 2021 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private nonprofit organization. The depressing title: “Have U.S. gun buyback programs misfired?”

“We find no evidence that (gun buyback programs) reduce gun crime,” three university professors wrote.

“We also find no evidence that GBPs reduce suicides or homicides where a firearm was involved,” they continued. “These results call into question the efficacy of city gun buyback programs in their current form.”

Ouch. That’s a scathing assessment.

So why hold them at all?

Josh Horwitz is co-director of the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at John Hopkins University, which researches and advocates ways to prevent gun-related injuries and slayings. Buybacks don’t recover enough guns to make “a populational effect,” Horwitz conceded. However, they “can be a way for communities to come together, build relationships and trust. There’s no harm in them.”

Are there other gun-related initiatives that would work better? Horwitz suggested several.

He said a growing body of evidence shows “community violence interventions” can save lives. Horwitz also cited Operation Ceasefire as one workable strategy. It’s a program where various community and law enforcement groups join to deter gang and youth gun violence, while also offering individuals workforce training, employment and other services.

Virginia legislators agreed this year to a $2.5 million annual grant fund that targets a small number of people most likely to shoot someone or become a shooting victim. House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, has been a major proponent of such a program in Virginia.

Horwitz also suggested the use of so-called “violence interrupters” who live in the same neighborhoods as potential criminals, may have been in prison themselves and can influence young men before they face the same fate. “They’re very credible,” he said, “and they can offer solutions and services.”

One policy Virginia hasn’t adopted – but should, Horwitz believes – is a process called “licensing for buying a handgun” or “permit to purchase.” It goes beyond the usual steps for gun buyers to include things like enhanced background checks. The process deters buyers from transferring guns or selling to straw purchasers.

A paper from Johns Hopkins says nine states and Washington, D.C., “have handgun purchaser licensing laws that apply to virtually all handgun transfers.”

Tabarrok pointed me to research that showed something as simple as boosting street lighting could have a big impact. The 2016 study in New York City public housing developments found “communities that were assigned more lighting experienced sizable reductions in crime.” That seems like a no-brainer.

None of these steps focus on a persistent, pernicious problem – the disproportionate number of Black victims and suspects in homicides. Or the fact that so many gun-related slayings involve tons of foolishness and insanity, from possibly outsized reactions to a “spilled drink” at a restaurant-bar to domestic violence shootings that kill and injure and traumatize survivors who witnessed the carnage.

Steps like Operation Ceasefire and fighting a callous culture of death take more time, effort and money than gun buybacks. That’s why the latter are so alluring for many localities.

They don’t help much. They don’t really hurt either. Buybacks can be a small step in a comprehensive approach.

Should communities spend more time and money focusing on proven deterrence? Of course.

Sometimes, though, folks just want a small victory against so much bloodshed.’


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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]