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Philly buyback events have yielded 1,000 guns in three years. None had been used in crimes.

"It's political theater," said Joe Giacalone, a former New York Police Department sergeant-turned-CUNY criminology professor.

As both shootings and gun sales in Philadelphia rose to unprecedented levels last year, a growing number of residents also turned their firearms over to the city’s Police Department, data show.

In 2021, during 16 gun-buyback events — in which people are typically offered $50 to $200 gift cards for each weapon — 558 handguns and 188 long guns were turned in. That’s a 532% increase over 2019, when just five such events were held, according to police data.

Yet of the more than 1,000 weapons turned in over the last three years, not a single one has been linked to a crime.

The number of buyback events — and media attention surrounding them — has grown in reaction to the city’s escalating gun violence crisis. But experts on the issue say the lackluster statistics show the events are not effective in reducing crime.

“It’s not reaching the area of the community that’s possessing illegal guns and using them,” said Joe Giacalone, a former New York Police Department sergeant-turned-CUNY criminology professor.

“It’s political theater.”

» READ MORE: He returned to Philadelphia to bury his friend. That night, he was shot and killed.

Philadelphia Police Capt. Frank Palumbo, who coordinates with community groups to staff buyback events, acknowledged that police generally do not expect crime guns to be turned in. But he said getting just one gun off the street could still potentially prevent a fatal shooting.

“It tends to be family people, mom-and-pop-type people” attending the events, he said. “It’s people that want to get a gun potentially out of the hands of a toddler that might frequent their homes, or get rid of a gun they don’t use or have the means to secure.”

‘Guns do not belong in the home’

Philadelphia is often credited with launching the first gun-buyback program. In 1968, amid a wave of interest in gun-control regulations nationally, City Council and the police commissioner-turned-mayor, Frank Rizzo, organized a “gun turn in” event, although initially no money was offered for the weapons.

Rizzo noted then that the program was not aimed at nabbing criminals but attracting “good citizens” interested in doing their civic duty to get guns out of circulation.

“Guns do not belong in the home,” Rizzo said. “Many homicides occur because a weapon was handy.”

Today, most buyback events are launched at the request of community organizations, Palumbo said, such as nonprofits or churches. In exchange for a weapon, participants are given gift cards paid for with money from private donors — currently, participants are offered ShopRite gift cards typically worth $50 to $100, provided by the company at a discount.

Police accept the guns with no questions asked, but each weapon undergoes forensic analysis and is checked against databases of guns reported missing or stolen. Last year, three guns turned in had been reported stolen in the 1980s.

Ultimately, police destroy the guns at regular incineration events along with other firearms the department confiscated. None is ever resold, Palumbo said.

While these programs generally cost little to run, the department does pay salaries and overtime to officers who help staff the events, such as SWAT team members who disarm potentially loaded weapons or detectives who log guns for analysis.

» READ MORE: A look at Philly’s gun violence crisis through the eyes of those experiencing it

Weapons recovered from buyback programs are processed by the forensics lab as they come in. Although a police spokesperson said firearms tagged with priority — such as those necessary for solving active crimes or court cases — are processed first, the weapons still add to the work of the city’s already backlogged forensics lab.

To Palumbo, the costs of the program are worthwhile even if it’s difficult to demonstrate they are directly preventing street violence.

“If we take 1,000 guns in and we save one kid from shooting themselves or another child, it’s really well worth it,” he said. “You can’t prove it, but it’s reasonable to think we’re definitely preventing some of those negative outcomes from happening.”

City Council is also a major promoter of buybacks, with members attending or even cohosting certain events that attract TV news crews.

» READ MORE: 14 people were shot, including 4 juveniles and a mother accompanied by her kids, during 24 hours in Philly

Bilal Qayyum serves as a point person for Council’s efforts, and works as an antiviolence advocate with the Father’s Day Rally Committee, a nonprofit conduit for private donations that fund buyback programs in the city. The buybacks do reduce murders and recover guns used in violent crimes, he says, even if hard to prove.

“There are guns that could have been stolen and never reported,” he said, noting Pennsylvania has no requirement to report a lost or stolen weapon. “We just don’t know. I wish we did know.”

Not paying enough for guns

Still, decades of research has found little evidence linking buyback programs and a reduction in crime.

While one analysis of national programs found they could help prevent gun injuries by taking firearms out of circulation, others found little correlation to tangible reductions in gun crime or injuries. One 2013 study of a years-long buyback effort in Buffalo concluded that government officials favored these events more for the public relations value than the impact on street violence.

“Given the empirical evidence,” the authors wrote, “police agencies may use gun buyback programs not with the expectation of reducing violent crime, but to satisfy the public’s expectations.”

Other advocates say the problem is not buyback events themselves but rather how Philadelphia runs them.

Jonathan Wilson, clinical director of the Fatherhood Foundation, a community organization that provides workforce training and mentorship programs, said the events should pay the same amount for a gun that a person could get selling it on the illegal market. That can be $800 to $1,000, he said, depending on the weapon.

Wilson, who has been shot four times and lives in Southwest Philly, said that since systemic poverty is one driver of gun violence, people may turn to buyback programs when they’re in need of funds, and police may see more crime guns get turned in.

But a $50 ShopRite gift card is not nearly enough, he said, so someone in search of cash is far more likely to sell a gun illegally — and that gun then becomes more likely to be used in a crime.

Until officials raise the prices, he said, crime guns will remain on the streets. “They’re just circulating and killing and being sold,” he said.

“There’s an ocean of guns,” he said, and trying to get them off the streets by collecting a few hundred per year is like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket.

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