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Should Philadelphia continue gun buybacks? | Pro/Con

For years, the city has held gun buybacks, but the events have had limited success. Should they continue?

Rifles are turned in during a 2012 gun buyback program in Camden.
Rifles are turned in during a 2012 gun buyback program in Camden.Read moreApril Saul / MCT

Philadelphia is experiencing record crime — 562 murders last year, including the most shooting deaths in the city’s history.

For years, the city has scheduled periodic gun buybacks, in which people are offered money to turn in their weapons to police, no questions asked. But the events have had limited success: The city has only gathered 1,000 guns over the last three years, none of which had been used in crimes.

Given these data, we asked two local people: Should Philadelphia continue gun buybacks?

No: Buybacks are a feel-good attempt to reduce crime — but don’t work.

By Kyle Sammin

The best thing that can be said for gun buybacks is that they are well-intentioned. People see gun violence on the streets, lives being lost, and they want to do something about it. That’s a reasonable reaction.

The most important thing you can say about buybacks, though, is that they don’t work. However well-intentioned, this attempt to find a market-style solution to the problem of gun crime has never been shown to actually reduce gun crime. And the way the programs are structured, they never will.

The National Bureau of Economic Research studied the issue in 2021 and found that there was “no evidence that [gun buybacks] reduce suicides or homicides where a firearm was involved.” Since the first buyback in Baltimore in 1974 up to the present day, proponents have claimed buybacks would reduce violence. Year after year, the evidence shows that they do nothing of the sort.

“The most important thing you can say about buybacks is that they don’t work.”

Kyle Sammin

There is a logic to that if you think about it. Would-be criminals obtain guns for one of two reasons: to commit crimes, or to protect themselves from other criminals. In the latter case, there is no chance that the promise of $100 cash will convince such people to expose themselves to the threat of crime, any more than it would for legal gun owners. If you believe having a gun will keep you from getting killed, you won’t give it up for a hundred bucks.

Perhaps even more common is the former case, where people obtain guns because they want to use them to commit crimes. If someone has decided to rob people, what are the odds that the promise of $100 or $200 will convince them to turn from a life of crime?

» READ MORE: Though well-intentioned, gun buyback programs miss the mark | Editorial

This is why many of the guns collected in buybacks are broken, dilapidated relics, harmful only if someone throws them at you. Others are unwanted long guns — things otherwise destined to gather dust in a closet, not hold up a convenience store.

Like with many failed policies, proponents of gun buybacks argue that they just need more funding to make it work. What if cities paid even more for guns? Wouldn’t basic economics dictate that higher prices would draw in even more guns to the program?

The answer is yes, but not in the way you would hope.

A $100 buyback is not enough to make a criminal give up the tools of his trade, but what about $800, or even $1,000, as some have proposed? That might bring in new guns, but only because a person could buy a cheap, legal handgun for as little as $210 and instantly resell it for four times as much, no questions asked. It would waste the city’s money and serve only to sell more cheap handguns.

In fact, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, this has already begun to happen. Earlier this year in Utica, N.Y., a man turned in 60 3D-printed auto sears, which can convert firearms into automatic weapons, taking home $21,000 in free gift cards courtesy of New York taxpayers. The state soon changed its rule to require working guns, but with the cost of 3D printing falling all the time, this soon will no longer be an effective barrier — if it even still is.

Gun buybacks fill a need, but it is not the need to decrease violence, only the need for politicians to feel like they are doing something. The low-effort, feel-good attempt grabs headlines but does not reduce crime. We should concentrate our efforts on something that does.

Kyle Sammin is editor-at-large at Broad + Liberty.

Yes: Gun buybacks can save lives — if done properly.

By Jonathan Wilson Jr.

If organized correctly, gun buybacks can help get illegal weapons off the streets of Philadelphia. But gun buybacks are often not done correctly.

The city’s gun buybacks do not specifically target illegal weapons, nor do they seem to take into consideration the black-market prices of illegal firearms when deciding how much to offer.

Rewards are typically $100, too low to obtain the modern automatic weapons ripping our neighborhoods apart. Not surprisingly, Philly’s gun buyback events have been less than effective. In 2021, 16 events recovered fewer than 750 guns. In the last three years, none of the recovered guns has been linked to a crime.

That doesn’t mean gun buybacks can’t work. Rather than give up the program, the city of Philadelphia needs to begin gun buybacks that are data-driven and target illegal firearms.

This model would buy the firearms at a price just under black-market value. This will address the unique needs and circumstances of many of those who are likely in possession of these illegal firearms — including people who may face eviction, need bail money, have a stolen gun, are moving or raising children, or own multiple weapons.

Researchers based at my organization, the Fathership Foundation Community Learning Center located in Southwest Philadelphia, are conducting a study on gun violence funded by the Center for Court Innovation. As part of the study’s 246-question questionnaire, participants are asked about firearm preference and pricing, as well as the circumstances under which they would sell a gun. Once the survey is complete, the city will be able to use this information to design a gun buyback program that has competitive pricing and provides other incentives for people to sell their guns.

» READ MORE: Gun buyback programs in Philly should expand | Opinion

Critics of gun buybacks say they don’t have any effect on crime and cite a 2021 National Bureau of Economic Research study. This study did not focus on gun buybacks that are data-driven and offer competitive prices.

Just step back and consider the logic behind a gun buyback program, and you’ll realize it makes sense. Every weapon turned in cannot be used in a homicide. Even more, $1,000 to get a gun off the street is less expensive than the hundreds of thousands it costs to successfully prosecute a homicide case or the $2 million it will cost to incarcerate that person for the rest of their life afterward.

“Consider the logic behind a gun buyback program, and you’ll realize it makes sense.”

Jonathan Wilson Jr.

New Jersey has conducted successful buybacks for years. Over two days in 2017, New Jersey collected more than 4,770 weapons. Unlike Philadelphia, it stratified the prices, offering differing amounts for different types of firearms. During New Jersey’s biggest one-day gun buyback in 2021, it offered $125 for rifles and shotguns, $200 for handguns, and $250 for assault weapons. I believe offering even more would have made the program even more successful.

Gun buyback programs can work if we do them well — namely, by offering more money and incorporating data about what will make buybacks more effective.

The city should continue its gun buyback programs and work to make them better, not rely on assumptions of what will convince someone who has an illegal weapon to give it up.

With data and better pricing, I believe gun buybacks can save lives.

Jonathan Wilson Jr. is the executive director of the Fathership Foundation and holds a doctorate in education. He is a social worker, researcher, resident of Southwest Philadelphia, and four-time survivor of gun violence who is now confined to a wheelchair.