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Though well-intentioned, gun buyback programs miss the mark | Editorial

Buybacks don’t get guns out of the hands of criminals, so why keep spending taxpayer dollars on them?

Rifles that were turned in during a 2012 gun buyback program in Camden, N.J.
Rifles that were turned in during a 2012 gun buyback program in Camden, N.J.Read moreAPRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer

During Prohibition, newsreels shown at movie theaters often included footage of police or federal authorities smashing bottles of wine, beer, and other booze confiscated from a bootlegger or illegally run speakeasy.

Fifty years later during the “war on drugs,” TV newscasts frequently included video coverage of law enforcement officers similarly confiscating large stashes of marijuana, cocaine, or other illegal drugs to “get them off the streets.”

How effective were those tactics? Well, anyone who wanted a drink could get one during Prohibition. No wonder the law was eventually rescinded. As for the war on drugs, it didn’t stop the life-sapping impact that crack, meth, heroin, and fentanyl have since had on this country.

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

In that context, let us consider the gun buyback programs touted in cities across America, including our own, as a useful tool to, let’s say it together, “Get them off the streets.” Watching people turn in their guns for cash makes great TV news footage, but that’s about it.

Philadelphia collected 558 handguns and 100 long guns during 16 buybacks last year. That minuscule amount is unlikely to have any impact on the city’s record pace of shootings. Halfway through the year, 1,100 people had been shot. That’s up 8% from 2021′s record numbers.

Buybacks don’t get guns out of the hands of criminals. As Inquirer staff writers Ryan W. Briggs and Ellie Rushing recently reported, not one of the more than 1,000 guns turned in over the last three years at Philadelphia’s buybacks has been linked to a crime. Folks who collected $50 to $200 gift cards for every gun they turned in may be richer, but their neighborhoods may not be safer.

Better ways than buybacks need to be found — and soon.

A study released last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that 339 buybacks in 277 cities and 110 counties between 1991 and 2015 had no significant impact on crime. No city or county had more than a 1.3% decline in crime in the 12 months after their buybacks.

In fact, the study said a 7.7% increase in crimes involving a gun occurred in those cities and counties in the immediate two months after a buyback. The researchers further found “no evidence that firearm-related suicides and homicides declined in the years following a buyback.”

So why keep spending taxpayer dollars on buybacks? After all, the cost of the programs adds up: Gift cards must be purchased (even if their price is discounted by the provider), and the city also pays the salaries and overtime for the police personnel who staff events to make sure guns are safely handled.

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

City University of New York criminology professor Joe Giacalone calls buybacks “political theater.” That sounds about right, given the number of local and state politicians who typically show up, and sometimes sponsor, buybacks. Are they falsely building up people’s hopes for something buybacks can’t really deliver?

Some community activists want buybacks to continue. Bilal Qayyum, a founder of the Father’s Day Rally Committee, believes buybacks reduce murders even if there’s no current data to support that claim. Jonathan Wilson, clinical director of the Fathership Foundation, says more of the lethal weapons used by criminals would be retrieved if buybacks paid the same $800 to $1,000 that a seller can make in the illegal market.

Their sentiment is certainly understandable. Wilson, who lives in Southwest Philadelphia, says he has been shot four times. But he also said there’s an “ocean of guns” in this city, and trying to get them off the streets by collecting a few hundred a year is like trying to empty that ocean with a bucket.

Better ways than buybacks need to be found — and soon. The stranglehold the gun lobby has on state legislatures and Congress has made it seemingly impossible to enact meaningful gun purchase restrictions, but that’s still where the emphasis must be placed. Too many people are being shot, too many are being killed.