TRENTON - New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa gave a spirited defense Tuesday of the state's gun-buyback program, asserting that thousands of potential crime weapons have been taken off the street.
Chiesa, in testimony before the Assembly budget committee, acknowledged criticism from some quarters that the program had little impact on crime, but insisted that "gun buybacks are helping to make New Jersey safer, and because they're paid for with criminal forfeiture funds, they don't cost the taxpayers a penny."
Chiesa made his remarks during testimony on the Department of Law and Public Safety's $923 million budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. He oversees the department.
Chiesa said the gun-buyback program, which began Dec. 14 in Camden 90 minutes before the school killings in Newtown, Conn., has netted 10,000 firearms. About 1,200 of those were illegal because they had shortened barrels, magazines that exceeded legal limits, or other unlawful features, he said.
"We've heard the comments of some who insist that gun buybacks are little more than a feel-good program," he said. "We strongly disagree. We've never suggested that buybacks are a single, stand-alone answer to society's complex gun-violence problem. What we've said is that buybacks are a valuable part of a broader anti-gun-violence strategy."
The program won praise from Assemblyman Benjie Wimberley (D., Passaic), who said a gun buyback in his district made him feel safer.
"Taking any amount of guns off the street is greatly appreciated," Wimberley said. Of gun violence, he added: "In our area, it was pretty frightening."
The state pays $250 for each operable weapon turned in. The buybacks typically take place at churches, to establish an atmosphere of safety for people seeking to turn in weapons. The weapons collected by the state are melted down.
Such programs are popular with police and with residents of crime-plagued communities who want authorities to crack down on crime.
But there is little data showing they have an impact on crime. Moreover, experts in street crime say that hardened criminals, the types who are most likely to use a weapon in a crime, are the least likely to give up their weapons.
Among the skeptics is Bernard Melekian, director of the U.S. Department of Justice's Community-Oriented Policing Services program, who said there was little research to back up claims that gun buybacks have an impact. Melekian said that more effective programs were those that seek to head off violent confrontations by mediating gang conflicts and other neighborhood disputes.
Yet there is a certain commonsense appeal to the buybacks. Supporters say that simply reducing the number of guns in circulation lowers the risk of a crime, an accident, or a suicide.
And that is pretty much the position that Chiesa took Tuesday.
"These weapons we take in are melted down," he said. "They will never be stolen in a burglary or used in a street crime. They will never kill a curious child or claim the life of one of our brave police officers."