Monday, May 14, 2012

The Futility of Gun "Buy-Back" Programs

You may have seen a story in your local newspaper or on the nightly news about a gun buy-back in your neighborhood.  They tend to get a lot of coverage with community leaders and politicians hamming it up for the camera offering pre-written speeches on making the streets safer for children.  The problem is, they don't make streets safer at all, and in fact may make the streets more dangerous.  There's a couple reasons for this.

First, they aren't even buy-backs.  The term buy-back would only be appropriate if the police department or community agency sponsoring the event originally owned the guns.  They didn't, any more than they owned your TV of tennis shoes.  They should be called gun turn-ins, not buy-backs. 

Gun buy backs are typically held in poor urban neighborhoods. They are usually in areas where local governments suggest that gun control is an effective way to combat crime.  Because of this, these poor urban communities typically have stricter gun laws and fewer licensed firearm shops per capita than the average for the nation as a whole.
Everybody with me so far?

So, we have poor urban folks who may own guns. Maybe they were given as gifts, maybe they were passed down from a relative, maybe they were purchased legally, maybe they were purchased in a face to face transfer, maybe they are ill-gotten. These gun buy-backs don't care.  They take any gun a person wants to turn in at a gun buy-back, no questions asked.

A higher percentage of poor folks don't have access to personal transportation, like a car. Same goes for urban folks. In a recent NPR story, the author suggested in the north part of St Louis city, 40% of the population didn't have access to personal transportation and has to rely on public transportation. This reduces the communities access to gun shops. There are less, or perhaps no gun shops in walking distance and a fair percentage of the community doesn't have access to a car to get to a gun shop in a nearby community.

By the way, in my state you are strictly forbidden from carrying a firearm in any condition on public transportation. That's another whammy.  So now if you are one of the 40% of the population in the poor half of my city that doesn't have access to private transportation, you can't take a gun to a gun store to sell it if you wanted to.

So, in rolls the gun buy back. They hold them at respectable places like churches and community centers. As mentioned the cops there will take any gun, no questions asked. They'll give you a hundred bucks or so, maybe $150 or $200 if it looks scary.  If you are at an income level where paying rent is difficult, or your thug of a grandson hid a gun under his bed and you want it out of the house, this seems like a good way to get ahead.

Only, it's not. It's just screwing people. Who is it screwing over?  Maybe you.

Well, if you had a gun stolen, and the possessor of that turns in in, most gun buy backs don't check serial numbers against stolen databases.  Even when guns are identified as stolen, rarely do they make it back into the proper owners hands. So, if you had a gun stolen, you're potentially getting screwed as your gun is getting melted down.  If they do check to see if a gun is stolen, they don't have a record of who turned it in, so the chance of solving that crime is greatly reduced as well.

If you've been the victim of a crime involving a gun, a gun buy back is a great way for the criminal to get that gun out of circulation. The guns that are turned in are destroyed. They don't go and check the ballistic fingerprint and compare it against outstanding crimes before they destroy them. They take in a gun no questions asked and melt them for scrap.  So the chance of the perpetrator of your crime being convicted has just been reduced by a drastic margin since they can't connect the weapon to the crime. So you're getting screwed too.  If that's a gun that was used to wound you or kill a friend or family member the organizations that host and promote the buy-back are now complicit in the cover up of that crime. 

What about the poor urban folks who have a nice gun? Folks that know about guns talk about profiting from these buy backs by turning in guns that don't work or have a value of $60. People who  don't know much about guns are likely getting screwed. They are taking a gun they could sell for $150, $200, $400, $600 at a legitimate gun shop and instead surrendering it for a single bill. The people who need the money the most are getting screwed out of the true value of their property.  Since the same folks that host these buy backs typically are the ones that support reduced access to buy and sell guns by this demographic, it seems there is actually a concerted effort to screw over the poor.

The community in general is getting screwed, because the data showing a correlation between violent crime rates and gun buy backs ranges from inconclusive to sketchy. But the community is being sold a bill of goods that doesn't actually exist.  People think by participating they are making their community safer.  People who intend to use guns in crimes aren't going to turn them over for a hundred bucks.  Those are one of the tools of their trade.

And lastly, the people who put up the money (either government agencies using tax money or private donors) are getting screwed, because they aren't getting a return on their investment. Put another cop on the street or start a midnight basketball program or do something that's been shown to have a statistical impact on violent crime with the money instead.

In general, they don't seem to offer a tangible benefit, but offer many actual and potential downsides. They do make for good TV though.

And seriously.  If the idea of "buying back" contraband worked, then why don't we have illegal drug buy-backs?  We could win the war on drugs with one fell swoop!

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