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Despite broad criticism, city revives gun buybacks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Five years ago, when Baltimore last offered a gun buyback program, the city's newly elected mayor dismissed the initiative as a gimmick that mostly took "garbage guns" off the street.

"I don't think gun buybacks are very effective at all," Mayor Martin O'Malley said in April 2000.

But starting today, Baltimore police officials will again offer to buy guns from city residents, spending $100,000 on a buyback program that has long been criticized both locally and nationally.

"If we can save one life or spare one child from being harmed by playing with a gun, then it's worth the effort," O'Malley said yesterday.

In April 2000, the mayor -- who had taken office five months earlier -- criticized gun buybacks in general as a waste of money and promised Baltimore would not hold one. Later that month, the city's housing authority spent $286,000 to buy 710 guns, using money from a federal housing grant and drug treatment dollars.

O'Malley said at the time he would rather see the city buying guns that were used in crimes because the general buybacks tend to attract "a lot of garbage guns." He said he allowed the buyback to continue because it was scheduled prior to his election.

Yesterday, O'Malley said his criticism of gun buybacks in 2000 was aimed at fighting the perception that such initiatives could serve as a crime-fighting panacea.

"There were some who were trying to push this as a substitute for all the other things we had to start doing to reduce violent crime," O'Malley said. "There were some who were kidding themselves into believing that if we did more gun buybacks we wouldn't have as much crime on the streets."

The mayor said Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm and community leaders wanted to try gun buybacks and O'Malley agreed because he supports his new commissioner's efforts to build better relationships with neighborhoods in fighting crime.

"While experts can debate its effectiveness in crime reduction, I don't think there's a way to estimate its effectiveness in harm reduction," O'Malley said.

The mayor's criticism five years ago mirrored a national aversion to gun buybacks that had been brewing in Washington. In August 2001, Congress supported President Bush's request to abolish the Department of Housing and Urban Development's gun buyback program started by President Clinton.

Such programs were deemed to be ineffective because taxpayer money was being spent on guns from law-abiding citizens who were not adding to crime rates.

"We don't support [gun buybacks] for the simple reason that we believe one's level of gullibility would have to be exceptionally high to believe that a criminal would respond to such a program," said Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for the National Rifle Association. "I think such programs are more a public relations tool and I think the folks who most often conceive of such ideas are politically motivated. There is no merit to such a program from the standpoint of reducing crime."

Rather than using tax dollars, the Baltimore Police Department is financing this month's operation with asset forfeiture funds, money that comes from cash or property seized from criminals involved in the drug trade.

O'Malley believes the best use of such money is to turn it against the criminals from whom it was seized, said Raquel Guillory, an O'Malley spokeswoman. Neither the mayor nor Hamm attended yesterday's news conference announcing the program.

The police will pay cash for guns between today and June 15 -- offering $50 for rifles and shotguns, $100 for handguns and $200 for assault weapons such as Uzis or Mac-10s. Those seeking to participate can deliver guns to one of the city's nine police district offices or call 311 to schedule a pick-up.

Offering anonymity to everyone, the police will examine all guns turned in. Those that are stolen will be returned to their owners, and those used in crimes will help investigations, said Deputy Police Commissioner Marcus Brown. Otherwise, guns will be melted down.

But police are issuing an important warning with an informational flier being distributed around the city. "Under no circumstance should a citizen approach any police personnel on the street carrying a weapon for turn-in!" the flier states.

Brown said anyone delivering a weapon to a district should leave it in their trunk. The flier also suggests carrying an unloaded gun in a locked box or a securely sealed bag. "We do not want citizens walking into police stations" with loaded weapons, Brown said.

Gun buybacks in Baltimore and across the nation have long been debated. Such initiatives were first introduced in 1974 by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer. He called it "innovative" and said it could save lives, but the program was criticized by others for bringing in many "antiquated and relatively useless" guns.

Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke initiated gun buybacks during his tenure, collecting more than 1,000 guns for $100 each on one Saturday in 1997. Officials suspended the program the next Saturday when police uncovered a scheme to pass off junk guns.

Brown, the deputy commissioner, said yesterday that even with such schemes, fewer guns would remain on the street.

"If somebody is buying guns on the street to turn it into the Police Department, again, that's a gun that's coming off the street," Brown said, hoping it will result in fewer shootings. "Obviously, the original person purchased it on the street also."

The city recorded 203 nonfatal shootings between Jan. 1 and yesterday, said Matthew Gallagher, director of CitiStat. That is 13 fewer shootings than during the same period in 2004, and 113 fewer than during the same period in 2000, the year O'Malley took office.

City Councilmen Robert W. Curran and Kenneth N. Harris Sr. joined two clergy members -- the Rev. Heber Brown of Young Clergy for Social Change and the Rev. Greggory Maddox of Faith Baptist Church -- in supporting the initiative.

"This sends a message to the community that we're trying to make things safer," said the Police Department's chaplain, Selwyn Ray, who coordinated clergy support. "Part of the problem in Baltimore is the gripping feeling of fear and hopelessness. This sends a signal of hope."

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