NOBODY IN the Baltimore Police Department thinks he can buy his way out of the city's continuing gun violence. These are not naive people. They're heard the public ridicule, and they know the murderous history of the past 35 years, as well as the history of gun buybacks, which are seen as exercises in noble futility. But maybe the police have a point.
They work in neighborhoods where kids not yet old enough to drive a car carry weapons as part of their street swagger, and reach for them in some pathetic instinct of misguided machismo, and they see people shoot each other by the hundreds each year - people who are kept alive only by the infinite skills of our hospitals.
The $141,000 the police have doled out in seized drug money over the past week to buy guns off the street is expected to end today. Through the weekend, police had purchased more than 1,600 guns. Twenty-six were assault weapons, including a couple of Uzis. More than a thousand of these weapons are handguns, which are still the weapon of choice in most street crimes, and more than 500 were long guns, meaning rifles or shotguns. Nobody needs an Uzi to go deer hunting. So what's the problem in getting such killing instruments out of people's hands?
As cynics see it, only this: Any street criminals who turn in their guns will use the money to buy bigger and more dangerous guns. And those who aren't professional criminals - well, why pay these folks money if they aren't using their guns for crimes?
The police answer is the sound of more nobility: If they can prevent one child accidentally shooting another child, it's worth the money. If they can cut down on robberies or assaults even a little bit, then it's worth the money. The problem is, it's tough to measure such things. How do you calculate crimes that aren't committed, or tragedies that don't occur?
Where we run into further difficulty is the issue of conscience. After all, that's the fundamental desire behind any gun buyback - that, given the slightest monetary impetus, criminals are throwing in their weapons and starting new lives of purity and lawfulness. This notion is also the reason the police are being accused of naivete. Does anybody believe conscience is the driving force behind people turning in their guns?
"I don't know," police spokesman Matt Jablow said yesterday. "I know that if we can prevent one child from being shot, or crimes from being committed, then it's a tremendous success. Given the amount of guns turned in, we've done just that. There's no way that one of these guns wouldn't have been used in a crime, or gone off and injured a child. But I can't tell you why people are turning in their guns. And I don't care why."
What matters is: They're doing it. The city's 2005 homicide total is now 111 (a year ago at this time, 115). There are 208 more individuals who were shot but lucky enough to survive. (A year ago, 230.) In any city with these kinds of numbers, everybody understands the motivation behind the buyback, and also the sense that $141,000, or even 10 times that amount, will not noticeably change the deadly arithmetic, or the mindset that created the bloodbath and will likely continue it.
Because, in our cynical hearts, we don't believe conscience motivates the turnover of these guns - and because we know the culture in which we live.
The debate over gun control has become one of the most tiresome in our national vocabulary. The National Rifle Association, with its deep pockets and its sense of utter amorality, has sold self-protection and the Second Amendment as its part of the debate (and opposes gun buybacks).
And those of us on the other side have tried to say that guns have created a coarseness in our culture, that they've been sold as a solution to violence instead of a cause of it, and that we cannot shoot our way out of our problems.
Such a mindset leads not only to wholesale homicides but a national instinct that somehow finds it threatening to have Janet Jackson expose a breast but finds it perfectly acceptable to have nightly incursions of violence on our TV screens. And it's a mindset that insists we can solve all our international problems, as well, with the use of weaponry.
But those of us who have argued for controlling the proliferation of street weaponry also miss the point: That battle has been lost. There are too many guns out there to buy back, and too many just waiting in stores for the next round of criminals, or for those innocents who traffic in the delusion that they're protecting their families.
The police understand this, as they dole out the last of their money. They are not naive. They insist, with reason, that the buyback is a tiny part of their fight against crime. But the buyback also restates a psychological cry that needs to be sounded from time to time. Lots of police don't like guns in the hands of citizens. They don't think it's healthy for any community. It is harder for them to protect us when we insist on arming ourselves, and this is their small, hopeful gesture to make us understand.