City officials are turning to an old standby in the effort to knock down an incessant homicide rate on track to surpass 300 killings for the fourth year in a row — paying people for their guns. They will dole out $25 to $500 to people as part of a gun buyback program announced last week, and at an opportune time to entice people looking for some extra cash during the holiday shopping season.
But the program is likely to be a large waste of time, money and resources.
Gun buyback programs are a strategy that Baltimore and cities across the country have tried many times before (here, most recently in 2012), despite consistent research that has shown these programs are not that effective. In fact, researchers stopped studying the issue years ago because evidence of the futility of the programs was so overwhelming. They do little to reduce the number of shootings or to get guns out of the hands of criminals intent on settling a score, defending their drug territory or protecting themselves from rival gangs and retaliatory shootings. That’s true whether the buyback programs are anonymous or not. Studies have found that the people that turn in the guns more than likely weren’t going to commit a crime with their firearms and that many of the exchanged guns don’t even work. And they don’t get that many firearms off the street relative to the 300 million or so thought to be owned by private citizens across the country. Baltimore police collected 580 at the Shake and Bake skating rink and recreation complex on the first day of it three-day program, and 511 more on the second day. The last event is tomorrow.
Too often these buyback initiatives result in a pile of old guns from people’s basements. Revolvers, pistols and rifles are more the norm than assault weapons, for which Baltimore is offering $200. And we’d bet big money the city won’t collect too many, if any, fully automatic weapons, which they will pay $500 to confiscate.
Still, officials across the country always manage to come back to the buyback strategy, which rather than a crime fighting tool turns out to be more of a photo op and marketing stunt meant to send the message to residents fed up with violence that the cops are throwing everything they can at the problem. A string of cities, for instance, adopted buyback initiatives after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut.
Gun buybacks are a quick way to address the crime issue — or at least look like you are. It is much easier than getting legislation passed, revising police deployment strategies or addressing the root cause of crime. In a recent op-ed, Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle lamented that in 2017 the Baltimore City Council rejected a proposal that called for a mandatory one-year sentence for first-time offenders convicted of illegally carrying a handgun — though it’s not clear how much of a difference that would have made either.
Mr. Tuggle and Mayor Catherine Pugh have touted the latest buyback as one piece of a multi-pronged strategy. It will get unused guns out of houses so they don’t get into the wrong hands, they said. It’s much like how the medical community urges people to get unused opioids out of their medicine cabinets. The commissioner said police often find guns stolen from legitimate owners used in violent crimes.
That may be true, but the chances that a buyback will net the gun that otherwise would have been stolen and used in violence are slim. There are better ways to spend the money, although it is unclear how much the effort is costing since city officials have declined to say. They will know at the end of the program, a police spokesman said. Ms. Pugh said that some non-profits will help cover the costs. Whatever the amount, it would have been better dedicated to programs that have been proven to work.
We commend the city, for instance, for expanding its Safe Streets program, which uses reformed criminals to intervene in disputes before they bubble into violence. Three new sites are slated to open next year in Northeast Baltimore’s Belair-Edison, South Baltimore’s Brooklyn and Madison-East in East Baltimore — all neighborhoods with numerous shootings. While Safe Streets has received its share of criticism, mainly that people still involved in crime sometimes become part of the program, it has proved effective in its main job of stopping shootings and killings. There are plans for 10 sites by the end of 2019.
Other than the cost and likely wasted effort, the gun buyback won’t hurt anything. But of the benefits such programs’ supporters cite, the most realistic is that it might build community resolve and bring the issue of gun violence to the forefront. Unfortunately, in Baltimore that is a problem we don’t have.