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Do Gun Buybacks Reduce Gun Violence?

Buybacks take thousands of guns off New Jersey streets, but critics argue the millions spent on programs could be put to better use.

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State officials, with the help of local authorities, have been conducting a gun buyback campaign in several New Jersey cities, an effort to reduce gun-related crimes that they say was planned before the Newtown, CT, shooting. Since December, the state has spent $1.2 million on five buybacks. They’ve collected a record haul of more than 9,000 firearms, including rocket launchers, assault weapons, and submachine guns.

No one seems to dispute that it's good idea to get those items off the street. But some question whether the effort is truly effective or worth the cost.

Critics like Jon Vernick, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University who has co-authored two studies on the question, say there is no evidence that buybacks reduce gun violence and that the money spent on the programs could be put to better use.

Supporters, who include law enforcement, clergy, and some academics, acknowledge the lack of research, but say buybacks provide an array of benefits as part of a larger strategy for getting illegal guns off the streets. These include raising public awareness of the gun problem, which can rally support for gun-control legislation.

According to Tom Reilly, executive director of the Police Institute at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice in Newark, “Buybacks are done with a community partnership, in most cases with the support of community leaders and church leaders. It sends an important message as to lack of tolerance for violence in the community.”

The New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety has sponsored five buyback programs since December in conjunction with county prosecutors and local clergy. The buybacks, which had been planned and announced before the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, were located in urban centers with high crime rates and netted 9,153 firearms. Additional buybacks are planned, but a spokesman from the attorney general’s office said information on future programs was not available. More than 1,100 of the guns collected were considered illegal by law enforcement, meaning their magazine capacities exceeded state law or they had been modified.

According to the attorney general’s office, the programs are paid for with money from state and county criminal forfeiture funds, which has been collected by law enforcement at the time of arrest on drug and other charges. A total of $1.2 million has been spent on the five programs, the state indicated.

The rules for buybacks vary, but they generally offer cash or debit gift cards in exchange for weapons, with no questions asked about the firearms or the person turning them in.

The Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs, the state chapter of the National Rifle Association, has criticized buybacks as an amnesty program for violent felons. Neither the ANJRPC nor the national office of the NRA responded for requests for comment.

Part of the Solution

While Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa has lauded the program, he said through a spokesman that “gun violence is a complex and multifaceted problem, and buybacks are not the sole answer.”

“We believe they’re making a real difference throughout our state, particularly in light of the hundreds of illegal guns we’ve been able to take out of circulation,” said spokesman Leland Moore in an email.

“It's more than 9,000 guns that will never be used to terrorize an innocent person, turn an argument into a tragedy, kill a curious child, or claim the life of a police officer,” he said. He cited the number of illegal guns collected as an important outcome of the program, along with the number of people who have chosen to participate

Camden hosted the first buyback in the current round in December and set what was then a state record with 1,137 guns turned in. Trenton followed with 2,604 guns in January, Essex County with 1,770 guns in February and then Monmouth County with 1,581 guns and Atlantic City with 2,061, both in March.

Vernick, codirector of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Maryland, says buybacks do little to reduce street crime and have little real impact on the number of guns in circulation. The Hopkins Center studies firearms and gun violence from a public health standpoint, and Vernick has written numerous reports on the subject, including one of the few that looks at the impact of buyback programs.

“Unfortunately, there is no evidence that gun buybacks reduce rates of street crime in the communities where the buybacks occur,” he said.

There is a misconception, he says, that the number of guns that may be collected translates into a reduction in functional firepower on the street. But the evidence that does exist tends to show the opposite, he said.

“The people who participate don’t tend on average to be the highest-risk people,” he said. “The highest-risk people are young males, and the people who participate are disproportionately older people and females.

“And the guns turned in are not the highest-risk guns,” he added. “The highest-risk guns are newer. They are semi-automatic pistols, have higher calibers. Disproportionately, the guns turned in are older, lower-caliber, or not functional.”

What gun buybacks may do, however, is divert money and attention from more effective approaches. That money would be better spent elsewhere, he said.

Guns off the Street

Reilly is a supporter of buyback programs as part of a larger set of initiatives to curb gun violence. It is important to consider the New Jersey experience within the proper context, he said.

“In the New Jersey case, first and foremost, there were over a thousand guns that under New Jersey statutes are illegal to possess,” he said. “Taking a thousand of those guns off the street is important.”

The Rev. Dr. Steven B. Davis, pastor of Calgary Gospel Church in Newark, one of the churches that sponsored the February buybacks in Essex County, agrees with Reilly. Gun violence “is a real problem in urban America.” In Newark, he said, the vast majority of gun crime is perpetrated using illegal weapons. If the buybacks can take even a small number of those guns off the streets, they are important.

“Does it have an effect? I believe so,” he said. “There are some 1,700 guns that won’t be available for some murder or for some robbery or something like that.”

Davis, however, made it clear that the buybacks can only play a small role in addressing the violence.

“If people think that this is the only mechanism needed, then they have it all wrong,” he said. “Then it will be a failure.”

If we are to be serious about addressing the issue of gun violence, he said, “every facet of the community” must be enlisted. That means involving parents, community members, clerical and faith-based communities, and government.

“It will take all of them working together and developing a strategy where one is not trying to supersede the other,” he said.

A key component is tighter gun laws, he said. He supports the Obama administration’s gun reforms along with the package of bills passed by the state Assembly.

He said he is hopeful that Gov. Chris Christie will sign the legislation -- which includes limiting magazine capacity to 10 rounds (A-1329), a ban on mail-order ammunition purchases ( A-3646 and A-3666), stronger background checks and other provisions -- because the governor calls himself pro-life.

“If you are a proponent for life, you should definitely stand by some of the strong statements he has made, so [these bills do] become law and it doesn’t become just rhetoric,” he said.

Nicola Bocour, director of Ceasefire New Jersey, said the focus should be on the legislation.

“That’s the most effective way to deal with this issue,” she said.

The Legislative Effort

The Assembly approved a multibill package on February 21 that would require all ammunition sales to be conducted by licensed dealers on a face-to-face basis, banning mail order sales; limit magazine capacity to 10 rounds; and prohibiting the state pension system from investing in companies that manufacture or import assault weapons for civilian use. The bills have been sent to the Senate and have not been assigned to a committee.

“We have been urging the Senate to bring through committee and to the floor the same bills and the same content,” Bocour said. “ We are advocating they not change them to water them down. We believe in the legislation passed by the Assembly and we want to see them put in place.”

She said that Ceasefire is not opposed to buyback programs -- they help create awareness of the issues surrounding guns -- but there is a concern that focusing on buybacks could ultimately be deceptive, creating an impression that something is being done when it is not.

“There are too many guns in circulation and it is better to have them back in responsible hands rather than have them out there floating around,” she said. “But if someone was going to tell me that you have five things to do to combat gun violence, I am not sure if [buybacks] would be in the top five or even the top 10.”

Vernick says there are plenty of better options and that the money now spent on buybacks could be better used to implement targeted police practices like those that have been successful in Chicago, Kansas City, and Minneapolis.

CeaseFire Chicaco -- now known as Cure Violence -- targets hard-hit neighborhoods and attempts to intervene before disputes turn deadly. It relies on a public health approach, rather than a law-enforcement approach and several evaluations have shown the program to be successful at reducing violence in the targeted areas, he said.

Reilly, however, says it's important not to minimize the impact that buybacks have on the prevention of gun violence, especially because they help rally communities and raise awareness.

They also are only a small part of a much larger effort, he said.

“[You] have to look at this as one leg of a number of different initiatives,” he said. “There is a violence reduction effort in Newark and there are a number of re-entry programs that try to assist violent felons and keep them accountable and provide them social services to help them go straight.

“There is multi-causation in terms of violence, and it is unfair to solely assess the impact of one leg of a multi-legged stool.”

Hank Kalet is a veteran journalist and editor who has covered economic issues, government, and entertainment in central New Jersey for more than two decades.

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