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By Bettina Weiss
August 31, 2015
Caption : In response to a string of shootings, Boston has reinstated its gun buyback program. It's not the first time Boston has lead the way in buyback programs, but how do these programs work and do they make a difference?     

In response to a recent increase of gun violence, the city of Boston has decided to reinstate its gun buyback program. Earlier this month, there were fatal shootings of three men in Roxbury and Mattapan, and then a service for one of the victims was interrupted by gunfire. Last year, the buyback program, “Your Piece for Peace” collected more than 400 firearms. This year, the buyback effort has been practically invisible.

“We’re leaving no stone un-turned to end this violence,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh during a news conference at police headquarters in Roxbury to announce the re-instatement of the gun buyback program.

Boston isn’t new to gun buyback programs. In 1993 and 1994, the city experienced historically high rates of gun violence and completed two buyback programs. Through these two efforts, buying the guns back at $50 apiece, the Boston Police Department collected 2,158 guns. Over half of those guns were hand guns. The efforts haven’t been as effective in recent years, but Boston is putting resources into trying again.

Gun buyback programs provide residents with monetary incentive to turn in any guns to which they have access; legal, illegal, new, old, and so on. In Boston, participants in the buyback program who turn in working firearms to any Boston police district station will receive a $200 Visa gift card, police said.

How effective are these buyback programs? Coalition to Stop Gun Violence Director of Communications Ladd Everitt explained that buyback programs are most effective on an individual basis. “On a case by case basis I think it has a beneficial impact,” he said, “In a lot of circumstances, [buyback programs] give people the opportunity to get guns out of the home when they could be a threat.”

Ian Johnstone, the founder of GunbyGun, an organization that uses crowdfunding to support gun buyback programs, agreed. “Often times, [participants in the buybacks] don’t even want a gun in the first place,” Johnstone said. The buyback programs are meant to give people the opportunity to turn in unwanted weapons, and is also “a way of creating community engagement and building awareness,” Johnstone said.

Dr. Anthony A. Braga, Professor of Evidence-Based Criminology at Rutgers University, published a study on gun buyback programs in 2013 called “Improving the Potential Effectiveness of Gun Buyback Programs.”

“The theoretic premise of gun buybacks is that these programs will reduce the number of firearms available to criminals, those with mental illnesses, and other high risk individuals who may harm themselves or others with a gun,” Braga wrote.

While some people may bring a firearm to a buyback program for economic reasons, Everitt said that the intention behind the return is irrelevant—one fewer gun is one fewer gun. “Statistically, a home without a gun in it is far safer than a home with a gun in it. Even if someone is bringing that gun in to make a buck, they are making the home safer for everyone involved.”

In terms of putting a dent in violent crimes, buyback programs have not proved to be the most effective solutions to citywide violence problems. Buyback programs collect a small amount of guns in comparison to the amount of guns out in the communities. “The number of guns removed from the community versus the overall pool,” Johnstone said, “is a drop in the bucket.”

The scale of buyback programs in the US does not generally yield enough of a result to make a difference. Professor of Economics at George Mason University Alex Tabarrok suggests it’s impossible to significantly reduce the number of guns in a community with buyback events that collect, on average, fewer than 1,000 firearms. “In the United States, there are hundreds of millions of guns,” he said. “And even if a city buys up some of them, that’s not going to have any effect on how many guns people actually have. People can still go out and buy more guns.”

Braga’s study explains that the “typical buyback program yields less than 1,000 guns relative to the existing stock of some 300 million firearms in civilian hands.” This comparison highlights the lack of depth and effect of the programs in the United States.

“Buybacks in the states are small-scale enterprises,” said Everitt. “[Cities are] not buying the number of guns that would put a dent in violent crime. Other countries have done buybacks on a humongous scale, Australia is the most obvious example.” Braga also cited Australia as an example in his study.

In 1996, Australia reached the National Firearm Agreement after a gunman killed 35 people and injured 23 at a Tasmanian resort. The agreement prohibited particular kinds of long guns and provided a $350 return on every civilian held long gun. The result? Civilians returned more than 640,000 firearms, which likely saved Australia from 200 gunshot deaths and $500 million in related costs each year. Even better: “No mass murders have occurred in that country since the program was completed,” Braga wrote.

The effect of buybacks is largely unknown. “It’s worth noting that gun buybacks have never been proven to be ineffective,” Johnstone said. “It’s really just that the impact of any one gun buyback hasn’t been able to rise over the statistical noise.”

“Despite empirical evidence that suggests gun buybacks do not reduce violence, municipalities continue to implement these programs,” wrote Braga. “…It is important to remember that gun violence reduction is only one of multiple goals that gun buyback programs are intended to serve.”

As Johnstone and Everitt explained, the buyback programs provide communities with awareness, provide safe disposal, both of which make the programs worthwhile.

In America, 1 out of 3 homes with kids have guns, and nearly 1.7 million children live in a home with an unlocked and loaded gun. Returning guns in buyback programs may not cause a noticeable dent in community wide gun violence, but it certainly makes individual homes safer and gets the community talking about gun violence and safety.

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