NEW YORK—On a late Saturday morning, eight police officers, mostly hatless and wearing polo shirts, hung near a nondescript church entrance in the South Bronx.
Two ladies, likely in their 60s, walked up to the church, one was carrying an inconspicuous plastic grocery bag. Several officers quickly approached them and after peeking inside the bag, escorted the women in.
Twenty minutes later the ladies emerged, still carrying the bag—but now it was empty.
They had just sold a gun.
This is a typical scene for the Bronx gun buyback program, said Rev. Jay Gooding, who was hosting another buyback at his church.
It’s not gang members bringing in guns—it’s more the “grandma found a gun” scenario, he said.
Nevertheless, he believes the program saves lives.
Gun buybacks have been popping up across the nation since the 1970s, under the premise that fewer guns in the community means fewer available to commit a crime.
Usually, police pay $100–$200 for a functioning handgun, via cash or gift card, no questions asked. For rifles and shotguns, it’s about $25 a piece.
Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, who organized two buybacks in the Bronx on Aug. 6, said 165 guns were recovered.
Anaheim police held one last month, recovering 676 guns.
Other buybacks were recently held in East St. Louis, Central Florida, New Haven, and Western Massachusetts.
Yet buybacks have been criticized as ineffective.
“Evaluations … have consistently failed to document any link between such programs and reductions in gun violence,” stated a 2004 report by the National Research Council (NRC), the research arm of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
The NRC lists four reasons:
- The guns recovered are not the types most often used to commit crimes. Buyback programs mostly recover revolvers and smaller caliber guns, whereas semi-automatic pistols and larger caliber guns are most commonly used in crimes.
- The people handing in the guns are not likely the ones who will use them to commit a crime.
- Guns can easily be replaced. People might sell an old one just to buy a new one.
- Buybacks only recover a tiny fraction of guns—usually several dozen to a few hundred per event. But gun ownership sits around 350 million nationwide, according to 2013 numbers compiled from a Congressional Research Service estimate and Department of Justice statistics.
So why do cities still conduct buybacks?
Even if the majority of guns recovered are not the types most often used in crimes, enough of them are.
The Bronx buyback, for example, recovered 52 semi-automatic pistols—a common crime weapon.
Perhaps even more prominently, gun buybacks may help reduce suicide deaths.
Taking Guns Out of Reach
Almost two out of three shooting deaths were suicides in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Half of the people who commit suicide use a gun, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
And guns were the most lethal method of suicide, based on a study that used data from eight states from various years between 1989 and 1997.
An estimated 2.7 million Americans planned suicide in 2012 and about 1.3 million attempted it.
About one out of six high school students seriously thought about suicide in 2012, based on 2013 numbers. Almost one in 12 attempted it.
Suicide rates increased 24 percent between 1999 and 2014, the CDC states on its website.
Does that mean that gun buybacks are only for families with a loved one at risk of suicide?
Not necessarily. Studies have shown suicides can be impulsive.
Seven out of ten people who attempt suicide never try it again, which means putting guns out of reach may save lives, according to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.
Many people who attempt suicide haven’t had major psychological problems before. Often, they encounter a problem, an interpersonal conflict for example, and within hours experience suicidal thoughts.
In such cases, having a gun within reach means a higher likelihood of suicide attempts, and makes it more deadly for those who do try it.