'It's a pretty small effect': Experts say gun buyback programs don't reduce violent crime

Maggie Green Image
Thursday, September 22, 2022
Experts say gun buyback programs don't reduce violent crime
More than 500 guns were exchanged for gift cards at gun buyback events last month. But experts say there isn't much evidence to show that gun buyback programs are effective at redu

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- At events across North Carolina, gun owners turned in hundreds of weapons over the last two months.

At an event in Raleigh in mid-August, 267 guns were exchanged for gift cards. Earlier that month, nearly 300 guns were brought to a Durham County Sheriff's Office buyback event. According to our newsgathering partners at the News & Observer, so many people attended the Durham event that several had to be turned away toward the end.

But Jeff Welty, a professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina School of Government, said there isn't much evidence to show that gun buyback programs are effective at reducing violent crime in hurting neighborhoods.

"One problem is just the number of guns at issue. A typical gun buyback might get a few hundred guns or an exceptionally successful one might get 1,000 guns, but we're in a country with an estimated 400 million guns in circulation. So it's just a drop in the bucket quantity wise," Welty said. "The second problem is the type of guns that are usually obtained through gun buyback programs. The types of guns that are used in crime, particularly homicides, tend to be semi-automatic firearms, semi-automatic handguns, and that's not a type of gun that is typically turned in to law enforcement through a gun buyback program. It tends to be older weapons, long guns, small caliber rifles, and that kind of thing."

In fact, a spokesperson for the Raleigh Police Department said none of the 267 guns turned in on August 20 were automatic or semi-automatic weapons. He added that the weapons will be tested for functionality at a later date, because testing them during the event would be a safety issue.

Welty added that many of the people who participate in gun buyback programs are those with unwanted guns in the home, not criminals who would use the guns for nefarious purposes.

However, he said there is a plus side to the intervention strategy. While he said it may not impact crime, he added that any gun off the street is beneficial.

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"Getting unwanted guns out of people's houses means they aren't going to be stolen by somebody," Welty said. "It means they can't be used in an accidental firearm injury. It means that if an incident of domestic violence occurs nobody can be tempted to go for the gun."

Gregory Jackson grew up in Virginia but lived part of his life in Raleigh. A survivor of gun violence himself, he knows the toll that a firearm injury takes on a person.

"There's a real cost to violence, and I know personally as a survivor of gun violence," Jackson, who now is the executive director of the Community Justice Action Fund, said. "When I was shot I had over $20,000 in hospital bills. I nearly lost my job, and then that doesn't even account for the mental, emotional trauma that comes with that."

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At his organization, leaders emphasize looking at gun violence from a holistic perspective as a public health crisis, rather than focusing on the criminal aspect. To him, that means pumping more funds and attention into victim services, like relocation and mental health support, and crisis intervention programs run by communities, not law enforcement.

"We know that we've seen in certain communities that violence intervention programs have reduced violence upwards of 60%, whether they're community-driven or hospital-driven, hiring credible individuals who can work with communities that are most vulnerable to violence and help with conflict, resolution, or de-escalation," Jackson said. "But most importantly, helping people navigate through their frustration and anger in a way that doesn't become fatal."

So while Jackson said gun buybacks are effective in that they reduce the total number of guns in homes and in hands, a better solution would emphasize the needs of gun violence survivors, not the hardware involved.