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Gun Buyback Programs Tend To Attract Low-Risk Groups


Since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a number of cities have launched gun-buyback programs, to try to reduce the number of firearms in circulation. This weekend, the police department in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is offering a gun buyback called Operation Safe Streets. It will give people who turn in weapons a $150 gift card, for a handgun; $200 for assault weapons. Santa Fe's chief of police is Raymond Rael.

If somebody turns in a gun, do they have to say where they got it?

CHIEF OF POLICE RAYMOND RAEL: No, sir. They don't. We're not asking for identification at that point in time. As long as it's a functional weapon, we will pay the amounts that you indicated.

SIMON: Do they have to give you their name for a gift card?

RAEL: No, they don't. The gift cards have been processed and already prepackaged; cards have no tracking mechanism. It's simply give us a weapon, and we give you the gift card.

SIMON: What happens to any guns turned in?

RAEL: Well, each gun is then going to be run. If it's determined that the weapon is clean - it's not an item of evidence in another case, or it isn't a stolen weapon - then it'll be separated off into a pile, which we will then destroy later down the road. If, in fact, the weapon comes back as stolen or involved in a crime, it'll be put aside, submitted into evidence; and the appropriate agency will be notified that we have that weapon. And then they can start following up in whatever manner they are able to, at that point in time.

SIMON: Do you expect any real criminals to turn in their guns?

RAEL: Well, in reality, probably not. Anyone who is serious about stealing a weapon, and using it in a criminal act, isn't likely to turn it in. But we do anticipate that there will be some weapons turned in by members of the general public who have either inherited weapons, or are concerned about leaving weapons in their homes - loaded or unloaded - and just feel they no longer have any use for them.

SIMON: So I don't have to tell you, Chief, I'm sure, there are people who - even those that might think a gun-buyback program is a good idea - who wonder if they actually reduce any crime because as you just said, actual perpetrators of crimes are unlikely to bring their guns in.

RAEL: You know, that's an impossible thing to analyze. I mean, in reality, it may prevent someone from breaking into someone's home and stealing that weapon. And the other side of the equation is, if you look at - you know, even one tragedy prevented; even one suicide, or one child who accesses an unsecured weapon and has an accidental shooting; I think the program pays for itself, and it's well worth it.

SIMON: In the end, Chief, what does a gun-buyback program achieve, as far as you're concerned?

RAEL: Well, I think in the end, as we're all aware, I mean, there's millions of guns in the United States, at this point. Do I believe that we're going to make an impact in reducing the overall numbers? Not immediately, but as time proceeds and these programs continue, and the public becomes more and more aware, there's always the hope - and the possibility - that we can start getting some of these things under control.

SIMON: Sheriff Raymond Rael of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Jon Vernick is the associate professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and co-director of the Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. He joins us from Baltimore. Thanks so much for being with us.

JON VERNICK: My pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: What do you think the evidence on gun-buyback schemes is? Do they work?

VERNICK: Unfortunately, the evidence isn't very encouraging at all, if one's goal is to reduce rates of street crime.

SIMON: Well, what do they do?

VERNICK: What we've learned is that high-risk people don't tend to participate. The folks who are at highest risk for being either a victim or a perpetrator of gun violence are young males. But disproportionately, the people who participate in these buybacks tend to be older; they tend to be female.

On top of that, the guns that get turned in don't tend to be the high-risk guns. The high-risk guns for street crime tend to be newer; they tend to be high-caliber, semiautomatic pistols; they tend to be functional. The guns that disproportionately get turned in, in buybacks, tend to be older; they tend to be revolvers, lower caliber; and worst of all, often they're broken. So there isn't good reason to expect, unfortunately, that these gun-buyback programs are likely to reduce street crime.

SIMON: Professor, do you have any feeling for why cities - why they're important to cities?

VERNICK: I think the reason that cities and other localities engage in these programs, frankly, is because quite understandably people want to do something. They - there's a felt need to respond to the problem of gun violence to specific shootings. And unlike efforts to change policy or enact new laws, gun buybacks are relatively easy to do. You don't have to battle with the National Rifle Association. So the problem is - if that's all that localities and cities ultimately do, it's fine if a buyback is used as a way to heighten awareness. But it needs to be a first step towards change that's much more likely to actually affect rates of violence.

SIMON: Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, speaking from Baltimore. Thanks so much for being with us.

VERNICK: It's my pleasure, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.