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In wake of Sandy Hook anniversary, a critical look at gun buyback programs

In wake of Sandy Hook anniversary, a critical look at gun buyback programs

Picture of Jill  Braden Balderas
(The Knowles Gallery via Flickr)

Gun buyback programs in four California cities on Saturday enabled residents of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland to sell their firearms.  As KQED reports, there’s something unique about two of the programs.

In San Jose and Oakland, the money is coming from a new source: the crowds. City leaders are working with a private crowdfunding platform to get regular people to donate small amounts online. The website has pulled in over $36,000 so far.

At Center for Health Journalism Digital, we’ve covered crowdsourcing for lung cancer research, getting medical professionals to stop wearing scrubs in public, and soliciting help paying for medical bills -- so, naturally, we were intrigued by this crowdsourcing effort to tackle the public health problem of violence. Typically, city or county police departments finance buyback programs, but large, private donors have been an increasing source of support, too.

In Oakland, an organization called Youth UpRising spread the word in advance of the buyback, though the message was different depending on where they were in the city.

See Also: Preventing Gun Violence: Where are the Data?

KQED reports that one of the volunteers spent time “in East Oakland, handing out flyers publicizing the event to people waiting for the bus. … On this block, he’s only asking people to bring in guns. But in Oakland’s downtown, near businesses and shoppers, Youth UpRising put up billboards to ask people to donate money online. [The volunteer] says the crowdfunding campaign lets different parts of the community work together, even when they don’t talk to each other.”

The founder of, Ian Johnstone, whose father was shot and killed by a teenager, “felt frustrated that even after the Sandy Hook school massacre in Newtown, Conn., last December, lawmakers failed to pass comprehensive background check laws. He decided to put crowdfunding technology to work for a cause that’s personal to him,” according to KQED.

There’s clearly some appetite for this kind of arrangement envisioned by Johnstone, but the bigger question is whether or not gun buyback programs, such as the voluntary ones in California this weekend, really help reduce violence.  The research isn’t convincing. 

Johns Hopkins associate professor Jon Vernick studies gun buybacks and was on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday earlier this year.

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.

Here’s what Santa Fe, NM, Chief of Police Raymond Rael, said on the same show when asked by host Scott Simon, “Do you expect any real criminals to turn in their guns?”

Well, in reality, probably not.

The National Academies “Firearms and Violence: A critical review” report backs up that sentiment.

One overarching problem is the dearth of studies about the most effective ways to prevent gun violence. NBCNews reported on why there’s been so little research into the issue.

Until the mid-1990s, the CDC had explored a range of questions on the public health effects of firearms. In 1996, the National Rifle Association convinced key Congressional leaders to stifle federal funding for gun-violence research. At the same time, an appropriations bill killed the CDC's annual $2.6 million budget for firearms studies. 

As NBCNews explains, the ban was lifted nearly a year ago by President Barack Obama.

Obama — propelled by the Newtown school shootings — urged Congress in January to provide $10 million to finance fresh academic investigations into the impacts of firearms on the collective health of Americans. While that money may be allocated in 2014, U.S. lawmakers have not yet invested adequate dollars to study the issue …”

In tandem to the efforts to get the CDC looking at gun violence again, organizations such as the National Institute of Justice and the Fund for a Safer Future are financing research into the subject, according to NBCNews. 

Knowing what works and what doesn’t will be key to making life better for us all -- whether we live in a violence-plagued community like East Oakland or a community like Sandy Hook or Centennial, Colo.,  where a tragic mass shooting is about the last thing we'd expect.

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