Gun Buyback Programs: A Lesson in Futility and Failure

by Matt MacBradaigh:

Gun buyback programs are seeing renewed discussion in many American cities in part because gun buybacks may seem like an intuitive way to reduce crime, by reducing the number of ‘guns on the streets.’  The research, however, clearly demonstrates that gun buybacks are a waste of tax dollars and an utter failure in terms of making people any safer.

Gun Buyback ProgramsFollowing the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, dozens of cities re-launched gun “buyback” programs. President Obama has also called for Australia-style nationwide gun buybacks.-

The theoretical premise behind gun buyback programs is that the program will lead to fewer guns on the streets because fewer guns are available for either theft or trade, and that consequently violence will decline. However, criminologists say buybacks have no impact on gun crime or gun-related injuries and that the programs do not target the guns most likely to be used in violence.

A gun buyback in Seattle, for example, showed no statistically significant change in gun-related homicides afterwards. Similarly, a 2002 study in Milwaukee found that handguns sold back to local police didn’t fit the profile of handguns used in homicides. Even Garen Wintemute, director of the injury-prevention center at the University of California, Davis who believes gun buybacks have ‘intangible’ value concedes “[gun buybacks] never will reduce rates of violent crime.”

The National Research Council (NRC) found “theory underlying gun buyback programs is badly flawed and the empirical evidence demonstrates the ineffectiveness of these programs.”

The study cited three reasons that buybacks are not effective: First, guns obtained through buybacks are the least likely to be used in criminal activities. Guns turned in tend to be of two categories: old, malfunctioning guns whose resale value is less than the reward offered in buyback programs, or guns owned by individuals who derive little value from the possession of the guns (for example, those who have inherited old guns).

Additionally, gun buybacks attract people who are unlikely to commit crimes in the first place, and more importantly, are extremely unlikely to entice criminals to sell their weapons. The NRC states “those who are either using guns to carry out crimes or as protection in the course of engaging in other illegal activities, such as drug selling, have actively acquired their guns and are unlikely to want to participate in such programs.” Bottom line: these aren’t the guns ‘on the street’ in the first place.

Second, the number of guns “on the street” typically does not decline. This is because replacement guns are relatively easy to obtain, therefore, the actual decline in the number of guns on the street may be smaller than the number of guns that are turned in. Bottom line: guns sold in the hopes they won’t end up on the street are easily replaced via other sources.

Third, the likelihood that any particular gun will be used in a crime in a given year is low. There were 8,855 total firearm homicides in the United States in 2012, but perhaps 380 million firearms. Congressional Research Service estimated 310 million firearms in 2009, but that estimate is now low. There have been over 71 million NICS checks (the background check required for all retail gun sales) from 2010 through 2013. The FBI cautions there is not necessarily a one-to-one ratio between a check and a firearm sale. There are two reasons for this: one, a check may be denied. Although historically, most denials are false positives, resulting in only 0.6% of all NICS checks ultimately denied (roughly 1.1 million denials out of 191 million checks from 1998 through May, 2014). The second reason is that more than one firearm may be purchased at the same time which would only generate one NICS check for the entire transaction.

Thus, there may be upwards of 380 million firearms in the United States. The NRC notes that even if a different firearm were used in each homicide, the likelihood that a particular gun would be used to kill an individual in a particular year is extremely small. The typical gun buyback program yields less than 1,000 guns.

The NRC states “In light of the weakness in the theory underlying gun buybacks, it is not surprising that research evaluations of U.S. efforts have consistently failed to document any link between such programs and reductions in gun violence (Callahan et al., 1994; Police Executive Research Forum, 1996; Rosenfeld, 1996).”

How have larger scale gun buybacks fared? In 1996 the Australian government banned a significant number of firearms and held a mandatory nationwide gun buyback. The buyback resulted in the destruction of 643,726 firearms at a cost of $500 million AUD.

Just as in smaller scale buybacks in the United States, research suggests the Australian buyback was a waste of public money that made little difference in gun-related death rates. Weapons subject to the buyback in Australia accounted for a modest share of all homicides or violent crimes prior to the buyback. At least five academics found the same results. In 2003, Reuter and Mouzos were unable to find evidence of a substantial decline in rates for gun crimes.

In 2005, Dr. Don Weatherburn, the head of the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, stated that the 1996 legislation had had little to no effect on violence. He noted that though the homicide rate had fallen, the rate of decline had been steady, and began before the 1996 reforms. Dr. Weatherburn stated “I would need to see more convincing evidence than there is to be able to say that gun laws have had any effect.”

In 2006, a study published in the British Journal of Criminology by McPhedran and Baker found that the gun buyback and associated gun control laws had no influence on firearm homicide in Australia, and the buyback and other reforms could not be shown to alter rates of suicide or homicide. They conclude the lack of effect from either the massive buyback has significant implications for public policy – not only in Australia, but internationally. They stated “It is tempting to equate strict firearmm legislation with effective firearm legislation. [But] if policy is to be truly effective, it must have clearly defined outcomes and it must be able to bring about those outcomes,” adding, “There is insufficient evidence to support the simple premise that reducing the stockpile of civilian firearms will result in a reduction in either firearm or overall sudden death rates.” McPhedran, stated in a Time magazine interview, “looking purely at the statistics, the answer is there in black and white. The hypothesis that the removal of a large number of firearms owned by civilians [would lead to fewer gun-related deaths] is not borne out by the evidence.”

A 2009 study by Lee and Suardi, of the Melbourne Institute at The University of Melbourne found the results of  Australian buybacks “did not have any large effects on reducing firearm homicide or suicide rates.” They stated “Although gun buybacks appear to be a logical and sensible policy that helps to placate the public’s fears, the evidence so far suggests that …gun buybacks have not translated into any tangible reductions in terms of firearm deaths.”

It should be noted that all five academics cited above came to the same conclusion, but two of the five (McPhedran & Baker, 2006 and Lee & Suardi, 2009) were criticized by Harvard criminologist, David Hemenway. However, his criticisms were published in “Bulletins”, a one page equivalent of a press release – not in a peer-reviewed publication, like the British Journal of Criminology. The funding of Bulletins is through anti-gun, far left activist organization, the Joyce Foundation. Further Hemenway is the only criminologist to have his research openly mocked in a U.S. Court of Appeals decision. In this light, Hemenway’s non-peer reviewed criticisms stand in contrast with the majority of academics (which includes the head of the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research in Australia) whose conclusion is the buyback and other reforms had no measurable effect.

In total, there have been more than 1 million guns destroyed through 38 buybacks in Australia. But since 1996, more than 1 million firearms have been legally imported into Australia, eliminating the reduction achieved through the buybacks. Therefore the theoretical benefit of reducing the supply of guns has been eradicated through legal purchases.

More to point, these buybacks have not taken guns out of the hands of those most likely to commit crimes or prevented criminals from obtaining guns illegally. Though there is disagreement on the extent, guns are smuggled into Australia. In just the New South Wales province alone, police seized nearly 7,000 illegal firearms in 2011. Criminals were caught shipping guns from Germany to a Sydney post office. Police said they had “broken a major supply route of guns into Australia”. Police have also busted illegal arms dealers supplying criminals with Uzi’s, M16’s and M25 sniper rifles. Most guns stolen from licensed owners are rifles, but most crimes are committed with handguns, “which leads police to conclude they’re coming from overseas”.

The 1996 reforms required guns to be registered and owners licensed, proving they had a “genuine cause” to have a gun. However most firearm murders in Australia’s are done with illegal firearms, not legally registered firearms. According to Reuter and Mouzos’ 2003 study, only one gun homicide in the two years following the 1996 buyback and gun reforms used a registered gun. The Australia Institute of Criminology (AIC) report of the 2006-07 fiscal year stated that 93% of firearms involved in homicides were not registered and were used by unlicensed individuals.-This is strong evidence demonstrating that reducing supply in the general population does little to deter the criminal element from obtaining guns.

Besides producing no change on firearm homicide, the Australian gun reforms seem to have had unintended negative consequences. By 2008, there had been an increase of over 40% in assaults and 20% in sexual assaults. Violent crime as a whole has soared in Australia since the 1996 gun ban. AIC data shows that Australia has more violent crime per 100,000 people than the U.S. or Canada. Australia’s violent crime rate is only outpaced by the UK, whose violent crime rate has skyrocketed since their late-90’s gun ban. Professor Mason of George Washington University states: “What to conclude? Strict gun laws in [Great Britain and] Australia haven’t made their people noticeably safer.”

Violent Crime RatesObama said he would “be willing to work with anyone to craft solutions” to our gun violence problem. Looking like you’re doing something is not the same thing as actually achieving a positive result. If the positive result we want to see in our society is less homicides and violent crime, then buybacks are empirically demonstrated to not be a solution. The best benefit cited by any proponent of buybacks is “intangible” benefit of getting the conversation of gun violence going. It would seem there are more cost-effective means of getting a public debate going than spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to do so. What we might focus on, is the underlying causes of violence: poverty, drug abuse, gangs, and mental illness. Getting at the root causes of violence would seem to have a better chance at producing positive results than what we already ready know will not produce results.

Matt MacBradaigh is a Christian, Husband, Father, Patriot, and Conservative from the Pacific Northwest. Matt writes about the Second Amendment, Gun Control, Gun Rights, and Gun Policy issues. Follow him on Twitter @atomiktiger


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  2. Andrew Pease says:

    I have the sensation that these gun buyback events are being abused by criminals, does gun theft goes up when no question gun “buyback” events occur? .

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