Gathering the guns

By Sam Inglot

Research shows gun buyback programs like Lansing's are ineffective at reducing gun violence — but city officials are not dissuaded

This story was clarified on Jan. 24 to say that one of the guns turned in at the city of Lansing's gun buyback program in July was an AK-47 assault rifle.

Lansing is gearing up for its second gun buyback program in a year, but research shows these types of efforts are ineffective at reducing violent crime, says a professor at Michigan State University.

“We have not had a gun buyback program that has removed so many guns from the community that we would expect to see a difference,” said April Zeoli, a criminal justice professor at MSU. While Zeoli has not personally studied gun buyback programs, she is familiar with the research on them. Last week, she was part of a Johns Hopkins University panel of gun violence experts that was convened by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The panel provided evidence-based suggestions for gun violence prevention legislation.

Zeoli said there are two types of gun supplies: New guns and existing ones that are already owned. She said by reducing one of those supplies, a drop in gun violence can be expected. “The question is, how much do you have to reduce one or the other and which guns do you take out of circulation?”

While research on the effectiveness of gun buyback programs is sparse, Zeoli said available information shows that gun buyback programs are ineffective at reducing gun violence. Critics of gun buyback programs add that such programs demonize gun ownership. While Lansing Police officials recognize that criminals won’t turn out in droves to turn in their guns, the point of the program is to remove idle guns from homes that may be stolen.

“If we can take guns out of homes legally for people who no longer want them, why wouldn’t we do that?” Lansing Police Chief Teresa Szymanski said. “Anything we can do to support getting guns off our streets, that’s what we want to do. Doing nothing is not an alternative.”

Gun buyback programs like Lansing’s aim to tackle the existing portion of the guns in circulation by offering money to people for turning in their guns. Zeoli said the guns that are being used in crimes typically are not the guns being turned in at gun buyback programs.

“The guns that are most used in crimes tend to be high-caliber, semi-automatic pistols,” she said. “Gun buyback programs tend to collect few semi-automatic pistols. They tend to get a lot of small-caliber guns, the type that are generally not used in homicides.”

For a gun buyback program to be truly effective at reducing violent crime, guns would have to be turned over “en masse,” Zeoli said. She gave an example of a gun buyback held in Australia in the late 1990s. She said “literally one-third” of the country’s guns were turned in and there was a significant drop in gun violence.

“Gun buyback programs are not unique to the U.S. It’s just that other countries have had better success with them,” she said. “I think it goes back to the willingness of the citizens of the country to turn in their guns. So far in the U.S., we haven’t seen a time when our citizens have been willing to turn in guns en masse.”

LPD Spokesman Robert Merritt said the city’s first gun buyback program in July collected 100 guns — 60 long guns (like rifles) and 40 handguns. One of the guns turned in was an AK-47 assault rifle, Merritt said in an email.

“People can commit crimes with any type of gun,” Szymanski said. “We see more crimes committed with handguns than hunting rifles and single barreled shotguns. But the truth of matter is bullets are bullets, and they can hurt and kill people.”

Lansing’s program is run entirely through donations. People who participate receive a $100 grocery gift card for each handgun and a $200 gift card for each semi-automatic rifle that is turned in. There is no paperwork when turning in a gun and the process is entirely anonymous. All of the guns that are collected are melted and destroyed.

As of Thursday, Lansing Police had collected $5,828 for the second gun buyback event, which is slated for mid-February. Merritt said the goal is $15,000, but he said Mayor Virg Bernero would OK another event if the program raised $10,000.

Steve Dulan, a Second Amendment professor at Cooley Law School and an attorney for the Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners, is critical of Lansing’s gun buyback program.

“Gun buyback programs are at best a waste of time and money and at worst are, in general, a program of demonizing gun ownership,” he said. “There’s no evidence that any active criminal actually turns in guns to these programs.”

Lansing Police officials say they aren’t nave — they don’t expect criminals to hand their guns over to police — and the goal of the program is to reduce the number of idle and unsecured guns in homes. These guns, Merritt said, are often stolen and used in crimes, though the number of guns stolen from Lansing homes was not readily available.

A 2003 study from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research revealed that less than one-fifth of incarcerated criminals had knowingly used stolen guns in crimes, based on interviews with inmates. In that study, 10 percent of those interviewed said they had stolen the gun they used, while 8 percent said they had bought the gun from a “fence” — someone who sells stolen goods. The study also found that 21 percent of armed criminals purchased guns from people known to steal guns, like drug dealers and drug addicts.

According to the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition, which includes Bernero and more than 700 mayors from around the county, 600,000 guns are stolen from private homes each year.

Still, in the wake of the Dec. 14 shooting that killed 20 students and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., Zeoli said these programs may become more successful. She believes that the heightened gun control debate may make gun buyback programs like Lansing’s more effective because of the national fervor surrounding the need to reduce gun violence.

“Right now we’re looking at a very unique time regarding perception about guns and changing Americans’ relationship with guns and gun laws. That could make a difference, I think. It could lead people with guns in their homes to decide they don’t want them there anymore. I think that if there is a time — it’s now.”