Plagued cities buy back guns, but effect is doubted

December 29, 1992|By The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Desperate to disarm the violence in thei streets, American communities are posting bounties on firearms.

In less than two years, 28 cities from Brooklyn to San Francisco have experimented with gun buybacks, or bounties, in an effort to get handguns off the street. Still more cities have them planned.

Some report success. A gun buyback last year in St. Louis attracted so many people that lines sometimes clogged the streets outside drop-off points. There, the buyback's impetus was the death of a 9-year-old boy, killed in the cross-fire of two drug dealers.

Proponents say buyback programs help reduce violence. But others think bounties are an inadequate solution to a complex problem.

"Think about it: Are bad guys going to bring their own guns in?" says Bailus Tate, president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners. "I guess I'd say I'm not a big proponent of it because I don't know if it really works."

The Kansas City department last spring looked at other cities' efforts. Its verdict: Buybacks have little effect on violent crime.

In 1991 and 1992, when buyback programs became prevalent nationwide, violent crime climbed in several test cities.

Still, supporters rationalize that somewhere, somehow, a life has been spared. Thus, they declare the programs' successes.

"People are concerned," says Professor Scott Decker, chairman of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "They see [violence] as a community problem, and they're searching for anything that will help them solve the problem."

"I don't know why they're so hot now," criminologist and author Gary Kleck says of buybacks. "It's an old idea."

Philadelphia tried them in 1968, 1972 and 1974, taking in just 544 guns. Baltimore staged the most famous buyback, offering $50 a gun for three months in 1974. People cashed in 13,400 firearms, including about 8,400 handguns.

Philadelphia again led the latest wave of buybacks. In two weeks, a community group working with police collected 1,044 firearms -- about four times its expectations.

Thirty days of gun buybacks in St. Louis brought in 7,469 guns. The city spent $341,000, about half from drug seizures, half from private donations.

In justifying the expense, St. Louis Police Chief Clarence Harmon wrote that the average murder case, from arrest through appeals, costs $173,000.

"If the gun buyback program prevented even one murder," Harmon said, "it was worth every penny."

In Kansas City, where three of every four homicide victims are killed with a gun, police were interested in buyback programs. The department researched the topic in May.

The good press the programs generated impressed authorities. But then they found bounties had little effect on crime.

"The programs received an awful lot of exposure in the national media that was really positive but, frankly, overplayed," says Police Chief Steven Bishop.

Kansas City could design its own buyback program that might have some effect, Chief Bishop says, but the department lacks money, so there is little point in considering it.

Furthermore, officers who work on the street have their own reservations.

Officer Christopher Sager, a veteran of more than 20 years, works in one of Kansas City's busiest divisions. He says buyback programs don't reach those who pose the greatest threat: the drug dealers, street robbers, car thieves and con men who make their living at the expense of others.

If those people wanted to sell their guns, he says, they could peddle them on the street for more than the bounty.

"You're going to get a certain percentage of people maybe saying this is the answer to the problem, but [buybacks] really don't work," Officer Sager says.

Across the state, though, others have found reason to hope.

In the 30 days before St. Louis began its plan, the city of less than 400,000 people recorded 34 homicides. Eleven murders occurred during the 30-day buyback.

"We'd like to think it's the awareness created by the program" that caused the drop, says police spokeswoman Christine Nelson.

"I think describing it as maybe a coincidental dip is accurate," says Mr. Decker, the St. Louis criminologist who studies the city's homicide patterns.

St. Louis in 1991 had 260 homicides -- 47 percent more than it did the year before and six less than its record in 1970, when the city had nearly twice the population.

This fall, Philadelphia conducted its second buyback in 16 months, taking in 525 guns. Meanwhile, the city averaged a murder a day.

In city after city, advocates of buybacks say they acted to cut the level of violence. Brooklyn initiated a program after 39 children under age 18 died by gunfire in 11 months.

"Does taking excess guns off the street have much effect on homicides?" asks Mr. Decker. "It's hard to know. Is it likely to have long-term carry-over for gun use? I think it's hard to say that it would."

Not a single city critically analyzed its program to test its (P effectiveness. The prime reason is that nearly every city accepted the firearms with no questions asked.

"It's unlikely they get guns from anybody likely to do violence with them," says Mr. Kleck, author of "Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America." "You won't get them from people who think their lives depend on a gun. They usually live in dangerous areas and live dangerous lives."

Dennis Eggers, a regional director with the National Rifle Association, calls the St. Louis buyback a waste of money.

"That [money] could have been better spent for crime victims, police training or perhaps youth firearms safety programs in the city school system," Mr. Eggers says. "In many ways it's a feel-good measure."

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