Trading guns for cash

Buybacks: Despite overwhelming response in Washington and other cities, experts say gun exchanges won't necessarily reduce violence in the streets

August 25, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Claude Davis held the rifle like a venomous snake, carrying it gingerly toward a police officer as though it might snap up and bite him. The gun had been in his basement closet for 30 years -- and finally he was taking it out of his house and off his mind.

"It's about my comfort level," said Davis, 63, a lanky Washington cab driver standing in line outside a police station yesterday during the city's largest-ever gun buyback effort. "I never saw the gun, but I always knew it was there. Now, I never have to worry about those irrational moments -- the kind that could lead to gunplay."

Davis was one of thousands of Washington-area residents who have swamped the district's police stations this week to turn over guns, in exchange for $100 each, from the department's cache of confiscated drug money.

Few cities have gotten the response to a buyback program that Washington has this week. Indeed, the district's initiative has been so popular that the Police Department is scrambling to find the money to pay for all the guns that have been turned in. It is one of a series of buybacks around the country this summer that are yielding surprisingly high numbers of guns -- and, some suggest hopefully, might galvanize anti-gun sentiments nationwide.

This summer, the buyback is hot: A Brooklyn, N.Y., program was so successful that it was launched citywide. Similar buybacks are under consideration for Houston, Chicago, Baton Rouge and other cities. The latest twist: Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks proposed a buyback program this week that would offer owners tax breaks instead of cash.

Of course, many people trade the guns because they never use them and want the money ("Turn it in for a Benjamin," police coaxed in Brooklyn last month). The programs, including Washington's Operation Gun Tip, work on the policy of no questions asked.

Many gun policy experts caution that buybacks look more promising than they really are -- since few, if any, of the people who turn in the guns are criminals, and since the weapons are more likely to be family heirlooms than the semiautomatics used in urban killing sprees.

"If your goal is to bring down levels of gun homicide or gun assault quickly, then research shows the gun buyback doesn't do it," said Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at University of Missouri-St. Louis who has studied the effectiveness of various gun policies. At the same time, Rosenfeld said, the buybacks do some good by focusing public attention on gun violence.

"It makes for great television," he said.

Even highly successful gun buyback programs -- such as Baltimore's 1974 exchange, one of the nation's first -- are estimated to take in less than 2 percent of an average city's gun supply. Yet even a limited response can prove overwhelming: Baltimore's 1997 buyback was so successful, with 1,000 guns exchanged in one day instead of the anticipated one month, that police had to end the effort early because the cash ran out.

Washington is facing a similar problem. The department paid out $125,000 in exchange for 1,164 guns Monday, exhausted an additional $100,000 yesterday and wrote IOUs for 57 more guns. That is out of 90,000 registered guns and perhaps as many as 60,000 unregistered guns citywide.

"We were anticipating high numbers, but nothing like this," said Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer. "Whether we have to beg, borrow or steal, we'll get the money to pay people if the demand keeps up like this."

A turning point?

To some, the Washington story is so encouraging that they wonder whether it might signal a hardening in national attitudes against guns -- particularly in the wake of mass shootings like the one at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., or the recent rampage by a stock day trader in Atlanta.

"We may come to see the first half of 1999 as a real turning point in public attitudes about guns," said Garen Wintemute, director of the violence-prevention research program at the University of California-Davis who studies gun control initiatives. "We're seeing an increasing sense that people are fed up -- and we're seeing stronger support for gun violence measures than we have in a long time."

Several states are making more dramatic moves toward gun control than they have in the past. This year, California adopted a one-gun-a-month restriction on purchases and a ban on a category of poorly made, cheap handguns is about to become law. New Jersey is poised to require personalized handguns using technology that makes them inoperable by anyone other than their owners. And Massachusetts, where many of the nation's guns are manufactured, last month set tougher safety standards for guns that are made or sold in the state.

In Washington, a handful of the weapons turned over are the type commonly used in street crime. (One live grenade turned in this week does not fall into that category.)

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