Not the best buy

June 03, 2005

IF WE CAN prevent one murder, it will have been worth it. That's the attitude of Baltimore police who are spending $100,000 to buy back guns, no questions asked, from anyone turning them in. Who could argue with saving lives, especially in a city with a stubbornly high murder rate? But police won't ever know if they have saved one life or reduced crime through this program. It's like trying to prove a negative. Crime is down, according to police. Nonfatal shootings are down. And yet there are plenty of guns for sale.

Assets forfeited by convicted drug dealers are being used to pay from $50 to $200 per gun. In two days, police had bought 550 weapons, including a Mac-10 assault rifle, an Uzi and a semiautomatic Ruger handgun, weapons of choice for criminals, they say.

But this initiative should be viewed only as window-dressing for a greater, citywide crimefighting strategy that has concentrated police in three high-crime mini-districts - and reduced violence and homicides in those areas. It belongs in the category of surveillance cameras and anti-crime DVDs.

The last time city police had a gun buyback program was in 2000. The new mayor, Martin O'Malley, thought it ineffective then when police bought 710 guns in a year that ended with 261 murders (down from 305 in 1999). A similar city program in 1997, a year with 311 murders, collected 1,100 guns in one day - quite a haul.

How many of those guns were used in a crime? How many were stolen? How many came from someone other than a law-abiding citizen? Can't say, but we can guess: probably zero.

Cities that reviewed their buyback efforts found little impact on gun violence. The studies are a decade old, but still worth noting. A Harvard study of Boston's programs in 1993 and 1994 found that a majority of guns turned in were manufactured before 1968. In Sacramento, 59 percent of participants said they had another gun at home that they intended to keep. About 14 percent of participants in a St. Louis gun buyback planned to buy a new gun.

About the best that can be said about Baltimore's revived gun buyback program is that it gives city residents a positive way to contribute, even if it's a subsidized effort. It persuaded one mother, police said, to search the rooms of her drug-dealing sons and turn in the two handguns she found there.

But the next time the city has another $100,000 to spend, here are a few other ways to help reduce crime: $100,000 would fund services for 11 at-risk teenagers in the city's Operation Safe Kids program. It would pay for 10 drug addicts to undergo long-term residential treatment or create 310 slots in a 28-day program. It could pay for a domestic violence prosecution team. It could underwrite a distribution of gun safety locks.

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