On a rainy April afternoon in Bushwick, a neighborhood in the center of Brooklyn, N.Y., people from around the community entered the rectory of a large church with bags containing heavy items. This wasn’t an opportunity to donate food or used clothing. These bags were filled, likely in secret, and handled with incredible care.
The contents include items people wanted to get rid of while quietly keeping themselves anonymous in the process. Most of those bags contained .22-caliber pistols,.38-caliber revolvers, shotguns, and even a few rifles. Some of the firearms had been around the homes of people who felt they were too dangerous to be left idle. Others were held by people who no longer needed them. The rest were owned by family members who had passed away.
As many as 3,000 guns were collected across New York State that day during the statewide gun buyback program. Gift cards valued as much as $500 were offered in exchange for the weapons. In a year in which gun violence has been top of mind for New Yorkers (beyond that of law enforcement and politicians) based on the increase in crime and the hate-driven mass shooting in Buffalo, which killed 10 people, prosecutors are using whatever tools they have at their disposal to respond to a perpetual problem.
“With young people, guns have overtaken all other forms of death in Brooklyn,” said Eric Gonzalez, the borough’s district attorney, who has spent much of his tenure prosecuting gun crimes. He presided over the gun buyback at All Saints Roman Catholic Church, one of several gun buyback sites that day. While there, 90 firearms were recovered. “The guns could wind up in the hands of violent criminals, but I think the big piece for me is this will potentially save a life, I think that’s important.
“This is not the final solution,” Gonzalez continued, “it’s part of the solution. This is how we get the word out.”
Gun buybacks have been in use since the 1970s, when gun crime began to significantly increase in America, particularly in urban and minority communities. While nobody suggests that gun buyback programs are a solution to violent gun crime in America, they have increased in popularity in several locales. An April 29 gun buyback at a church on Chicago’s south side reportedly brought in 166 firearms, and in South San Francisco, Calif., officials say 264 guns were collected on May 6. A 2022 gun buyback in Atlanta collected 302 guns—150 in its first hour.
The state government seems to have so much faith in gun buybacks in New Jersey Rep. Donald Payne introduced a new bill to provide federal grants to communities to fund the programs.
“There is no gun violence without guns,” Payne said in a statement. “My bill gives people a reason to sell their guns to create safer neighborhoods for neighborhood families and children.”
But for as many cheerleaders as the buyback programs have, they are certainly not without their critics. In fact, those skeptics say they are little more than smoke and mirrors, which fail to address a very real problem in violence-plagued communities.
“There is essentially complete scholarly agreement that gun buybacks don’t work,” said David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “Even in heavily regulated places like New York, there are an awful lot of guns in private hands. Gun buybacks don’t reach and remove a large proportion of guns. Most of those guns in the community before the buyback are there after the buyback.”
A study conducted by the RAND Corp., and released earlier this year seems to agree with Kennedy. It says that not much evidence exists that shows gun buybacks are effective tools for significantly reducing overall gun crime:
The empirical research available on gun buybacks suggests that there has been limited success in targeting high-risk individuals and guns; however, the survey findings described in this section should be interpreted cautiously because gun buyback participants who voluntarily respond to surveys are likely to differ from nonrespondents. In particular, groups at elevated risk of firearm homicide might also be less likely to respond to voluntary surveys.
The report also indicates that the impact does not go far enough for people in Black and Latino communities that are at the highest risk.
Even though many buybacks originate from concerns about firearm homicides, survey findings suggest that few buybacks have drawn large numbers of people from the demographic groups at greatest risk of interpersonal firearm violence.
“It’s also the case that people who organize and participate in these exercises are concerned and want to do something about gun violence,” Kennedy explained. “It makes sense that wanting to get guns out of these hands should be a violence prevention measure, [but] I fear that people think they are doing something effective when they’re not, and that takes away from methods of gun violence prevention that works.”
This criticism of gun buybacks doesn’t seem to be a deterrent to those who remain in support of the approach. Their belief is that every little bit helps when it comes to preventing a gun from finding its way into the hands of someone who could cause harm.
Pointing out that at least 90 percent of firearms linked to gun crime in New York City were illegally possessed, Gonzalez said his community has a different problem than in many areas where mass shooters take lives.
“What we’re fearing in Black and Brown communities is not the AR-15, it’s handguns,” he said. “They are the biggest concern, and they are brought into New York illegally. Our communities are tired of gun violence, so it’s going to take the community to come together about illegally possessed guns.”
In Harris County, Tex., officials are planning a gun buyback on June 10. The last one they held earlier in 2023 brought in 820 guns, something Harris County Executive Rodney Ellis says sends a message, despite the criticism.
“I think they are important if they are part of a more holistic approach,” said Ellis. “We cannot control gun laws on the local level, but that does not prevent us from doing something to take guns off the street.”
Ellis said that in 2018, gun buybacks in Houston and Harris County brought in 2,800 weapons in the first three of eight events and provided individuals with a safe place to bring the weapons without fear of arrest for having them. It’s something that can be a deterrent to turning in guns otherwise. For that reason and others, he says, the programs should continue.
“Someone can come up with all the statistics they want,” Ellis said, “but you’d be hard pressed to say there is a downside to getting a gun away that could have been used to commit a crime.”