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Do Gun Buybacks Work?

If there is one issue connected to the debate on gun violence which has been mis-stated and mis-understood over the years, it has been the issue of determining the efficacy of gun buybacks. Before I explain what the previous sentence means, let me first define the phrase ‘gun buyback,’ which is also mis-understood.

A gun buyback is an effort conducted within a community or multiple communities to offer financial incentives to people who voluntarily surrender guns. Note the word ‘voluntarily.’ It is not an activity which has any governmental authority or sanction behind it at all. It is not, for example, what happened in Australia in 1996, when the government changed the law and prohibited the ownership of semi-automatic weapons but then reimbursed gun owners a fair market-value for such guns when they were turned in.

To have forced people to discard property that was legally acquired without compensating them for their loss would have been a major violation of a cornerstone of the legal system because the government can’t arbitrarily penalize citizens who behaved lawfully and now are behaving unlawfully because the law has been changed.

And yet, here’s a definition of gun buybacks from Newsweek by a reporter who claims she has spent ‘years’ studying gun policies: “Gun buybacks are financed by taxpayer dollars and are generally paid for by local agencies rather than through state or federal funding.”

Wrong. Generally speaking, gun buybacks are financed through voluntary contributions by local merchants and advocacy groups which pay for the incentives, usually a gift card to a supermarket or a big-box store, that people receive when they turn in a gun. Last week, the taxpayers in New York State did finance a statewide buyback which brought in over 3,000 guns, but the media coverage hewed to the accepted notion that gun buybacks don’t work: “While gun buyback programs are popular, there is little evidence to show they're effective in measurably reducing gun violence,” so said an article in USA Today.

Why don’t gun buybacks ‘work?’ Because after the buyback, according to all the so-called experts, gun violence doesn’t go down. This has been the accepted and unquestioned analysis of the value of gun buybacks ever since Garen Wintemute published a study of a buyback in Milwaukee which concluded that: “Handguns recovered in buyback programs are not the types most commonly linked to firearm homicides and suicides. Although buyback programs may increase awareness of firearm violence, limited resources for firearm injury prevention may be better spent in other ways.”

God forbid any of the experts who study gun violence would deviate an inch away from what Wintemute said. But Wintemute himself then realized that something as multivariate and complicated as gun assaults can’t just be explained or understood by making a rather primitive argument that if A doesn’t lead to B, there’s something wrong with A.

Wintemute later revised his criticism of gun buybacks, proposing instead that “buybacks may not directly reduce rates of firearm-related violent crime, but they can be an important element in a broader community-based effort to prevent violence.”

What does that statement mean? Basically, it means nothing. But just to make sure that we understand the value of gun buybacks from Wintemute’s perspective, here’s another judgement from David Hemenway, who does gun research at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health: “An important outcome of the buyback is having people work together, making it more likely they will work together on other aspects of the problem.”

Academics like Wintemute and Hemenway conduct gun research by taking data available in the public domain and twisting it around a new or revised statistical formula which yields a slightly different result from the previous time that the data was analyzed by themselves or someone else. In fact, the data published by the CDC on gun violence is so misrepresentative of the reality of gun violence that to use it in any kind of serious discussion about this issue is to move the discussion into never-never land.

The CDC defines gun violence only in terms of people who are shot and killed with guns, which happens to represent, at best, maybe 30 percent of annual gun violence events. Why is the data used by Wintemute, Hemenway and all their research peers so far away from what gun-violence data should really show? Because the CDC finally realized a few years ago that their sampling methods for estimating non-fatal gun violence were totally and completely wrong.

If any of the gun researchers would take the trouble to read Lester Adelson’s classic textbook on forensic homicide, or God forbid actually walk into a shooting range and shoot a gun, they would discover that the only difference between fatal and non-fatal shootings is that in the latter category, the guy using the gun didn’t shoot straight. Otherwise, to talk about gun violence and ignore the non-fatal events, would be like talking about Covid-19 but ignoring the people who contracted the virus but didn’t go to the hospital for help.

Believe it or not, gun violence in this country exists for one, very simple reason, and the reason is this: We are the only country in the entire world which allows law-abiding residents to purchase, own and walk around with guns whose risk of ownership far outweighs the benefits of owning such guns.

The gun industry would like you to believe that being able to yank a Glock, or a Sig, or a Beretta semi-automatic pistol out of your pocket and either wave it in the face of someone who appears to be a threat, or someone who maybe dissed your girlfriend, or someone who just pissed you off by something they said, is proof that having such a gun means that the benefits far outweigh the risks.

The evidence which proves this nonsense to be false rather than true was first published thirty years ago. And this single issue – risks versus benefits – is what the gun debate is all about. It’s not about the 2nd Amendment, it’s not about the God-given ‘right’ of self-defense. It’s about risk versus benefits of access to certain types of guns.

Ready? The whole point of a properly organized gun buyback is to inject the risk versus benefit narrative into a community’s thoughts about access to guns.

I am still waiting for any of the so-called gun violence experts to mention this in a single piece of research.

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