Last week my eye caught an interesting gun article in The New York Times, and it’s not like I often read articles in the NYT that are interesting (or correct, for that matter.) But this was an article about two young men who put together a very successful gun buyback in Los Angeles that collected more than 770 weapons in a one-day program last May, and have taken more than 1,100 guns out of circulation since 2013.
The two guys behind this initiative have put together an organization, Gun By Gun, which has been operating on the West Coast but with proper care and feeding could obviously become a national thing. The whole deal is funded through crowd-sourced donations which, according to the NYT article, have collected more than $100,000. But what I really found interesting about this effort was not the amount of money donated or the number of guns taken off the streets, but rather the fact that folks who give in their guns get a Target gift card as their reward. I’ll come back to the significance of that fact in a bit.
But meanwhile I first have to spend a bit of time discussing the manner in which our dear public health friends have viewed the question of gun buybacks, because the truth is that the narrative they have developed about buybacks misses the basic point of such programs, which means that public health gun violence researchers simply get it wrong.
Over the years there have been a number of gun buyback programs whose results have been analyzed by some of our leading public health gun researchers, including Frederick Rivara and Garen Wintemute, along with a summary published by the National Academies in 2004. These articles basically say the same thing, namely, that gun buybacks are ineffective because people turn in old or broken guns whereas the guns which are used in felonies remain in the street. And of course it’s impossible to prove any direct connection between the number of guns which are turned in and whether or not this has any effect on crime, and if you can’t make some kind of connection or what public health loves to call ‘association’ between two sets of facts, then you can’t assume that anything has happened at all.
I would never challenge my friends in the public health community when it comes to understanding or using data about guns or gun violence and I would certainly never even hint at the idea that public health research on gun violence shouldn’t be continued and, if anything, increased in scope and size. But by casting the academic discussion about the value of gun buyback programs in terms of being able to measure results, and public health researchers simply can’t detach themselves from their never-ending commitment to measuring whatever they look at, the discussion about the importance and value of buybacks is pushed in the wrong direction and is simply never discussed or understood.
The real value of gun buybacks, the reason that such programs need to be expanded into every community which suffers from any degree of gun violence, is that when a buyback program occurs, it gets everyone in the community thinking about guns. And the thoughts have nothing to do with whether guns are a good thing to have around, the thoughts are about the importance and necessity of getting rid of guns.
Gun-nut Nation has done a very effective job of convincing lots of Americans that they would be safer if their home contained a gun. They have done such a good job that they are maybe less than 2 Senate votes away from a new law that would allow everyone to wander throughout the entire United States carrying a gun.
A buyback program is the most effective way of telling a community that guns won’t make them safer and that guns should be turned in. If my friends in the public health community have come up with a better messaging about gun violence, please share it with me.
Thank you Margaret Ayres.