Earlier this week the North Dakota House of Representatives passed a bill, HB1381, which earns those legislators this year’s award for the single, dumbest piece of legislation enacted anywhere in the United States. The bill not only outlaws taxpayer dollars from being used to fund gun buybacks, but also makes it a misdemeanor for any police agency to support a buyback.
The supporters of the bill cited a study by Professor Scott Phillips, a former Houston cop who now teaches criminology at SUNY-Buffalo. He published a paper in 2013 which basically said that gun buybacks don’t work. Why don’t they work? Because in the city of Buffalo, where gun buybacks collected more than 3,000 guns in buybacks held between 2007 and 2012, rates of gun homicides, gun assaults and gun robberies showed no impact on reducing these crimes.
Phillips concludes, “Gun buy-back programmes appear to satisfy a local administrator’s need for instant solutions to a problem, despite a lack of evidence demonstrating effectiveness as a violence reduction strategy. If we are to have a meaningful impact on crime,” he adds, “we must enact policies that are based on empirical evidence and not emotion.” Obviously, the North Dakota legislators voted with their heads, not their hearts, right?
Wrong. Totally and completely wrong. So wrong that anyone who thinks that the value of a buyback can be reduced to a regression analysis comparing number of guns collected to number of gun crimes committed knows nothing either about guns or crimes committed with guns, or both.
Take a city like Buffalo, where I once spent a lovely afternoon in Ralph Wilson Stadium (now called New Era Stadium) watching Bruce Smith totally demolish the Miami Dolphins offensive line. Last year, Erie County, a.k.a. Buffalo, had the highest gun homicide rate of any county in New York State. Know why there were so many shootings in Erie County? Nobody knows why, okay? We can assume that one of the reasons for so much gun violence is that there are so many illegal guns floating around. How many illegal guns are floating around in Buffalo? We have absolutely no idea. Not only don’t we know how many guns are floating around in the ‘wrong hands’ in Buffalo, we don’t know how many guns that might be used to commit a felonious assault are floating around anywhere else.
If I wanted to do a study, for example, on the outcome of a smoking cessation campaign, I would simply compare the number of people smoking before the campaign started and after the campaign came to an end. But somehow this basic approach for designing a study on the effectiveness of gun buybacks disappears. The first measure of a gun buyback’s impact should be the degree to which the buyback reduced the number of guns. Without that measurement, comparing the numbers of guns taken off the street to the number of guns being used in the street is nothing more than an exercise in self-fulfilling statistical prophecy, or better said, self-fulfilling sophistry.
I have been involved with a gun buyback program which is now in its 18th year. The program started in Worcester, MA and has now spread to 5 states. We conduct these buybacks in conjunction with Level 1 trauma centers in each state, the buyback sites staffed by medical students and physicians talking directly to community residents who show up to get rid of their guns.
What comes out of these interactions is the fact that the buyback gives people, without any threat of government intervention, the ability to decide for themselves whether a gun in their home represents a risk. Until and unless our culture begins to embrace the idea that guns constitute an unnecessary threat to safety, well-being and health, you can pass what Professor Phillips calls laws based on ‘empirical evidence’ and things won’t change worth a damn.
To quote LaNyia Johnson, a young man who will spend his entire life in a wheelchair thanks to taking a bullet in the spine: “I wish you could have collected one more gun.”