Gun Buybacks Don’t Work? Fake News.

              I haven’t seen figures for the entire year, but if what happened in Baltimore this past  October had any predictive value, this year’s homicide number might come close  to the all-time homicide number set in 2017.  Which is why I found the media response to a year-end gun  buyback program conducted by the Baltimore Police Department to be not only puzzling, but frankly, stupidly-wrong as well.

              Here was the headline in the Baltimore Sun: “Gun buybacks don’t work.”  To bolster this viewpoint, the reporter, Max Meizlish, went on and on about how the decision to pay Baltimore residents $25 for a high-capacity gun magazine, with a limit of 2 magazines per donor, made the program “ripe for abuse.” 

              Why?  Because according to Meizlish, you can buy a hi-cap magazine on the internet for $9 to $15, which means that a quick online purchase followed by a trip to the buyback site would net someone at least a profit of $10 bucks.  To sum up, “Anyone looking for a quick payday need not look any further; the City of Baltimore was apparently ready and eager to double their money at the taxpayer’s expense.”

              I always thought that the Baltimore Sun, which has been around since before the Civil War, maintained some degree of journalistic standards. But everyone in the editorial department must have been out celebrating the holidays when Meizlish submitted this article which is simply wrong and simply dumb.

              Let’s start with his claim, without any source at all, that hi-cap magazines are available on the internet for $9 bucks. The website that specializes in discounted gun accessories is known as Cheaper Than Dirt.  Get it, cheaper than dirt? Here’s a link to the page which allows you to drill down and purchase hi-cap magazines for just about any caliber and any gun. I surfed through the magazines for Glock, Beretta, Kahr and CZ, brand names of handguns commonly found in the street. Know how many magazines they are selling for less than $25 bucks?  None. 

And by the way, if you live in Maryland and decide to buy a hi-cap mag from Cheaper Than Dirt, when you put in the shipping address and/or the zip code of your credit card, the purchase won’t go through. Hi-cap magazines are illegal in Maryland, as they are in a number of other states, and the online sellers are wary about getting hit with a visit from the ATF because they shipped one of these magazines to a resident of what is known, thanks to George Washington, as The Old Line State.

Incidentally, if you read through Meizlish’s entire story, he repeats again and again that the Baltimore buyback was a dud, but you might notice that nowhere does he state the number of guns or hi-cap magazines that were actually turned in. Now you would think that if he was so intent on proving that the buyback was nothing more than a scam at taxpayer’s expense, at the very least he would tell us how much this useless effort actually cost the public purse. 

Here’s Meizlish’s ultimate judgement on Baltimore’s gun buyback program: “Perhaps instead of doling out dollars to support these buybacks, Baltimore City’s elected officials could find a way to better support law enforcement and increase the number of officers patrolling the city’s streets. Tried and true policing produces results. Misguided and poorly executed buybacks do not.”

Let me break the news to this reporter who knows absolutely nothing about buybacks or guns.  Gun violence isn’t going to be reduced with an either-or approach.  A buyback is one of many tools which need to be used in our efforts to protect our communities from the threat represented by guns. But to say that until and unless Baltimore puts enough cops on the street, that buybacks are a waste of money and time is to say something that is simply not true.

Sorry Max, but your story is nothing more than fake news.

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Gun Buybacks Work.

Next Saturday, December 15, my friends at Worcester Memorial Hospital and U/Mass Medical School are going to sponsor their 17th annual gun buyback that will run all day in the city of Worcester and many of the surrounding towns. This effort is the brainchild of Dr. Michael Hirsh, the pediatric surgeon at Memorial who first started thinking about gun violence when his classmate in the residency program at Columbia Medical School, John Wood, was gunned down across the street from the hospital in 1981.  You can learn more about the Worcester buyback program here.

The Worcester buyback is a partnership between the hospital and the city’s Police Department, or what Dr. Hirsh calls ‘white coats – blue coats,’ and the pic above shows Worcester DA Joe Early handing Hirsh a nice check.  The same buyback with the same white coat – blue coat effort will take place on the same day at New Haven and Hartford with Yale and U/Conn medical schools/hospitals involved, as well as in Springfield, MA with the involvement of the city’s cops and teaching hospital, and maybe several more sites still to be announced.  The choice of dates is not accidental; the buybacks are always conducted on the weekend closest to the anniversary of Sandy Hook.

When Mike Hirsh did his first buyback in 2002, the concept of giving in unwanted guns for a cash card here and there had been going on for at least forty years, but generally speaking, such activities received a bad press. Some of this negative image came from the work of criminologists, other findings about the limited value of buybacks came out of public health. There has also been a lot of mixed news about the 1996 buyback in Australia, although comparing a government-mandated gun turn-in where owners are fairly compensated for giving up legally-owned property to a community-run, voluntary turn-in effort is like comparing riding to work in a car as opposed to riding to work on a horse.

One of the leading scholars who used to find little value in buybacks is Garen Wintemute, who is quoted in an interview with NPR as saying that the ‘symbolic impact’ of buybacks is ‘important,’ whatever that means. Wintemute published some research on the effect of buybacks held in Milwaukee in 1994-1996, he compared the collected guns to the types of guns connected to gun fatalities and concluded that most of the donated guns were not the types that were used in gun violence; hence, buybacks don’t work. In 2013, Wintemure revisited the issue again and this time decided that buybacks, if coordinated with other initiatives, such as increasing community awareness about gun violence, were an effective tool. 

With all due respect to Wintemute and his research colleagues, the December 15 buyback led by Dr. Hirsh and other clinicians not only meets all the criteria mentioned by public health scholars as making buybacks a credible pathway towards reducing gun violence, but by basing these buybacks on a collaboration with medical centers, they do something much more important as well.

In fact, it was Wintemute himself (and Marian Betz) who published an important essay calling for physicians to become versent in the language and culture that would help them counsel patients on gun violence, in particular patients who appear to be at immediate risk. This article is regularly cited in every professional medical journal which carries articles on physicians and guns.

The reason that Dr. Hirsh and his buyback team focus their attention on participation by medical centers is that their buybacks serve as a practical, hands-on teaching opportunity for medical residents, medical school students and hospital staff. When community residents show up to donate a gun, they are asked to fill out an anonymous form which gives them an opportunity to explain why they decided to get rid of the gun.  The form is IRB-approved, more than 500 have been collected to date, and at some point the entire collection will be analyzed and sent to a peer-reviewed journal to be read by the public at large.  You can download the form here.  

Without going into specific details because the pre-publication analysis is not yet done, I can say that roughly half of the people who have completed the questionnaire to date state that they wanted to get rid of the gun because it represents a risk to themselves and others in the home.  In other words, what the buyback does is give people not just an opportunity to think about gun violence, but to make a decision, without government intervention of any kind, that having a gun around the home is too much of a risk. Now it happens to be the case that a majority of Americans believe the reverse; namely, that a gun is more of a benefit than a risk. Beyond what Mike Hirsh has been doing for the last 17 years, I don’t know a single activity being conducted by anyone in the medical community  which gives gun owners an opportunity to vote the other way.

More important than just the message about gun risk is the fact that at every buyback location you will find physicians and medical students from the cooperating medical centers engaging community residents in discussions about why they showed up to get rid of a gun. It’s all fine and well for public health researchers to state that doctors need to be mindful of ‘cultural values’ when talking to patients about guns, but how many times have these public health researchers stood next to a gun owner and ask why he is turning in a gun?  And by the way, for all the talk about gun buybacks being more successful if the value of the gift cards were increased, in fact, probably half the donors who show up at the Worcester buyback don’t ask for a gift card at all. “I don’t like that store,” one guy said to me last year as he rejected my offer to give him a gift card.

For the first time since the last Ice Age (actually since 1993) Worcester didn’t suffer a single gun homicide in 2017, non-fatal shootings totalled 24. Three years earlier, there were 7 gun homicides, the number of aggravated gun assaults was 38.  This dramatic reduction isn’t a function of the buyback program by any means; the cops now have ShotSpotter technology, they deploy patrol resources in a more effective way, community programs keep the kids busy after school and repeat offenders are taken off the streets.

But the point is that Mike Hirsh’s buyback program has become part of the social fabric of the community, it is also an important activity for educating medical staff, and its value should not be judged in quantitative terms. Seventeen years ago one person decided to do something to help make his community a nicer place in which to live. And year after year, his idea and commitment continues to spread.

What Happens When Someone Turns In Their Guns.

What is it about guns that sometimes brings out the absolute worst, most debased forms of human behavior? On the one hand we have gun owners who decide to check into a hotel, take a room on the 32nd floor, and then fire hundreds of rounds into a concert-going crowd to see how many people they can kill. On the other hand, when the word gets around on social media that someone voluntarily got rid of his guns because of what happened in Vegas on October 1st, that individual is subject to a barrage of the most vile, disgusting and stupid online attacks that could be imagined, up to and including threats on his life.

LV2            I’m not making this up.  Last week a resident of Phoenix, Jonathan Pring, turned in a pistol and a rifle to the Phoenix PD and then made the mistake of putting up a post on Facebook in which he stuck a video of the guns being given to the cops along with a statement that he was taking this step because of the shooting at the Mandalay Bay.  Within hours, he began receiving countless insults, profanities and even threats to his business and his life, with such comments as “someone needs to go shoot this idiot and make him wish he could have defended himself,” being not all that crazy compared to others he received. And this particular comment came from a self-described three-percenter who, of course, makes a point of telling everyone how patriotic she is on her own Facebook page.

What I find interesting about these online outbursts, and I am a target of such attacks all the time, is that such activity often reflects the degree to which much of the chatter on social media is nothing more than the attempt by childish minds (regardless of the age of the body in which this mind is contained) to outdo one another in terms of who can say something more offensive than what the previous post actually said.  And frequently these unreconstructed idiots belong to social media groups which basically exist to allow all the members to engage in this one-upmanship behavior by identifying and targeting individuals who express a contrary point of view.

On the other hand, what really bothered me about the reaction to Pring’s principled and selfless decision to turn his guns in after the Las Vegas rampage was not the fact that his online video attracted some gun-rights crazies to crawl out from under their rocks. Much more disturbing was the fact that his actions were basically ignored by the gun violence prevention (GVP) community who should have been spreading the news of his decision as far and as wide as they could.

If I had a nickel for every time that some GVP advocate or influencer complains about the ‘power,’ of the NRA without mentioning the degree to which opposition to the NRA on social media is so tepid and weak. When some deputy sheriff from Podunk makes a statement about how he supports concealed-carry, the NRA shouts out the message from here to kingdom come. But here’s a guy who made a remarkable statement about the risk of legal gun ownership and the GVP responds to his message with a big yawn. Shouldn’t the Brady Campaign invite Jonathan Pring to come to DC and accept an award? Shouldn’t Gabby and Mark fly out to meet with him? God knows they go everywhere else.

If GVP is ever going to reverse the continued growth of support for gun ‘rights,’ even among people who don’t own guns, their activists must become much more aggressive about using social media to promote their point of view. The video posted by Jonathan Pring showing him giving his guns to the cops should have been the featured post on every GVP Facebook site. And that’s the way you reach out to a wider audience rather than continuing to talk only to folks who already agree with what you say.

 

Despite What Some People Believe, We Need More Gun Buybacks, Not Less.

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.

confiscated             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.

Some Suggestions For A Gun Violence Prevention Strategy In The Age Of Trump.

gun-violence           Now that the dust is slowly beginning to settle and the smoke slowly beginning to clear, Gun-sense Nation has to sit down and come up with a workable plan to drive the issue of gun violence prevention in the Age of Trump.  Because at least for the next couple of years, until he really screws things up and/or everyone gets sick of his noise, the organizations and individuals committed to ending the senseless behavior that kills or injures 120,000 Americans ever year are going to have to figure out how and what to do with the lunatics in charge.  So while I’m not suggesting that what follows should be adopted as an agenda by the gun violence prevention (GVP) community, I do hope that at least some of these ideas will at least be discussed as plans for the future of GVP begin to take shape.

  1. There must be a dedicated and serious effort to prevent Gun-nut Nation from achieving its most fervent goal, namely, a national concealed-carry law that will be valid in all 50 states. And I am opposed to national CCW not because it would necessarily increase gun violence, but because it would make walking around with a gun just as normal and mainstream as driving a car.  Which would lead to even less restrictions on the ownership and use of guns.
  2. States and individual communities should be encouraged to more strictly regulate the most lethal guns. A town north of Chicago – Highland Park – banned the ownership of AR-style rifles by town residents following Sandy Hook and the ban was upheld. The Attorney General in Massachusetts banned purchases of black guns in the Bay State which unleased a spate of lawsuits that will probably end up in the trash.  Let’s remember that the 2nd Amendment protects private ownership of guns but doesn’t say anything about purchasing a particular type of gun.
  3. Gun buyback programs work. The buyback program in Worcester, MA, has taken more than 2,500 guns off the streets of Worcester and surrounding towns at an average cost of $60 a gun.  Let’s increase the buyback tariff to $150 a gun and see if 20 cities with high levels of gun-violence could pull 500 guns of the streets of each city every year.  So it would cost $1.5 million to reduce the gun arsenal by 10,000 guns – that’s chump change for someone like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet or (God forbid) the Clinton Foundation to pony up for collecting a really big pile of guns.
  4. Start pestering school districts to mandate gun violence instruction in the primary grades. Guns don’t show up in high school; they first start appearing in the middle-school years.  Massachusetts mandated an anti-violence curriculum several years ago but confined the instruction to lessons about bullying after several unfortunate student suicides took place.  Shouldn’t they also have added a module on violence cause by guns?
  5. Don’t stop talking about gun violence – no public forum is out of bounds. Public discussions about gun violence used to be of the moment, provoked by this mass shooting or that.  The GVP community has gone far beyond rallying around the issue only when something dreadful takes place.  But keeping the dialog going and increasing its volume is not something that should only occur in response to specific events.  It should go on all the time.

Note that I did not mention the ‘usual GVP suspects’ like universal background checks or tightening up taking guns away in at-risk situations like suicide or domestic disputes.  I didn’t mention these issues because there is enough momentum behind them now to sustain such strategies even when the chances for success are less positive than they were before.  I just wanted to throw a few more items on the table because we need to attack this issue from as many different perspectives as we can, and let’s not forget that the next election is now less than two years’ away.

Sorry Gun-Nut Nation But Gun Buybacks Do Work.

To celebrate the fact that Donald Trump has moved from being the presumptive GOP nominee to the actual (how in God’s name did that happen?) I am going to make one change in the nomenclature which I use for talking about guns. Going forward, when a pro-gun noisemaker, individual or organization, spouts a misstatement about gun violence, I am no longer going to say that they are incorrect, or wrong, or anything polite like that.  I am going to say that they are lying because the pro-gun mob has access to the same data and documentation that I read. And if someone (including me) can’t distinguish between facts and factoids, then they should keep their mouths shut.

buyback             One of the most common lies floating around Gun-nut Mob these days is the lie that gun laws won’t work because criminals don’t obey laws.  Now the truth is that there have been gun laws passed here and there which really didn’t work, or didn’t work all that well.  But that doesn’t mean we throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Of course criminals don’t obey laws.  That’s what makes them criminals, duhhh?

On the other hand, there are some gun regulations which, in terms of lowering gun violence, have worked very well.  And chief among those laws, believe it or not, is the idea of gun buybacks, in particular those buybacks which took certain types of highly-lethal firearms out of private hands. The presumptive Democratic candidate, HRC, has been targeted by the Gun-nut Mob because of comments she made about the gun buyback law implemented in Australia in 1996 and 2003.  But in fact, the result of this program, according to researchers, “seems to have been incredibly successful in terms of lives saved.” It should be noted, incidentally, that the Australian buyback was directed not at all guns, but primarily at high-capacity, semi-automatic rifles, the absence of which in Australia can be directly linked to the complete disappearance of mass shootings, which have become all too commonplace in the U.S. today.

The problem with using Australia’s buyback experience as a model, however, is that it really wasn’t a typical buyback program (cash for guns) because the government first declared certain types of legally-owned guns to be illegal, and thus had to compensate owners because otherwise it would have been a case of seizing property without compensation, which is something that democratic governments simply don’t do.  But I recently came across a study that analyzed the effects of a major, countrywide buyback program in Argentina that collected more than 100,000 firearms, paid compensation for each gun and guaranteed anonymity for everyone who turned guns in.  If you want to read the study, you can download it from my website here.

What the researchers discovered was that the Argentine buyback program, which occurred in 2007 and 2008, did not really change suicide or homicide rates involving guns, but did lead to a ‘significant’ reduction in unintentional deaths.  Did criminals turn in their guns?  The researchers did not believe they did.  Did the program reduce the civilian-owned gun stock by as much as ten percent which significantly reduced gun accidents?  The positive evidence here was clear.

Which brings us back to the big, fat lie endlessly promoted by the Gun-nut Mob that criminals won’t obey laws that seek to control guns.  The lie in this case is the fact that gun buybacks have anything to do with criminals at all. They don’t.  They are simply a mechanism for getting guns out of circulation which people don’t want or don’t need.  And you know what?  It’s the guns that people don’t want and are happy to give up for some cash that end up being guns that are used carelessly, or are stolen and are then used in crimes.  Because folks who use guns responsibly and safely don’t need to give them up. But there’s nothing in a home more lethal than a gun which is just lying around.

 

Want To See A Gun Buy-Back Program That Works? Take A Trip To Worcester, MA.

You may recall that back in August, the news got around that the city of Honolulu decided to replace their Smith & Wesson service pistols with Glocks and, according to news reports, effectively forfeited $575,000 in the process. Why did the city take a $575,000 hit?  Because that’s the money they we would have made if they had sold the S&W pistols to gun dealers who then would have resold the booty to law-abiding gun owners.  “By destroying these guns,” said the NRA, “the city is throwing away taxpayer money over the irrational fear that these guns will end up on the streets of Honolulu.”

It just so happens, by the way, that the streets of Honolulu are the safest streets of any major city in the United States.  So maybe the cops in Hawaii know something about public safety that the NRA doesn’t know.  But either way, the NRA has long campaigned for reversing any policy that makes it more difficult for civilians to own guns, including policies that result in guns being taken off the streets.   And now that NRA Nemesis #2 (aka Hillary) has mentioned a national buy-back program as a campaign issue, you know the NRA will pull out all the stops to fight against buy-back programs of any kind.

gunsThe argument over whether buy-back programs are effective has droned on for years, but I would like to suggest two reasons why it’s difficult to connect specific buy-back programs to any change in gun crime.  First, most buy-back programs are carried out in a specific city or town, so the fact that some guns from a particular locale are turned in really doesn’t affect the ability of the bad guys in those places to get their hands on more guns.  Second, buy-back programs are usually conducted on a sporadic, one-time basis, which makes it difficult, if not impossible to gauge the effect of such activities on violence or crime.  And it’s pointless to use national buy-back programs in countries like Australia and Brazil as litmus tests for what might happen here – different culture, different crime environments – cross-national comparisons simply don’t work.

But I’m going to tell you about a gun buy-back program that does work, and it’s the program run in Worcester, MA, called Goods for Guns and yesterday it resulted in just under 250 guns, including 121 handguns, being exchanged for gift certificates to local merchants and stores. Now you might think that 250 guns in a city the size of Worcester (population: 180,000) is a paltry sum.  But you have to go beyond the raw numbers in order to understand what this program means.

First, the buy-back not only took place in Worcester, but in sixteen surrounding communities, some of them located thirty miles or more away from the city’s core.  Second, this program has actually been conducted every year since 2002, with the gun total now standing above 2,500 weapons collected over the past fourteen years.  This doesn’t mean that the program cleanses Worcester and other towns of privately-owned guns; what is does mean is that the issue of unsecured guns is on everyone’s mind.  Because the fact is that unwanted guns tend to be unsecured guns, and unsecured guns get into the wrong hands. And by the way, Worcester has paid out roughly $125,000 for those 2,500 guns.  That’s peanuts compared to the medical costs of treating people injured by guns.

Know what the homicide rate is in Worcester?  3.8.  In Springfield it’s 11 – three times as high.  Two cities of similar size, similar demographics, similar disadvantaged neighborhoods where violence abounds. I’m not saying that the difference is because Worcester does a buy-back program every year whereas in Springfield it happens every third or fourth.  What I am saying is that a regular, organized buy-back program is an effective tool for dealing with gun violence, no matter what the 2nd Amendment crowd would like you to believe.