TAMPA - In the wake of several recent mass shootings, law enforcement agencies are looking at ways to reduce gun crime. Many are now holding gun buyback programs- events where the public can turn in unwanted guns in exchange for cash, sports tickets, or gift cards donated by a business or charity. Afterwards, the weapons are destroyed.
The I-Team looked into the records of every recent gun buyback in the Tampa Bay area to see what kind of guns people are turning and how effective buybacks are at reducing crime.
This past weekend, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office collected 2,541 at their buyback event, making it the most successful local buyback ever. We spoke to several people participating in the buyback. Many said they were getting rid of unused guns they inherited or extra guns they no longer needed.
Former police officer Shawn Price donated an old shotgun and rifle he inherited from this father-in-law. He told us the gun shops wouldn’t buy them, and he wasn’t even sure they still worked.
“Don’t know. I know the shotgun has a lot of rust in the barrel, so it’s probably not functioning, but the .22 might,” Price said.
At the HCSO buyback, those two guns netted Price $150 and baseball and hockey tickets. That’s a great deal for two guns that have been collecting dust. Price told us he brought the guns in for the financial incentive, but he questioned whether buyback would be successful.
“I don’t think these gun buyback programs are effective in getting the guns off the streets that are being used in crimes,” Price said.
The I-Team obtained records on guns collected at every local buyback over the last 5 years. We looked at the types of guns brought in and the total number collected at more than a dozen buybacks held by eight different law enforcement agencies.
We found that the vast majority of guns turned in aren’t the type of weapons typically used in crimes. We also found many cases where people turned in BB and pellet guns, guns that were visibly broken, and even a flare gun.
At two Clearwater Police Department buybacks in 2011, 20% of the guns turned in were BB and pellet guns. The Largo Police Department held their buybacks jointly with Clearwater, and 12% of the guns they took in were BB or pellet guns.
“We found that gun buyback programs have not shown to be effective,” said Matthew Makarios, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin Parkside.
Makarios researched the effectiveness of gun buybacks. He says even the thousands of working firearms collected may not have much of an impact on reducing crime.
“They’re rifles, shotguns, things like that. Less likely to be small handguns, which are really more likely the types of guns to be used in gun crime,” Makarios said.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office buyback, which did not accept BB or pellet guns for cash, considers their event a success. While they did not have a list of the types of guns collected as of this report, they collected 11 stolen guns and 2 rocket launchers. They argue the program is effective, because the 2,808 weapons they collected were unwanted. Many of those are handguns, and many could potentially be unsecured weapons at risk for being stolen and used by criminals. These are guns that could also fall into the hands of children and lead to accidental shootings.
“If we can save one child’s life from an accidental discharge, or save one firearm from falling into the hands of a bad guy, we’re going to call it a successful initiative,” said HCSO Capt. Chad Chronister.
Capt. Chronister says the buybacks also save deputy manpower and time. If a citizen calls the Sheriff’s Office, wanting to get rid of a gun, a deputy will have to personally go pick up the weapon to have it destroyed. This way, thousands of people can get rid of unwanted weapons at the same time, without the need for deputies to visit individual homes.
Agencies that support buybacks say they’ve also helped educate the public.
"The programs bring awareness to the fact that citizens have an option on what to do with firearms they may not want in their homes," said Lt. Mike Loux of the Largo Police Dept., in an e-mailed statement.
Some agencies, like the St. Petersburg Police Department, don’t participate in gun buybacks, calling them “ineffective” at removing the guns that are actually used in crimes.
“Yeah, you do remove a portion of those that have the potential to get out there on the street. I agree with that. But, it’s not what I was trying to target with this “gun bounty” program,” said St. Petersburg Police Chief Chuck Harmon.
SPPD’s “gun bounty” program offers cash rewards for tips leading to illegally owned guns. He tells the I-Team he believes the bounty program is more effective than a buyback.
“What we’re really targeting is people who illegally possess guns,” Chief Harmon said.
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