When the Seattle, Washington, gun buyback program was announced on January 8th, King County Executive Dow Constantine said that removing guns from the streets would “certainly prevent … senseless tragedies.” He didn’t say how many tragedies might be prevented, but he certainly couldn’t have predicted that the program would turn into a private gun show.
When the buyback started on Saturday morning, January 26th, thousands of people showed up carrying weapons of every variety, along with private individuals offering to purchase them for cash instead of a gift card. It didn’t take long for some to get tired of waiting and begin to deal with buyers who showed up with donuts and other refreshments along with signs that said “Fast cash for your gun” and “Let me adopt your gun.”
It was private enterprise in action, and highly annoying to Police Chief John Diaz who told the Seattle Fox affiliate that “I would prefer that they would not sell them, but once again this is a decision each individual has the right to make.”
Private donations totaling $120,000 were collected to buy gift cards of $100 and $200 depending on the kind of firearm was turned in. The SPD gave out more than 1,000 cards in exchange for guns before they ran out.
Gun buyback programs have been going on for years, each with the stated or implied purpose of removing firearms from the streets and thus, theoretically, reducing the amount of crime. In Seattle the police announced that no names would be recorded, thus inviting anyone with an unsavory background to be able to come forth and turn in his gun with impunity.
In fact, the impact, if any, on street crime as a result of such programs has been immeasurably small. The National Research Council published a study in 2004 which analyzed any effectiveness of these programs and concluded that “the theory underlying gun buyback programs is badly flawed and the empirical evident demonstrates the ineffectiveness of these programs.”
The theory is that the program will lead to fewer guns on the streets, and that because of that, fewer guns will be available for use in crimes. In reality, the guns traded in for cash or gift cards are, according to the study, “the least likely to be used in criminal activities.” Those turned in are usually old malfunctioning ones with little or no value, or else are owned by people have inherited them and have kept them in a closet or a drawer or otherwise have little use for them. In contrast, said the study,
Those who are either using guns to carry out crimes or as protection in the course of engaging in other illegal activities … have actively acquired their guns and are unlikely to want to participate in such programs.
In simple terms, gun buyback programs serve as a way to offload useless firearms onto the police department in exchange for cash or gift cards, while the “good stuff” is kept at home. It is Gresham’s Law in action once again.
Gresham’s Law states that “when a government … overvalues one type of money and undervalues another, the undervalued money will … disappear … while the overvalued money will [remain] in circulation.” When more is offered for a firearm than it’s worth, it’s an easy calculation for its owner to make: stand in line for a while, drop off the low-value firearm, get some cash or a card and keep the good stuff at home.
It also illustrates another law: the law of human action where an individual is always trying to improve his condition when given the opportunity to do so.
As far as impact on the number of weapons “taken off the streets” (or, more accurately, removed from the closets and drawers of low-risk citizens) goes, there is precious little real change in supply. According to a study done by the Huffington Post, there are nearly 90 firearms for every 100 people in the United States. If that statistic holds for Seattle, with a population of 620,000, then there are approximately 545,000 firearms owned privately in the city. 1,000 gift cards were exchanged for firearms during its buyback program, which brings the number privately held down to 544,000.
That’s hardly impressive and even those in charge know it. Following a similar buyback program in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on January 12th, Sheriff Raymond Rael was asked by host Scott Simon about how effective it was expected to be in reducing street crime.
Simon: Do you expect any real criminals to turn in their guns?
Rael: Well, in reality, probably not. Anyone who is serious about stealing a weapon, and using it in a criminal act, isn’t likely to turn it in…
Simon: In the end … what does a gun buyback program achieve?
Rael: There are millions of guns in the United States … Do I believe that we’re going to make an impact in reducing the overall numbers? Not immediately … [but] there’s always the hope – and the possibility…
The Seattle gun buyback program did serve to prove several points: people will tend to take advantage of a situation when they are allowed the freedom to do so, whether offering low-value firearms in exchange for high-value gift cards, or offering to buy firearms from people tired of waiting in line. It also proved Gresham’s Law as it applies to firearms: the owners kept the “good stuff” at home. It also served as to provide politicians with the opportunity to make it appear that they are doing something, often appearing in photographs standing next to piles of worthless weapons and claiming benefits that don’t exist.
The Los Angeles Times saw through the sham:
For political theater, few things beat gun buyback programs such as the one held Saturday in Los Angeles. The resulting stacks of shotguns, rifles, handguns … make great TV and give the impression that politicians and police chiefs are putting a dent in the supply of dangerous firearms.
The great Seattle gun buyback served to teach essential truths and for that reason it was a worthwhile program.