Experts say gun buybacks not answer to violent crime

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SEATTLE — The debate over how to end gun violence is raging all over the country.

While Congress considers strengthening laws, cities in the Northwest are hosting gun buyback programs.

But, experts tell KIRO 7 Eyewitness News reporter Amy Clancy that the buybacks don't make our city streets any safer from gun crime.

More than 700 firearms were collected by the Seattle Police Department at a gun buyback in January.

Annette Tyson's two hunting rifles were two of those firearms.

"I have grandkids and I didn't want these things in my home," she said.

In less than four hours, 364 rifles and 348 pistols were exchanged for more than $68,000 in donated gift cards.

Four of the guns that turned in were stolen.

Most of the weapons collected will be destroyed. A few that are inoperable will be given to local artists.

"I'm so glad they're going to melt them down instead of reselling them," said Jim Ross, who sold his father's handgun.

"I think that people are taking a look at what happened in Newtown," said Seattle Mayor Michael McGinn. "We have our own experience here with Café Racer, and gun violence in our streets. A lot of people asking themselves 'Is there some way I can participate in this, and get a gun out of my home that I don't want anymore?'"

"I feel I did the right thing," said Jack Jolley, who sold an heirloom rifle.

But are gun buybacks really the right thing? Are they an effective weapon in the war against gun violence?

KIRO 7 travelled to George Mason University, in Fairfax, VA, to ask economist and gun buyback researcher Alex Tabarrok.

Tabarrok's answer was "no."

"I think mayors and other people in the city want to convey the idea that they're actually doing something," said Tabarrok. "But, it would be a lot better if they were doing something that actually works. Unfortunately, the empirical evidence indicates that gun buybacks are completely ineffective."

Seattle knows firsthand the failure of gun buybacks. In 1992, more than 1,700 firearms were handed over in a similar program.

But after a two year study, there was "no statistically significant change in monthly average of firearm-related robberies, assaults or homicides."

Dr. Fred Rivara of Harborview Medical Center was one of the authors of that study.

"The data so far doesn't suggest they actually end up lowering crime or lowering the rate of violent death," said Rivara.

Even Washington Ceasefire, a nonprofit devoted to ending gun violence, doubts the weapons collected during buybacks are the ones that will be used in future crimes.

"They get guns that aren't fully functional," said Ralph Fascitelli of Washington Ceasefire. "They get guns that people don't want. They get guns that really aren't working well."

"We give them high marks," Fascitelli said. "A for effort. Probably C- for execution and efficiency."

Some of the weapons brought to Seattle last month that worked were bought by people on site that were offering cash for guns, such as Robert Haugh. Those weapons were never turned in to police.

"(Gun buybacks) are a silly idea," said Haugh, "because the ones who are bringing guns in are not the ones that are the problem in this country today. Turning in guns by law-abiding people is a total waste of the government's time."

That's what Tabarrok's research also shows.

"People who use guns for crime, that's their job, and they're not going to give up their tools just in return for a small amount of money," he said.

Doug Gallagher agrees. The three-striker is serving life in a Washington state prison for violent, armed crimes. In a letter to KIRO 7, he writes, "Why would I sell the tool that made me money?"

  >>> Read Gallagher's entire letter here.

Gallagher claimed at least 50 of his fellow inmates responded the same way when, at KIRO's request, he asked them about gun buybacks.

"If a criminal wants to get his hands on a gun, he will," Gallagher said.

Even so, Seattle Police Chief John Diaz supports gun buyback efforts.

"From my perspective, any unwanted gun that we take off the streets makes perfect sense," said Diaz.

Diaz, McGinn and Rivara all believe that guns out of homes means fewer firearms available for impulse crimes, such as suicide or domestic violence, and fewer deadly accidents.

"I've seen terribly tragic cases where typically it will be a young school-aged boy that will get access to the dad's gun, and play around with one of his friends, and actually shoot a friend and kill him," said Rivara.

Tabarrok agreed that all guns in homes should be locked up and kept away from the suicidal or mentally ill. But, he said that any claims that gun buybacks keep people safe from crime are empty promises.

"Gun buybacks, unfortunately, are completely ineffective," Tabarrok said. "They may look good for the media, but they're not a wise way to be spending our crime-fighting resources."

Instead of more gun buybacks in Seattle, Tabarrok suggested that companies that donate gift cards for buybacks instead donate money for more police officers.

According to Tabarrok, cops arresting bad guys with guns is something that actually works.