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What happened to gun buybacks in New York City?

December 4, 2019 Noah Goldberg
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It was a fairly common occurrence in New York City over the last 20 years: A county district attorney, in collaboration with the NYPD, would host an event where people could turn in operable, unloaded guns, no questions asked. The city would then give the former gun owners about $200 per weapon.

It was a simple way to get thousands of guns off the street. But after two decades, a program called Cash for Guns that began in Brooklyn and extended citywide has quietly scaled down — nearly to the point of nonexistence.

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Only one gun buyback has been held anywhere in New York City by police and district attorneys in 2019. It took place in Staten Island, at an annual event that Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon has hosted for the last three years. In 2018, hundreds of guns were recovered during three gun buyback events: one in Staten Island, one in the Bronx and one in Manhattan.

The city has destroyed more than 10,000 guns as part of its Cash for Guns program, the Staten Island Advance reported. Between 2010 and 2015, the NYPD recovered more than 5,000 guns during buybacks, though the number declined steadily each year, according to the New York Daily News.

The events were publicized media events, with district attorneys often posing in front of a haul of weapons and declaring the streets of New York safer than they were the day before.

How it all began

The city’s Cash for Guns program began in 2002 under former Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. It mirrored a program already in place in Brooklyn, started in 1999 under former District Attorney Charles Hynes.

The Brooklyn district attorney took in 659 guns over the monthlong program, including “scores of semiautomatic weapons and revolvers, as well as a 12-gauge shotgun, a machine pistol, a sawed-off shotgun and a tiny Derringer,” according to The New York Times.

The new program, initiated by Kelly alongside former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was a response to a 20 percent increase in shootings in early 2002. For each gun turned in, the new program offered $100 — and amnesty. “We don’t want to know your name. We don’t want to know why you have a gun,” Kelly said, introducing Cash for Guns, according to a Daily News article in 2002. “We just want more guns off the streets, and we’re ready to pay cash for them.”

Back then, the buybacks were not events. Instead, owners of operable guns could walk into any police precinct throughout the city to turn in their gun (unloaded and sealed in a bag) in return for their $100.

Between May and August of 2002, more than 1,400 operable guns were turned in across the city.

‘Lives saved’ or ‘a nice PR piece’?

In 2008, Kelly revamped the program. Over the following two years, the city paid out more than $1 million for more than 5,000 guns. “We’ll never know, but that’s potentially more than 5,000 lives saved,” Kelly said in 2010 during a press conference.

But it’s not clear how much gun buybacks do to save lives — especially non-mandatory buybacks. Even the NYPD has moved away from claiming the buybacks make New York safer.

“It has minimal impact,” said Susan Herman, the former NYPD deputy commissioner for collaborative policing, in 2015. “Typically when we do gun buybacks, actually they’re often people from other states coming to give us — Pennsylvania, New Jersey people — coming into New York to sell their guns. That’s a good thing, it’s good for America to get more guns off the street. It doesn’t particularly reap a lot of benefits here in New York.”

Even when former Brooklyn District Attorney Hynes was running the program in 2000, experts already doubted the efficacy of buybacks.

“I think they’re wasting their money,”  said Lawrence Sherman, a University of Pennsylvania professor of criminology, back in 2000.

Photo courtesy of the NYPD
Guns recovered at Brooklyn’s final gun buyback in 2016. Image via NYPD

“Whenever we get guns off the street it’s a good thing. It’s always a good thing to do these types of projects. But the real question is are you getting the right guns off the street?” said Christopher Herrmann, assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Herrmann was a crime analyst supervisor for the NYPD from 2005 to 2008.

Herrmann said he does not believe the buybacks do much to stop crime, but that they provide great photo opportunities for law enforcement.

“It’s more than a PR event — but not much more. We know they’re not getting the guns that are really going to be used for crimes off the street. My guess is there are very few short-term or long-term benefits. But they do make a nice PR piece,” Herrmann said.

Sherman, who panned the practice back in 2000, still thinks non-mandatory buybacks in New York are a waste of money.

“The evidence on gun buybacks in the US context has not changed,” said Sherman, now a professor at Cambridge University’s Jerry Lee Centre of Experimental Criminology.

Sherman said red flag laws — like the one passed in New York state this year that prevents people who pose a risk to themselves or others from buying or owning a gun — are more effective than buybacks.

For buybacks to be effective, Sherman said, they have to be mandatory, like Australia’s gun buyback after the 1996 Port Arthur mass shooting. Between 1997 and 2001, the Australian government had confiscated and destroyed more than 650,000 guns. Firearm deaths in the country declined from 3.6 per 100,000 people between 1979 and 1996 to 1.2 per 100,000 people after the buyback, from 1997 to 2013.

What’s next for gun buybacks?

In Brooklyn, the last gun buyback was held in 2016 — during the tenure of the late District Attorney Kenneth Thompson. It was hosted by the God Squad, a Brooklyn anti-gun violence organization that liaises between community and law enforcement.

Despite the fact that most experts don’t believe New York City’s gun buybacks do much to curb gun violence, Pastor Gilford Monrose, president of the God Squad, still supports the effort to get each gun off the street.

“I support [buybacks] because they take one gun off the street. Every gun we take off the street we’re ahead of the game. If we can take 60 guns off the street, that’s a 60 percent chance that a person shot and killed will live,” he said.

Monrose said the buyback events used to be much more common, and that he thinks their frequency has been reduced so the city can focus on other preventative strategies to combat gun violence, like investment in the city’s Crisis Management System. But he still thinks the buybacks can happen if groups put pressure on district attorneys and cops.

“I think its just a matter of will and of finding the money and getting it done,” he said.

Monrose said he has not spoken with the new police commissioner, Dermot Shea, but that he plans to bring up gun buybacks when he gets the chance.

The NYPD did not respond to numerous requests for comment on why gun buybacks have slowed throughout the city, nor did they provide statistics requested by the Brooklyn Eagle on how many total guns have been recovered through buybacks.

The NYPD also did not respond to requests for interview with Chief Kim Royster, who the New York Post and Daily News reported in 2013 had a major role in the city’s gun buyback program.

Buybacks in other parts of the state continue. Attorney General Letitia James has held at least two since September, one in Rochester and one in Utica. Each recovered about 130 guns.

Incoming Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz announced in October that her office would run a 24/7 gun buyback program as part of its anti-gun violence initiative.

Former NYPD sergeant Keith Taylor said he expects gun buybacks to continue, but slowly — as long as violent crime stays down.

“I think they will continue to be utilized, because individuals are always willing to sell guns to the government,” said Taylor, who also works as a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I would say that it’s not a total waste, but part of the problem is it’s hard to tell what effect it really has.”

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    • Noah Goldberg

      Thanks for this comment, Jim. Interesting article for sure. We understand that the city was doing “gun exchanges” in the 90s. We are speaking more specifically to the “Cash for Guns” campaign started under Kelly fashioned on DA Hynes existing model. I appreciate the comment and thanks for reading.