gun violence

With Gun Buybacks, Philadelphia Fighting Uphill Battle

“We don’t know, but the reality is that those are guns, and that gun has the capability of creating harm. So this issue about ‘they don’t work,’ I believe that there’s the likelihood that they do work,” City Council President Darrell Clarke said

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Philadelphia has regularly used gun buybacks as one of the tools in its arsenal to combat violence, but, while well-intentioned, these events may not be having the intended impact.

The city netted 353 firearms in two buyback events this year, with 274 of those being handguns and 79 long guns, according to the Philadelphia Police Department. But despite City Council President Darrell Clarke calling them “relatively successful,” research shows these events largely do not work at reducing gun violence.

The latest research showing buyback inefficacy comes from a working paper recently published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, which bills itself as a private, nonpartisan group focused on “cutting-edge investigation and analysis of major economic issues.”

Authors Toshio Ferrazares, Joseph J. Sabia and D. Mark Anderson examined buybacks in 277 cities from 1991 to 2015 and found that they don’t reduce gun crimes or suicides, partly because there are just so many guns in America that buybacks can’t keep make a noticeable dent in the number of firearms already in circulation. For reference, the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey report found that in 2017, Americans owned 393 million firearms – more than the country’s population of 332 million people.

Nevertheless, Clarke touted the buyback strategy during a press conference Thursday alongside Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro while announcing two upcoming buybacks in the city’s Kensington neighborhood. Asked what he thought of the research, Clarke called it “speculative.”

“We don’t know, but the reality is that those are guns, and that gun has the capability of creating harm. So this issue about ‘they don’t work,’ I believe that there’s the likelihood that they do work,” Clarke said.

The council president did not answer follow-up questions about whether the City of Philadelphia collects buyback efficacy data. His spokesperson, Joe Grace, responded in an email and pointed to the comments Clarke, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and community activist Bilal Quayyum – who has helped organize the city’s buybacks this year – made saying they believe buybacks work. Grace did not respond to a follow-up email asking if the city collects buyback efficacy data.

While the NBER report is not peer-reviewed, others have also pointed to buybacks not accomplishing the goal of reducing gun violence. The Trace, a publication that focuses exclusively on gun violence, found that buybacks do little to stem shootings.  

Reasons include collected guns already being nonfunctional when they’re turned in and thus being unlikely to be used in crimes in the first place, cities offering too little money to make returns worthwhile and people using the money they get from buybacks to purchase other guns.

However, Philadelphia may be doing better than other cities in two of those aspects.

In Philadelphia, a gun must be inspected by trained firearms experts with the Philadelphia Police Department and must be functional in order for a person to be compensated for a return, Grace said.

Furthermore, while rewards for returned guns are usually around $100, the city is distributing that money in the form of gift cards, namely for groceries, which can help families in high-poverty, under-resourced neighborhoods already more susceptible to gun violence. In Philadelphia, shootings are concentrated predominantly in parts of West, Southwest and North Philadelphia.

“I know that events like this are not just about dropping off a gun but about reaching out to people who need a helping hand and engaging people who genuinely care about our community,” Shapiro said.

Clarke, Quayyum and Quiñones-Sánchez, who represents Kensington, argued buybacks raise awareness about gun violence, which is not something that would show up in statistics. Indeed, the Trace found that buybacks achieve just that.

“For me, a gun that isn’t in the wrong hands, or in the hands of an irresponsible person, saves a life,” Quiñones-Sánchez said.

The NBER report signaled using public funds to seize guns as a problem, but Quayyum said the buybacks he has helped organize in Philadelphia are privately funded. However, PPD spokesman Eric McLaurin said the department does use operating funds to support the events. 

Namely, he said, personnel from several units staff buybacks to ensure safety. He added that while the department tries to ensure personnel are on “straight time,” sometimes overtime is needed to “support these important community events.”

The PPD does not have specific data on the total amount of money spent on buyback events, McLaurin said.

But with or without buybacks, the solutions to gun violence necessitate a comprehensive approach addressing underlying socioeconomic inequalities, combined with policy.

As part of their five-year “Roadmap to Safer Communities” – launched in 2019 – Philadelphia officials hope that by 2023, the number of fatal and nonfatal shooting victims will have reduced by an average of 30% compared to the numbers seen in 2020. The strategy is meant to help bring down shootings through a network of solutions that include alternatives to policing and different policing tactics.

“We know that gun violence is a multi-pronged, multi-solution effort, and that is how we are approaching it now,” Erica Atwood, Philadelphia’s Senior Director for Criminal Justice and Public Safety, said last month after Mayor Jim Kenney unveiled his proposed 2021-2022 city budget.

Yet, Kenney’s budget, which sees a $36 million increase for programs ranging from early intervention initiatives for at-risk young people to job training and neighborhood cleanups, still pales in comparison to other new spending, like an additional $100 million for street paving.

The mayor’s budget does call for reopening libraries five days a week following a COVID-19 pandemic year in 2020, when many public buildings were closed starting last March.

But for programs aimed directly at violence prevention, the total funding comes to 0.67% of the $5.2 billion spending plan.

The newly proposed budget comes at a time of financial uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but one lessened by a federal windfall that will allow Philadelphia to avoid a “very, very ugly” situation. The city will receive $700 million this year and $700 million next year from the federal American Rescue Plan, which Congress passed last month.

The budget is not final, and City Council members are engaged in ongoing budget hearings to determine how much money each city department will get.

The Council also recently approved a $400 million plan, called the Neighborhood Preservation Initiative, which would send funds toward affordable housing, neighborhood preservation, job creation and support for small businesses. It’s hoped these investments will reduce poverty and in turn reduce gun violence.

The plan is awaiting approval from Kenney, but he has signaled his support for it.

Philadelphia officials have also been hamstrung by Pennsylvania’s preemption law, which prevents cities from creating and enforcing local gun ordinances. The city is currently engaged in a lawsuit that seeks to allow municipalities to enforce their own local gun control measures. Oral arguments are scheduled for June 9.

There have been some wins, however. Earlier this year, Shapiro announced an agreement with the state’s largest gun show promoter to ban the sale of “ghost gun” kits, which allow essentially the creation of homemade guns without serial numbers, making them hard to trace. Shapiro and other federal and local leaders say ghost guns have been increasingly used in crimes.

At the federal level, the Department of Justice, by order of President Joe Biden, recently proposed rules that would require manufacturers to include a serial number on a gun’s frame or receiver, require gun dealers to add a serial number to 3D-printed guns or un-serialized guns that they take in, and force retailers to run background checks before selling homemade gun kits. The proposed regulations have not yet been implemented.

Biden and fellow Democrats have also called for tighter gun laws to be passed through Congress, but they have for years been met by opposition from Republicans. If gun legislation were to reach the Senate, narrowly controlled by Democrats, it is unlikely to get enough support from Republicans to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to survive a filibuster.

“Unfortunately, at the local level, we’re sitting here having productive gun buybacks because we’re limited by the state and the federal government to do much, much more as it relates to a legislative solution,” Clarke said.

There are additional resources for people or communities that have endured gun violence in Philadelphia. Further information can be found here.

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