WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — When Greensboro police held a gun turn-in back in January, no money was offered — and police ended up with 22 revolvers, 17 semiautomatic pistols, 15 shotguns and 20 rifles.
The way Greensboro police Lt. J.R. Franks looks at it, the event was an unqualified success.
“Any gun and every gun that we take off the street is a success,” Franks said. “We were trying to get as many guns off the street as we possibly could.”
Franks is familiar with the arguments made by critics of programs that encourage people to turn in their guns — programs that typically work by paying people to surrender the weapons: Chief among them is the argument that the guns that get turned in through such programs are not the ones that are being used in crimes. And that the guns are not being turned in by criminals.
On Monday, members of the Winston-Salem City Council will decide whether to hold a gun buyback program here that could pay $100 for each handgun turned in, as well as $150 for an assault rifle and $74 for a shotgun or rifle.
Winston-Salem Police Chief Barry Rountree says he knows that buying guns is not a “magic solution” to gun violence. But he told city council members recently that the program can be part of an overall effort to reduce gun violence.
Gun buyback programs have been tried all over the country, and have come in response to such incidents as the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Ct., in December 2012, in which a man with a semiautomatic rifle killed 26 people, including 20 schoolchildren.
“There are arguments on both sides of whether to do a buyback or turn-in,” Franks said. “We were very successful with ‘Safe Surrender.’ At the time it was right after the Newtown incident. There were parents and grandparents bringing in guns that their kids found. We had some that were rusted and locked up, and some that were in mint condition.”
Jon Vernick, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and co-director of its Center for Gun Policy and Research, said that “there isn’t evidence that gun buyback programs reduce the rates of street crime.”
“When we look at buyback programs, high risk people don’t tend to be the people participating,” Vernick said. “The highest number of people who are perpetrators or victims tend to be young males.”
In buyback programs, he said, “we get old people and disproportionately females.”
“The guns we get don’t tend to be the highest-risk guns.”
In Winston-Salem, Rountree has proposed a budget of $10,000 for the buyback program.
Vernick does see a limited benefit from buyback programs.
“The good news is that you might for some households reduce the risk factors for guns being used in the home,” he said. Those risks can include teen suicide or the chance that a young child might accidentally wind up with a gun.
“These programs can help raise community awareness of the problem,” Vernick said.
But the bottom line for Vernick is that “the money you wind up spending would be better spent on other ways to reduce gun violence.”
Those ways could include mentoring programs for young people as a way of stopping violence before it happens, he said.
City officials will likely have to tweak the buyback program because of a new state law that prohibits police from destroying functional weapons that are seized or received. Under that so-called “save the gun” law, the guns are supposed to be sold.
City Manager Lee Garrity said that it appears the city can enter into a partnership with some nonprofit group that would actually run the program with a contribution from the city.
Vivian Burke, the Winston-Salem City Council representative for Northeast Ward, said she is inclined to support a program that the city’s new police chief wants to try — and that both she and the chief recognize that buying guns isn’t the cure-all for gun violence.
“I think it is a good idea,” she said. “At least we will be getting some of the guns from off the street and out of the hands of people who might not have the right intent. If we try it and see that it doesn’t work, we can take another look.”
By Wesley Young/Winston-Salem Journal