David Cameron: New Haven gun buyback a success - and may save lives

Sgt. Charlette Barham (left) and Detective Josh Kyle (right) catalogue rifles brought in during a gun buy-back at the New Haven Police Academy in New Haven on December 16, 2017.

Sgt. Charlette Barham (left) and Detective Josh Kyle (right) catalogue rifles brought in during a gun buy-back at the New Haven Police Academy in New Haven on December 16, 2017.

On Dec.16, New Haven Police held a gun buy-back at the Police Academy on Sherman Parkway. Like previous buy-backs, it was organized in partnership with the Injury Free Coalition for Kids of New Haven, the Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital Injury Prevention Program and the Newtown Foundation. Saturday was National Gun Buyback Day and buybacks were held not only in New Haven but in Boston, Providence, Worcester, Hartford and other cities and towns in the northeast.

The buyback provided American Express and/or Stop & Shop gift cards to those who turned in any working firearm. Those turning in a firearm received $200 in gift cards for an assault weapon, $100 for a pistol or revolver handgun, $50 for a rifle or shotgun, and $25 for a single or double-shot handgun. The New Haven police reported that 138 guns were turned in, more than in any previous buyback and precisely 100 more than were taken in by the Hartford buy-back the same day. Included in the 138 firearms were 74 handguns, 60 rifles and shotguns, and two assault weapons. Over the past five years, a total of 700 weapons have been brought in to the New Haven buy-backs.

While there’ve been many efforts in the past to buy back guns, the New Haven program, like those in Hartford, Worcester and other cities in the northeast, are modeled on one that Dr. Michael P. Hirsh started in Pittsburgh in 1994 in memory of a fellow surgeon who was shot and killed while walking home from work at a New York hospital. Since then, the Pittsburgh program has taken in more than 11,000 guns.

In 2002, Hirsch, who had moved to the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester and is now surgeon-in-chief in the Children’s Medical Center there, started an annual buyback program in Worcester. Since then, the Worcester program, supported by the medical center, the city, the police department and the district attorney’s office, has taken in more than 3,100 guns. This year the Worcester program was expanded to 15 cities and towns in central Massachusetts and took in a total of 200 guns.

Skeptics argue that buy-back programs don’t prevent gun violence, that they only take in guns from law-abiding citizens who would never use them in a crime and don’t reach those who are likely to use them in a crime. But the skeptics ignore an unfortunate fact of urban life: Guns can and do move very easily from one person to another, by sale, theft or exchange, into and within a city. As a result, it’s quite possible that a gun currently in the possession of a law-abiding citizen will someday fall into the hands of someone who will use it in a shooting.

Some argue that buy-back programs are ineffective and don’t reduce the aggregate amount of gun violence. There’s of course no way to prove they do reduce gun violence since it’s impossible to prove that a gun that was turned in would otherwise have been used in a shooting. But what can be said is that buybacks remove guns from possible circulation and in so doing may prevent a shooting — perhaps a fatal shooting — at some future time.

Over the last several years, at a time when the country has experienced a dramatic increase in gun violence, New Haven has experienced a substantial decrease in the annual number of homicides, non-fatal shootings and reports of shots fired. Those decreases reflect the effectiveness of the measures undertaken here to stop gun violence — a renewed commitment to community policing, increased patrols and walking beats, deployment of a shooting task force, increased cooperation with state and federal law enforcement, Project Longevity, expanded use of shot-spotter technology, and data-driven analytics to identify potential hot spots and shooters.

Those measures have brought the number of homicides and non-fatal shootings down from the highs that occurred in 2011, when there were 34 homicides, 133 non-fatal shootings, and 426 reports of shots fired. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of gun violence in the city; in 2013, there were 13 homicides, in 2014 there were 15, in 2016 there were 13. Even one is one too many.

No one imagines that repeated gun buy backs will bring an end to gun violence in New Haven or any other city. But they may save lives, perhaps many lives. After all, every gun that’s turned in is a gun that will never fall into the wrong hands and be used in a shooting.

David R. Cameron is a professor of political science at Yale.