Using federal funds, the City of Houston recently spent more than $100,000 purchasing more than 800 firearms in a gun buyback program aimed at reducing gun violence in the city.
Mayor Sylvester Turner hailed the program as a success, but as to whether the program will result in a reduction in gun crimes is an open question.
Mark Anderson, an economist at Montana State University, coauthored a working paper last year looking at this very question: Have gun buyback programs worked? He joined the Texas Standard to share his findings.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: So in this study that you put together with some coauthors, you all found that “Gun buyback programs are an ineffective policy strategy to reduce gun violence.” Why is that?
Mark Anderson: Well, you know, one thing that we have changed in this paper is the title. The title started out “Do gun buyback programs work?” And we thought, well, that’s not quite right. What we’re doing is we’re analyzing buybacks as they’ve been implemented in the U.S. historically. So we change the title to “have they” worked. And the answer to this is no. We find that there are no decreases in gun-related violence in the wake of gun buyback programs.
The why is still somewhat of an open question. Most of our answers are speculative or based on anecdotes. But, you know, I think there’s a couple of things: One, the price is pretty low for most of these buybacks. Two, there’s this selection effect because it’s voluntary exchange. Who’s turning their guns in? Is it the person on the margin who you really want to get the gun out of their hands? Probably not. The size of the program was something we really tried to dig into as well. We said, well, okay, maybe we wouldn’t expect a gun buyback where, you know, 30 guns are brought in to be effective. But what about some of these larger ones where there’s, you know, a couple thousand guns being brought in and, you know, sure enough, we did not find that those were effective either. Even these larger scale buybacks were not particularly effective in the United States.
And when you say effective, we’re talking specifically about a relationship between gun buyback programs and curbing gun violence in that community, right?
You note that from 1991 to 2015, there were 339 of these buyback programs that you all identified in over 100 countries. Why do officials keep trying these out if there isn’t a ton of evidence that they work?
I mean, I think that’s a great question. And this is something I’ve thought a lot about. I often think, maybe the gun buyback is something that’s not really a contentious gun-related policy, and it’s easy to implement. And it’s not met with as much pushback as the more, you know, contentious types of mandates or policies like, you know, large capacity magazine bans or assault rifle bans, which don’t have much across-the-aisle support. So, you know, maybe that’s a reason.
Are there any policy decisions that might help curb gun violence outside of what we normally hear about in terms of imposing age limits, waiting periods, red flag laws, so on and so forth?
Yeah. And so I have a a separate research agenda on safe storage gun laws. And those are things that we’ve found in our research. We published a couple of papers on the effects of safe storage laws on youth gun carrying, youth firearm related homicides, and we find decreases there that are quite robust, that really hang in there.
To clarify, you’re talking about keeping a firearm in a gun safe, or something like that?
That’s right. And these are often called CAP laws, child access prevention laws, when the law specifically targets households with minors. So you have to have your guns locked up. And the state-level policy variation, when these laws were popular, when they were being passed, the bulk happened in the 90s and the early 2000s.
More recently, some cities have started passing these laws. Seattle passed a municipal safe storage law a couple of years ago, but there’s not been a lot of policy action on this particular margin. And it surprises me because safe storage gun laws, you could be very successful in passing this type of legislation because people on both sides of the aisle – you know, pro-gun and anti-gun folks – the majority of them support this type of reform. And we found them to be effective at deterring youth gun violence. I often wonder why isn’t there more push to pass these laws?