Va. chief defends gun buy-back program
By Peter Dujardin
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Police Chief James Fox is fully aware of the argument that gun buy-back programs don't do much to quell violence.
But scrambling to cut a city murder rate that has surged this year, Fox is looking for answers. And he said a Dec. 15 buyback program could be a small part of the solution to a big problem.
"We've had an awful lot of violence this year, and last year, with guns," he said. "So I'm willing to try this ... It will take guns out of our community that possibly could get into the wrong hands."
There have been 28 homicides in Newport News as of Saturday afternoon, the latest being a man found dead in a burned-out car on Harpersville Road on Nov. 21.
Several academic studies have concluded that buying guns from the public isn't effective in cutting violent crime rates, said Randy Gainey, a professor and chairman of the Sociology and Criminal Justice Department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
"There may be a symbolic value to hold a gun buyback event, where anti-gun and anti-violence people can get together," Gainey said. "But the idea that it's going to reduce the homicide rate or the aggravated assault rate with weapons, there's no empirical evidence that would support that."
One study says the people who bring guns to a buy-back — often middle-aged or elderly — are not the ones typically involved in violent crime. And the types of guns that are turned in, often older revolvers, or guns in poor working condition, are not usually the type of firearms criminals use or covet.
"Young gang members were not interested in used guns, they wanted them brand new, off the truck," Gainey said, of a recently concluded study in Boston. "They wanted them right out of the package, with no prior owners."
In a comprehensive 2001 study, "Reducing Gun Violence: What works, What doesn't, What's promising," Lawrence Sherman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, termed gun buyback programs "the one program certified as ineffective."
And Daniel Webster, a professor who studies gun issues at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, said in an e-mail that gun buybacks "yield relatively few guns, and guns that are at a lower risk of being involved in crime (some inoperable, some in the attic of houses)."
Some experts say it would be better to use the money for rewarding people who turn in those carrying guns illegally. Newport News already participates in the Crime Line system in which people can get rewarded for turning in others, including those carrying guns illegally.
Fox, the Newport News police chief, defends the buyback program, believed to be the first the department has held since the 1980s. He acknowledges that criminals aren't the ones who will be lining up in force to turn in their guns, but says there are many people who want to get rid of their guns, but just don't know how to go about it.
"There might be a lady whose husband recently passed away, and she has a couple guns, but she doesn't know what to do with them," Fox said. "They're lying around the house, she's afraid to touch them, and people know they're there."
Rather than having that home get burglarized and the guns ending up on the street, Fox said, why not get them out of there and avoid that possibility altogether? Though people can turn guns over to police any time of year, he said, now people can do it as part of a community event and also get a financial reward.
Unlike some buybacks that take obviously broken guns, this one is designed to take only "operational, functional firearms," Fox said. The police won't shoot the guns to make sure they work, but they won't pay for guns that obviously won't.
"We're not going to argue back and forth," with the people turning in the guns, Fox said. "But we're not going to take one that's totally rusted out or you bring it in pieces. If you bring in a gun that's operational, we'll take it."
Any gun style — handguns, rifles and other guns — can be turned in, though toy guns and BB guns won't be paid for.
Also, unlike other programs in which the city has to dish out money for the buyback, Newport News won't have to pay for this one. A community business group donated $35,000 for the effort. That group, which Fox said wants to remain anonymous, and police came up with the idea together while talking this year, Fox said.
The donation will pay for up to $30,000 in gift cards - for Wal-Mart or Farm Fresh - for up to 300 guns, at $100 apiece, plus $5,000 for advertising to get the word out.
Police will give a gift card to the people who bring in the first 300 operational guns. "If we can get 300 guns off the street, I'll be very happy," Fox said. That would be up to eight times the 35 to 55 guns that police confiscate in an average month.
Though there are no figures for how many guns are in Newport News, the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International Studies estimated in August there are 90 guns for every 100 people in the U.S. If that figure were true here, that would mean there are more than 150,000 guns in the city.
Police won't ask for identification, and won't do background checks on the people who bring in a weapon. They will, however, do records checks to see if the guns were stolen — and guns will be returned to their rightful owner if they were stolen.
"We're getting a lot of phone calls, and a lot of excitement is being created about this," Fox said. "There are a lot of people out there that support this. It sends a message that we want to get guns out of the community and off the street."
Copyright 2007 Daily Press
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