Donald Marshall is a geophysicist, not an expert on criminal law or public safety. But after the mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school two months ago, the grief he saw in his own town of Bedford stirred him to action.
“I read about a gun buyback program in Camden, New Jersey, and it struck me that maybe we could do the same thing here,” said the longtime resident. “It’s a small thing we could do.”
A suburb with fewer than 14,000 residents, Bedford is not a typical setting for a gun buyback program. But it was one approach Marshall thought might make a small difference in the pervasive threat of gun violence.
He took his idea to his minister at First Parish in Bedford, the Rev. John Gibbons, who offered $500 to seed the program. Together with Police Chief Robert Bongiorno and others in the community, they are working to reduce the number of unwanted weapons in town.
“The police chief was ten minutes from leaving on vacation when I contacted him, but as soon as he got back, we set up a meeting,” Marshall recalled.
Within days of the program’s initiation last month, the Police Department received a call from a Bedford resident who wanted to relinquish two firearms: a 16-gauge bolt-action shotgun and a .22-caliber antique rifle, along with ammunition. They were taken back to the police station, though the resident decided not to accept the $50 offered for each weapon.
“This isn’t a controversial idea,” Marshall said. “We’re not talking about taking away people’s guns against their wishes, but just providing an incentive for people who want to get rid of unwanted guns that are in their possession, maybe because they inherited them.”
Like other law-enforcement agencies, the Bedford Police Department is always willing to get rid of unwanted weaponry that people have in their homes, but this was a way of providing a small cash incentive. After Gibbons offered $500 from the Unitarian Universalist congregation’s discretionary fund, he sent an e-mail to its members, and more donations arrived to supplement the program.
Since then, townspeople not affiliated with the church have donated directly to the Police Department as well. The program provides $50 per weapon, for as long as funding lasts.
As of last week, $1,000 had been donated to the program, and three residents had turned in a total of four guns, including an 18-gauge shotgun and a .32-caliber revolver, according to Bongiorno. The police chief said his department will hold the weapons for a year and then destroy them.
“The overwhelming majority of licensed gun owners in our community safely handle and store their weapons,” said Bongiorno. “Our goal with this program is to create a public safety campaign for getting rid of unwanted weapons, and understanding the risk associated with these items.”
Typically, Bongiorno said, the dilemma arises when a family member who owns guns dies, or a resident moving out of a house leaves weapons behind.
“Unwanted firearms are a hazard in any home,” Bongiorno said. “They can be stolen. They can be used in an accident or a suicide. Statistics show us that if you have a household that has a gun, you are five times as likely to have a suicide in the home.”
Bedford’s Department of Youth and Family Services, Board of Health, and Violence Prevention Coalition have stepped forward to cosponsor the buyback program.
Bongiorno said the town has 627 active gun licenses. Since licenses are granted per user and not per weapon, there is no reliable estimate of the number of weapons in a community or statewide, according to the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Businesses and dealers that sell guns must file reports on the data they collect from each buyer with the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, but the agency simply stores the information; it does not generally tabulate it or break it out regionally.
According to Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, there would be little value to this data from a law-enforcement perspective.
“I do not see any immediate value to knowing how many lawfully owned guns are in a community,” he said in an e-mail. “This type of information would play into those who think we are trying to confiscate lawful guns and not concentrating on the illegal ones.”
Marshall, Bongiorno, and Gibbons all emphasized that the gun buyback program is not seen as a way to prevent a mass shooting. But it could protect people from other kinds of weapon discharges, they say.
Bongiorno cites information published by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence that guns kept in the home are 22 times more likely to be used in accidental shootings, assaults, or suicide attempts than in an act of self-defense.
“This is not to impugn the rights of responsible gun owners,” Gibbons said. “For lots of reasons, some of our most pacific parishioners own guns. The causes of gun violence are complex and many-layered. We undoubtedly need a national policy that addresses the issue more comprehensibly.
“A program like this is no panacea, but the fact is that if you can reduce the number of unwanted guns in a community, you improve public safety,” he said.
Marshall, too, said that a program like this doesn’t end the threat of violence, but he believes that every little bit helps.
“If you can take away even just one gun that might have been used incorrectly, it’s already a success,” he said.