Distraught by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, Phil Rohn and his wife, Judy, next month will honor the victims of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy by sponsoring a gun buyback program in their North Andover hometown.
“My wife and I, as we talked about what happened in Newtown, it really hit us,” said Phil Rohn, 55, who is a father of three and grandfather of two young schoolchildren. “All the little children involved, it was almost like one of the victims was someone in our own family, it affected us that deeply.”
Rohn approached town officials just three weeks after the Newtown tragedy, during which 20 first-graders and six adults were killed by a gunman, and offered to donate up to $2,600 — a $100 tribute for each victim — to fund the gun buyback. The program will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 9 at the North Andover Police Department, 1475 Osgood St.
“We tried to think about what we could do, if anything, to try to make a difference, something that might possibly prevent even one person from having to suffer a tragedy like that, the loss of a child,” Rohn said, noting that he is a firm supporter of Second Amendment rights to bear arms but has personally known people who had firearms in their home that they didn’t want, but didn’t know what to do with.
The gun buyback, Rohn said, will give residents an opportunity to safely dispose of unwanted weapons.
A suburb with fewer than 30,000 residents, North Andover is not a typical setting for a gun buyback program.
“Bigger cities, they can get grants to pay for these kinds of programs, but for small towns like ours, that kind of funding isn’t available,” said North Andover Police Chief Paul J. Gallagher. “The Rohn family should be commended for their community involvement.”
The Newtown tragedy touched so many, so deeply, because of the “utter innocence of its youngest victims, children who were just 6 years old, 7 years old,” said professor James H. Nehring, who teaches leadership in schooling in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “The completely random nature of the violence, it makes us all feel vulnerable.”
In January, Nehring helped organize a panel discussion and candlelight vigil on the university campus to honor Sandy Hook victims and encourage students, faculty, and staff to become agents of peace in their studies and personal lives.
“I see the impact this tragedy has had on campus and in my community, with my neighbors,” said Nehring. “There’s more concern about gun violence.”
The North Andover buyback program will be similar to an initiative that was held in Haverhill on Nov. 15. Residents in the city turned in 24 handguns, 15 rifles and shotguns, 15 inoperable guns, several BB guns, about 200 rounds of ammunition, and one Vietnam War-era grenade, according to David S. Van Dam, chief of staff to Mayor James J. Fiorentini.
“We had a line before we even opened,” said Van Dam, noting that the mayor had budgeted $2,500 for the program, which offered gift cards in exchange for working weapons, and distributed rewards worth a total of $3,150. The weapons collected will be destroyed.
“It was a new initiative, bringing people in to get rid of guns they didn’t want in their homes,” said Van Dam. “In some cases, it was a widow who had lost her spouse and no longer wanted his guns in the home, was nervous about them. Certainly, it makes the home safer for the family and prevents anyone from stealing them.”
North Andover residents who turn in working handguns, rifles, shotguns, or assault rifles will receive American Express gift cards worth $50 to $150, depending on the type of weapon turned in. Residents who would like to turn in a weapon but do not wish to transport it may call police Lieutenant Charles Gray to make arrangements for it to be picked up by an officer.
As federal lawmakers engage in an emotion-laden debate over gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, a growing number of communities across the country, from Camden, N.J., to San Francisco, are staging gun buybacks and reporting record numbers of weapons being collected. Closer to home, Lawrence plans to hold a “no questions asked” gun buyback event in May. Cambridge, Framingham, Newton, and Wellesley are considering programs.
Proponents say such initiatives help to make communities safer. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is led by James S. Brady, President Reagan’s press secretary, who was paralyzed after being shot by John Hinckley during his attempt to assassinate the president in 1981. It cites studies that show the risk of suicide is three to five times higher in homes with firearms, and the risk of homicide is three times higher.
Meanwhile, critics say offering gift cards or even cash for weapons will not prevent mass shootings. Research has found that the people most likely to commit crimes are the people least likely to turn in their weapons, as noted in a 2004 report by the National Academy of Sciences that found “the theory underlying gun buyback programs is badly flawed.”
“There is very little evidence linking gun buyback programs to a reduction in gun violence,” said Larry Siegel, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at UMass Lowell. “The crime rate is almost like the stock market. It went up extraordinarily in the ’80s and ’90s, but in recent years has reached a level that has been sustained.”
Rohn, superintendent of the Peabody Municipal Light Plant, is the first to acknowledge that the North Andover gun buyback program “isn’t the end-all, but it’s something we believe could make a difference. Our goal in doing this is simply to motivate others to try to do something to reduce gun violence.”