Are gun buybacks worth it?

The programs don’t have a great track record, but organizers say saving one life makes them worthwhile.

Guns from the citywide gun buyback program at Boston Police Headquarters in March 2014.

In February 2014, a 14 year old was playing with a gun in his family’s Mattapan home when he accidentally shot his 9-year-old brother and killed him.

In response to the shooting and other gun-related homicides in early 2014, Mayor Marty Walsh planned a gun buyback program to last from March to December 2014. Boston Police said they collected 411 guns.

Whether or not the buyback worked remains to be seen, but studies don’t paint an optimistic picture. Some studies, like one by criminologist Anthony Barga, show buybacks don’t reduce street crimes. Others show they don’t put a dent in the number of guns in a community, or attract the people most likely to commit crimes.

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But they remain popular. Many organizers argue that they are worth it if they save even one life. And so gun buybacks continue, including one in Cambridge this Saturday.

The organizers of the first-ever Gift Cards for Guns event hope any residents who have unwanted or unsecured guns in their homes will trade them for grocery store gift cards ranging from $50 to $200.

Cambridge police spokesman Jeremy Warnick said the push for the event came from both faith-based and non-profit organizations that are covering the costs through donations.

One of those faith-based leaders is Lori Lander, founder of Many Helping Hands 365, who said she has watched gun buybacks in other communities to learn what works.

Warnick knows about the critical studies. So does Lander. The event will happen anyway.

“Whether we have guns turned in or not, we’re creating awareness from a public health standpoint,’’ Warnick said. “We’re not sure how many we’re going to get, but we figured we might as well give it a shot.’’

Gun buybacks became especially popular after the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Mother Jones estimated 5,661 guns were bought back in 27 events nationwide in the year after the shooting. That’s 5,661 out of an estimated 300 million guns nationwide.

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Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said buybacks aren’t effective at reducing street crime for three reasons.

First, the people who participate are generally women and older adults, but young men are most likely to be involved in gun-related crimes.

Second, people tend to bring dysfunctional, old guns to buybacks. The guns used in crimes, Vernick said, tend to be newer—or, at the very least, functional.

Third, not many people bring in guns. Even the most successful events, he said, yield 1,000 guns. If each of the 1,000 guns results in a $100 gift card being given away, that’s $100,000. Vernick said that money could be better spent on a targeted policing strategy, or a community outreach program designed to decrease violence, such as Baltimore’s Safe Streets program.

It’s not all bad news. Removing guns from homes decreases the household risk of an accidental shooting or suicide by gun, Vernick said. He also said the programs can be effective as long as they’re the first thing the community does in response to potential gun violence, not the last.

In addition to collecting guns, which will be destroyed by state police, organizers will also give away free gun locks so residents can use them for other guns in their homes.

“If only one gun is turned in, that’s one less possibility of someone getting killed with a unsecured gun in the home,’’ Lander said. “In that sense, even one gun is a success.’’

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