Gun buyback programs are popular and make for positive political narratives by offering solutions to the rising youth gun violence in El Paso. But do gun buybacks work, or are they just political showmanship towards a community problem? We look at the county’s recent funding for a gun buyback program and what the historical evidence demonstrates about the programs across the nation.

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Because of the Second Amendment – “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” – the United States has the largest civilian population of gun owners. According to the Australian June 2018 “Estimating Global Civilian-Held Firearms Numbers,” Briefing Paper, there are an estimated 393,300,000 guns in American households. This estimate includes both legal and illegal guns. With an estimated population of almost 332 million individuals today, guns outnumber the people in American households today.

On Monday, the El Paso County Commissioners voted unanimously to use $300,000 in federal funds to have residents turn in their guns on October 28. Of the money allocated towards the gun buyback program, $180,000 will go directly towards gift cards to buyback guns with the rest of the money going towards a marketing program announcing the buyback at Ascarate Park. County officials have not said how much they will pay for each gun turned in during the event.

This year’s event is only the third gun buyback program in El Paso. The first event was held on April 16, 1994. According to newspaper accounts, the 1994 gun buyback program paid $50 in cash to those who turned in guns during the one-day event.

Unlike this year’s event, the 1994 gun buyback was organized and financed by a private individual, Tedd Richardson. Spending around $70,000, Richardson collected 1,400 guns during his one-day event. Richardson melted down the guns and created a plaque advertising his gun buyback event. He placed the plaque in front of his house on Sunset Heights.

Richardson told the El Paso Times the following year that “he wasn’t trying to make a political statement” with his event, adding that “homes in this city [El Paso] are literally full of firearms that the occupants don’t have any idea what to do with.” Richardson told the newspaper that government officials in El Paso should make April 16 “a city holiday” to hold gun buyback events annually.

A second event was held in 2000. The El Paso and Las Cruces Police Departments held gun buyback events resulting in 226 guns collected by both police departments.

According to the presentation to the Commissioners Court on Monday, officials acknowledged that the results of gun buyback programs are “hard to measure for impact,” however, the presentation adds that gun buybacks are “popular local mechanisms to act on gun violence.” The County plans to offer two-to-three-gun buyback events. The first is scheduled for October 28 at Ascarate Park with the El Paso County Coliseum being an alternate location.

Funding for the gun buyback program comes from money allocated to the county under a federal program created to help the country recover the economy from the coronavirus.

The County’s Use Of The American Rescue Plan Act

Funding for the program comes from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a White House program enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The $1.9 trillion relief program is designed to provide American families relief as the result of the economic strife caused by the pandemic.

The County was granted around $163 million in ARPA funds in 2021.

According to the County’s 2022 report to the United States Treasury on its use of ARPA funding, the County has allocated $65.6 million of the ARPA funds towards public health, $64.1 million towards infrastructure, $21.2 million towards economic recovery and is allocating $21.1 million for “Administrative Operations.”

Other Counties Using ARPA Funds For Gun Buyback Programs

The County of Snohomish in Washington used ARPA funds to hold gun buyback programs for Everett and Mukilteo. The City of Mukilteo held its gun buyback program on December 10, 2022, and the City of Everett held its event on December 17. Everett held a second buyback program a few days ago, on August 17. During the December event, Everett officials collected 123 handguns, 109 rifles (long guns) and nine ARs/Aks rifles. A second gun buyback event at Mukilteo on February 23 resulted in 32 guns collected. This was down from the 41 guns collected in Mukilteo in December.

In his letter in Houston’s Quarterly Expenditure Report for ARPA funds on January 31, 2023, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner highlighted Houston’s gun buyback programs. According to Turner, Houston officials collected 700 guns during its August 2022 event. According to the mayor, the October 8, 2022 gun buyback was “the single largest one-day gun buyback in US history.” Houston collected 1,208 guns in October. There were 386 revolvers, 279 semi-automatic handguns, 243 shotguns, 227 rifles and 91 semi-automatic rifles, according to Houston officials.

Houston spent $349,906.57 in the October gun buyback event.

El Paso’s gun buyback program is modeled after the Houston program. The Houston ARPA report states that “Gun Buybacks are making a difference,” but the report does not provide any empirical evidence showing whether the gun buyback program has a direct correlation to lower gun violence or a reduction in crime.

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Other communities like Richmond Virginia, and Lynnwood Washington have either held gun buyback programs or considered them. All used or planned to use ARPA funds for them.

Although the gun buyback programs are in response to rising crime and gun violence, there is little evidence provided by the advocates of the gun buyback programs that they are effective in addressing rising gun violence in the communities that hold them.

Are Gun Buybacks Effective?

County commissioner David Stout argued at the meeting where the program was approved that “these programs don’t reduce gun violence in lar part because they don’t result in taking away guns from people who aren’t supposed to have them.” Stout added that “there’s just not a lot of evidence that they reduce crime.”

Research into whether gun buyback events reduce gun violence is inconclusive. Research into them goes as far back as 1970, but the anonymous nature of the events makes it difficult to correlate them to criminal activities. An August 2021 analysis published in the Annals of Surgery that looked at 19 studies found that “gun buybacks are, necessarily and be design, anonymous, making it very challenging to study individual outcomes” of their effect on violence. Without knowing who turned in a gun it is difficult to tie future crime to the event making determining whether a gun taken off the street has lowered gun violence.

A 2021 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that gun buyback events “have done little to reduce crime or firearm-related violence,” because “gun buybacks do not usually recover a large share of guns circulating in a community.”

The largest criticism of gun buyback events is that criminals are unlikely to turn in their guns.

Keith Taylor, a former assistant commissioner at the New York Police Department said last year that gun buybacks “are a waste of resources if the entities that are sponsoring them believe that it’s going to have a positive effect on reducing crime.” Taylor, however, added, “but if the purpose is to provide a means for individuals to get rid of weapons from their households that they don’t want anymore, it absolutely is a good option.”

An effective tool for reducing the number of guns in American households would require a national effort like the 1996 Australian enforced gun buyback program.

The Australian 1996 National Firearms Agreement

After the massacre of 35 Australians in Tasmania, the Australian government implemented stricter gun controls, and most importantly, implemented a mandatory country-wide gun buyback program where it was compulsory for gun owners to turn over their guns to the government. Strict licensing requirements were implemented along with the gun buybacks.

By 2001, the Australian government had purchased 659,940 guns that were newly prohibited by the 1996 gun legislation. Studies show that mass murders were reduced by Australia’s gun legislation. However, gun crime does not seem to have been reduced.

Before the 1996 gun legislation, there were 13 mass shooting in Australia and none after, according to a 2006 study. An important distinction that should be noted is that Australia does not have a Second Amendment in their constitution.

however, there are other issues that County officials did not address during their presentation. El Paso’s proposed gun buyback program has yet to address whether “ghost guns” will be purchased along with the other guns.

The Ghost Guns

Ghost guns are guns printed on 3D printers. They are untraceable because they are made at home using materials freely available. During a gun buyback event last year in Houston, a man claimed to have produced 62 3D printed guns at a cost of $3 each and turned them in for $50 each. The anonymous man told Houston’s Fox 26 that he wanted to prove a point rather than to make money. The man told the news station that the gun events should “pay fair prices” for the guns and not to use taxpayer funds for the gun buybacks. The man added that historic guns should not be destroyed. Houston officials have since excluded ghost guns from their buyback programs.

Another issue with Houston’s gun buyback events was also raised in 2022. It is whether it is legal for the government to pay for these events.

Are The Gun Buybacks Legal?

Although gun buybacks are popular and while their effect on gun crime remains uncertain, only one official has asked if they are legal. In 2022, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg criticized Houston’s gun buyback event saying that the program “could jeopardize public safety by interfering in the prosecution of violet crimes.” Ogg is a Democrat who won her second election for District Attorney of Harris County 54% to 46% against her Republican opponent. She is running for re-election in 2024.

In a letter to the Houston Police Chief and other law enforcement officials, Ogg wrote that although she agreed with getting guns off the streets, Houston’s gun buyback scheme presented legal challenges. According to Ogg’s letter, the issues included that law enforcement officials were offering “anonymity and immunity” to gun owners who turned in guns. According to Ogg, only the district attorney has “statutory authority” to issue immunity. Ogg added that “anyone turning in a gun connected to a crime is a witness ‘as a matter of law,’.” Houston officials did not respond to Ogg’s claims and proceeded with the gun buyback event.

Although Ogg raised legal issues for the gun buyback programs, several have been held without any legal challenges to them since then.

The El Paso Gun Buyback Event

Although the evidence and county officials agree that the October 28 gun buyback event is unlikely to yield a direct reduction on gun violence in the community it will nonetheless be part of a broader gun crime reduction effort. The 2022 National Bureau of Economic Research paper determined “with 95 percent confidence” that gun buybacks does not decrease gun violence and that there is no evidence that the events lead to a reduction of gun-related suicides or violence.

Other similar gun events are part of a larger program to address gun violence in the community. It is unlikely to ever be known whether the $300,000 in taxpayer funds will be effective for the community. The feelgood nature of the events makes for good public relations for those involved but the evidence to show that they are effective does not exist.

In addition to ghost guns, which County officials have yet to announce whether they will accept them or not, another issue at a recent Houston event should also be addressed by officials. The small amounts offered for the guns that are turned in are less than the value of most guns. During last year’s Houston event, gun buyers were seen walking down the lines of people waiting to turn in their guns offering to pay them more than the gift cards Houston officials were offering. The Houston event created a “pop-up” gun show that allowed guns to be purchased without documentation.

Will the same thing happen in El Paso on October 28? More important, is it a proper use of taxpayer funds?

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Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...