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As homicides rise in Philadelphia, it's time for the city to end its gun "buybacks"

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Philadelphia is on pace for a record-high number of homicides this year, and public officials are scrambling to show residents that they’re doing something to address the rampant levels of violence on city streets. The Philadelphia police have revived their cold case unit, even though the department is down 20% from its staffing goals, and city officials have announced millions of dollars in spending on community violence prevention programs in an attempt to reduce violent crimes through non-law enforcement measures as well.

Some of those programs may serve a valuable purpose, but there’s one strategy that the city has relied on over the past few years that’s overdue for termination: gun “buybacks”.

According to a recent story by the Philadelphia Inquirer, during the past three years the city has collected more than 1,000 guns at more than a dozen “buyback” events; 16 of them conducted in 2021 alone. And yet, for all those guns “taken off the street,” it turns out that not a single one handed over to police has been determined to have been used in a crime.

“It’s not reaching the area of the community that’s possessing illegal guns and using them,” said Joe Giacalone, a former New York Police Department sergeant-turned-CUNY criminology professor.
“It’s political theater.”
Philadelphia Police Capt. Frank Palumbo, who coordinates with community groups to staff buyback events, acknowledged that police generally do not expect crime guns to be turned in. But he said getting just one gun off the street could still potentially prevent a fatal shooting.
“It tends to be family people, mom-and-pop-type people” attending the events, he said. “It’s people that want to get a gun potentially out of the hands of a toddler that might frequent their homes, or get rid of a gun they don’t use or have the means to secure.”
… While these programs generally cost little to run, the department does pay salaries and overtime to officers who help staff the events, like SWAT team members who disarm potentially loaded weapons or detectives who log guns for analysis.
Weapons recovered from buyback programs are processed by the forensics lab as they come in. Although a police spokesperson said firearms tagged with priority — like those necessary for solving active crimes or court cases — are processed first, the weapons still add to the work of the city’s already backlogged forensics lab.
To Palumbo, the costs of the program are worthwhile even if it’s difficult to demonstrate they are directly preventing street violence.
“If we take 1,000 guns in and we save one kid from shooting themselves or another child, it’s really well worth it,” he said. “You can’t prove it, but it’s reasonable to think we’re definitely preventing some of those negative outcomes from happening.”
Is it really reasonable to think that, though? I mean, Philadelphia had 562 murders last year; an all-time record high that will likely be broken this year. And as even supporters of the “buybacks” like Palumbo accept, it’s impossible to demonstrate that these compensated confiscation events have prevented a single accidental shooting or intentional homicide. There’s no way to measure the success of a “buyback” program, but when violent crime continues to skyrocket even as hundreds of firearms are being turned in to police, it seems fair to believe that maybe these events are nothing more than feel-good measures designed to benefit public officials’ approval ratings rather than the safety of the general public.
One activist in Philly, however, believes that these programs could still be valuable if the city increased the money offered for each gun turned in.
Jonathan Wilson, clinical director of the Fatherhood Foundation, a community organization that provides workforce training and mentorship programs, said the events should pay the same amount for a gun that a person could get selling it on the illegal market. That can be $800 to $1,000, he said, depending on the weapon.
Wilson, who has been shot four times and lives in Southwest Philly, said that since systemic poverty is one driver of gun violence, people may turn to buyback programs when they’re in need of funds, and police may see more crime guns get turned in.
But a $50 ShopRite gift card is not nearly enough, he said, so someone in search of cash is far more likely to sell a gun illegally — and that gun then becomes more likely to be used in a crime.
Until officials raise the prices, he said, crime guns will remain on the streets. “They’re just circulating and killing and being sold,” he said.
I’m skeptical that giving even $1,000 per gun would lead to violent criminals handing over their illicitly-obtained weapons. If anything, it would probably make gun thefts even more common, especially with the vast majority of home and auto burglaries going unsolved. A “buyback” offering four figures per gun would almost certainly attract more people, but there’s no guarantee that criminals would be any more likely to participate than they are now.
The best thing the city could do to reduce violent crime would be to fully fund and staff the police department and focus on those areas of the city where shootings and homicides are most prevalent; a tactic used in Buffalo, New York and Dallas, Texas that’s led to a more than 30% reduction in homicides. Instead, officials are still stuck on a gun-centric (and gun-phobic) approach that completely misses the mark when it comes to combatting violent crime. They’re even finding fault with the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy” anti-straw purchasing campaign, which one City Council staffer claims “subliminally advocate[s] for the purchase of firearms”. As long as Philadelphia pins the blame on inanimate objects rather than the flesh-and-blood human beings who are indiscriminately engaged in violent crimes, things are likely to get worse in the City of Brotherly Love, and sadly, I don’t think the anti-gun mindset is going to go away anytime soon.