Gun buyback programs are often advertised as a way to get dangerous guns off the street. But we went through hundreds of weapons turned in as part of local buybacks to see if those events truly have an impact on violent crime.
Staring down the barrel of a gun is the last thing 31,000 Americans see each year before they take their last breath. It is their last image as the power of a gun is harnessed to take a life.
But those lives don’t have to be lost. Experts say many gun deaths can be prevented if we pull those weapons out of homes where they could be used by accident or out of hands that plan to use them for harm on purpose.
Well-known Baltimore pastor Dr. Jamal-Harrison Bryant firmly believes gun violence is a preventable problem, if communities take action.
"We can't afford to be on the sidelines. We have to be on the front lines," Bryant said.
But when you're fighting on the front lines in the war against violence, Bryant believes you've got to do more than just worship with the lord. You've got to open your wallet.
“It's up to us at the grassroots level to really get in front of it,” Bryant said, “We shouldn't just be the headquarters for funerals. We should in fact be the mascots for life and so one of those things is to try and get as many guns off the street as possible."
Bryant’s church, Empowerment Temple, staged a gun buyback to do just that last August. The church paid out thousands in cash from their personal collection basket for firearms. Bryant’s buyback was one of five staged just in the last 18 months in Baltimore city, Howard County and Prince George's County.
The goal of all of those buyback events was to collect dangerous guns. But was their mission accomplished?
ABC2 Investigators wanted to find out. We filed Public Information Act requests with the police departments that took custody of the guns turned in and obtained lists of every weapon purchased in any area buyback held since 2011.
After obtaining the list of weapons, we broke down the collection of more than 1,100 guns into categories by type, make and caliber. We used the data to build our own inventory of what was surrendered to the long arm of the law and then took our findings to an expert, Jon Vernick with the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
"When we talk about America's gun homicide problem, it's a handgun problem," Vernick said.
But handguns are generally not what we found in those buyback events. In the nearly 1,000 guns we found turned in during the Baltimore and Howard County buybacks, only 15 percent were pistols, the weapon used overwhelmingly in city homicides. Those buybacks also turned up nearly 400 revolvers and more than 300 rifles and shotguns.
"It's not as though these weapons pose no risk, either on the street or in homes,” Vernick told us, “They do. But when you compare risk, it's the higher caliber weapons that tend to be disproportionately seen in the crimes that are plaguing our streets."
And it's unlikely some of the weapons we saw could muster the mettle to even help commit a crime. Our data crunching turned up prop guns, starter pistols and even antique black powder guns among the collection.
Retired federal agent and current University of Maryland criminology professor Thomas Mauriello wasn’t shocked by our findings.
"Real criminals, a firearm is a tool of their trade, so they're not giving up their weapons for gift cards or money," Mauriello said.
But that's what these events often offer. In Prince George's County last December, gift cards worth up to $150 were given out. In total $10,000 worth of cards was handed out in exchange for guns, with half of the cost funded by a county grant.
And while some buybacks, like the one held in Baltimore City, didn't use public funds for the firearms, tax dollars were still at work at each and every one. That’s because police agencies are the partner, with police officers collecting and categorizing the weapons.
“That's money and effort that could be spent on interventions we know are more effective in reducing rates of street crime and violence overall," Vernick said.
While buybacks don't hit the target when it comes to dropping violent crime, experts say they can be effective in helping with another problem, accidental shootings. Mauriello, while a critic of buybacks as a crime-fighting tool, is a champion of the events when it comes to preventing accidental shootings. For him, it’s personal.
On Christmas Eve 1997, Mauriello's 12-year-old nephew, Brian Crowell was playing with his best friend when the friend found a gun and brought it into the room as he talked on the phone. Mauriello told us, “He pointed at my nephew and shot twice. Nothing happened. He thought he had an empty weapon. Third
time the gun fired, it hit my nephew in the chest."
Brian died three hours later, the victim of an accidental shooting. The gun that was used to take his life is something his family desperately wishes had been locked up or turned over in a buyback.
"It's a good opportunity just to get rid of a weapon," Mauriello said.
And experts like Vernick, who have studied gun violence for decades, say that although buybacks may not have a giant impact on the problem, they can have an impact on the people who take a step to get a gun off the street.
“Maybe it sends a message to you and your neighbors that you want to do something. Just make sure it's not the last thing," Vernick said.