Thursday, January 6, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Do Gun Buybacks Really Do Any Good? -- Effectiveness, If Any, Is Hard To Measure


NEW YORK - A toys-for-guns swap brings in hundreds of weapons in one of New York City's toughest neighborhoods, and gun-related crime drops by more than 50 percent.

Twenty years earlier, the biggest of all big-city gun buybacks takes in more than 13,000 weapons in Baltimore, and gun crime increases by more than 50 percent.

As interest mounts in goods- and cash-for-guns programs, judging their effectiveness remains difficult.

In part, that's because of the very nature of most gun-buyback programs: no questions asked.

Details on the guns' histories are lacking. And it's impossible to determine that a particular gun surrendered to police would have been used in a future crime.

Even some gun-control advocates aren't sure buybacks are worth the money. "Traditionally they have not been cost-effective," said Cheryl Brolin, a spokeswoman for Handgun Control Inc.

And there may be unintended consequences, said Philip Cook, a professor of public policy at Duke University who studies the economics of street guns.

"To the extent that the street guns become more valuable . . . it probably means an increased incentive to steal them or run them from other jurisdictions," he said.

One man who turned in a used handgun to Norwalk, Conn., police for a $100 toy certificate last week had a receipt showing he had just paid $40 for it, Sgt. Gary Mecozzi said.

There also are concerns about whether buybacks hamper criminal investigations, in effect providing a legal "fence" for guns that were illicitly obtained or used in crimes.

Raymond Kelly, New York City police commissioner when the toys-for-guns swap began here, responded by saying, "We live in extraordinary times. . . . We have to do something."

FBI statistics show that 15,377 Americans were slain with guns in 1992 - 68 percent of the nation's homicides. Firearms were used in 270,000 robberies and about as many aggravated assaults.

There are an estimated 200 million-plus guns in circulation today in the United States, plus 1.5 million manufactured each year.

The total number of guns recovered in various buyback programs around the country since 1974 probably is far less than 100,000, according to figures compiled by Associated Press and Handgun Control Inc.

Buyback programs date at least to 1968, when Philadelphia tried one. The biggest remains the 1974 swap in Baltimore, which cost $650,000, or $50 per gun.

At the time, police figures showed the rate of gun killings rose 50 percent in Baltimore during the two-month program, while assaults with firearms more than doubled.

One study of a buyback's effect on crime rates was conducted in Seattle after a swap that collected nearly 1,800 guns in September 1992. Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center gave questionnaires to the first 915 participants; 55 percent voluntarily filled them out.

The study found no statistically significant changes in gun-crime rates during or after the program. But the buyback netted less than 1 percent of the estimated number of guns in Seattle; researchers estimated at least 20 percent must be surrendered to show an impact.

The study also found that two-thirds of people who turned in guns still owned other firearms that they wouldn't give up.

New York's toys-for-guns swap was started by carpet salesman Fernando Mateo three days before Christmas in a violent neighborhood, Washington Heights. The program offered $100 in gift certificates, plus $75 cash per gun. By yesterday, more than 1,250 guns had been surrendered.

Police Capt. Terry Monahan was encouraged by the kinds of weapons turned in - hundreds of handguns, including at least 17 of the 9mm semiautomatics favored by drug gangs, plus 14 sawed-off shotguns and 11 pen guns. "These are your typical street guns," he said.

And there were other signs that the guns might have had a criminal past: About one-fourth had the serial number filed down, while about 50 others were found to be stolen, said police Lt. Ruben Wexler.

Monahan said that for the first 10 days of the program, there were 24 crimes involving guns reported in his precinct, down from 53 during the same period a year earlier. But he wouldn't say there was a link.

----------------------------- GUN SWAPS ----------------------------- Some of the bigger or more unusual gun buyback programs in recent years, with the approximate number of weapons collected and the estimated total cost of each swap or price paid per weapon:

-- Baltimore, 13,000 guns, three months in 1974, $650,000.

-- St. Louis, 7,500 guns, October 1991, $341,000.

-- Hennepin County, Minn., 6,200 guns, seven days in February 1992, $50 per gun.

-- Syracuse, N.Y., more than 2,700 guns, May 1992, $50 per handgun, $25 per long gun.

-- Buffalo, N.Y., 2,000 guns, February 1993, $75,000.

-- Seattle, nearly 1,800 guns, September 1992, $50 per gun.

-- San Francisco, 1,730 guns, October-December 1991, $89,500. Buyback didn't accept rifles, shotguns or guns that didn't work.

-- Boston, 1,300 guns, June-September 1993, $50 per gun.

-- Jefferson County, Ky., more than 1,000 guns, February and October 1992, $40 worth of coupons for each gun.

-- Philadelphia, more than 1,000 guns, July 1991, $20,880.

-- Washington, D.C., 400 guns in two days in September 1992, $20,000 in private donations. Suspended because of lack of money.

-- Los Angeles, 412 guns, December 1993, $50 in concert or other tickets from Ticketmaster.

-- Los Angeles, more than 130 assault weapons, 1989, $300 per weapon offered by City Councilman Nate Holden.

Associated Press, Handgun Control Inc.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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