Commentary: Gun Buy-Back Programs Can Save Lives

November 5, 2012

By Myron Lowery, Memphis City Councilman

Every day, a young person picks up a gun and shoots.  From 2008 to 2009, 5,740 children and teens died from guns in the United States —one child or teen every three hours, eight every day and 55 every week for two years.  Six times as many children and teens—34,387—suffered nonfatal gun injuries as gun deaths during those years. 

Many citizens own guns that they no longer want, but do not know what to do with. There are no safe methods on how these weapons can be destroyed. In 1994, I sponsored the City of Memphis’ first gun buyback program. The program received more than 1,600 guns in eight hours. Since then, six additional events have been held and we have documented 2,526 guns and rifles that have been turned in to the city. Additionally, we have received grants to pay cash for surrendered guns, and have partnered with corporate sponsors to offer programs like Gift for Guns, Food for Guns and Gas for Guns. In these programs, in exchange for their guns, people are given tickets to Memphis Grizzlies games and gift cards for gas, groceries or clothing.

An educational component, “Done With Guns,” has been added to the program where ex-felons, ex-gang members and victims of gun violence share their experiences with young people. By sharing real-life stories, the program aims to show youth the impacts and dangers of gun violence and deter them from gun usage. The “Done With Guns” seminars are held inside while citizens are turning in their weapons outside.

Critics of buyback programs say they are flawed and ineffective, that the guns surrendered are old, defective and not likely to be used in a crime. They say criminals will not participate in a buyback, especially one sponsored by law enforcement or government, even on a ‘no questions asked’ basis. Critics also suggest that gun replacements are easy to come by and many people who bring in a firearm also own other, better guns. These buyback programs may not register on a city’s overall crime rate, but they do serve to increase awareness of the dangers of gun violence.  

This fall we collected 475 guns, one of our most successful programs ever. Opponents of these programs say that they do not get real guns off the street, yet the guns collected during each of our buyback programs provide hard evidence to the contrary. We have collected several assault rifles and handguns that would be of value to any collector, but these are being destroyed.

In Memphis, 1,600 guns were reported stolen last year. In our city and others across the country,law enforcement agencies value gun buyback programs.  These programs give people a safe and hassle free avenue to get rid themselves of firearms they no longer want. Each weapon surrendered is one that will not be stolen, used to commit a crime, found by a child, cause accidental injury or death or used to commit suicide. No one can deny gun swaps are effective methods to increase awareness and educate our citizens—especially our youth— about the potential dangers of gun violence and improper gun use.

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities.