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After Richmond hosts its first gun buyback event, expert says the strategy alone won’t reduce crime

Guns collected by law enforcement sit on a table.
A collection of illegal guns is displayed during a gun buyback event in Brooklyn. An event in Richmond this weekend aimed to pull guns off the street by offering Amazon, Walmart, Foot Locker or Kroger gift cards in exchange for firearms. (File photo: Bebeto Matthews/The Associated Press)

The city of Richmond held its first gun buyback program Saturday at Liberation Church in Southside, where gun owners traded their weapons for a gift card to Amazon, Walmart, Foot Locker or Kroger. 

The city and Richmond police touted the event as a success; the buyback ended early, having run out of $67,500 in gift cards in three and a half hours. Officials said they received 476 weapons during the buyback: 118 rifles, 227 handguns, 5 assault weapons and 126 inoperable firearms. 

Inoperable weapons garnered a $25 gift card, and functional, legal firearms were accepted for between $150 and $250 in gift cards. 

While the event drew a significant response, there is longstanding and often-replicated research that shows similar programs have not directly reduced violent crime — the stated reason for holding the event, according to a city ordinance.  

“Generally, gun buyback programs do not have a measurable impact on crime rates, particularly violent crime rates,” said Dr. Will Pelfrey, a professor at the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, who researches law enforcement and public safety. 

"There are more guns [in civilian hands] than there are people in the United States,” Pelfrey said. 

It's difficult to estimate the region’s population-to-gun ratio, but Pelfrey said it’s safe to assume a roughly even number of people and guns. About 1.3 million people live in the Richmond metro area, meaning the buyback event removed only a small fraction of the likely number of firearms in the region. 

In 2021, only Texas and Florida had more registered guns than Virginia, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — though the vast majority of guns nationwide are unregistered. In 2018, ATF recorded about 6 million registered firearms in the U.S., but a study from the same year estimated the actual number was closer to 390 million. 

Research on buybacks in other parts of the country shows it's unlikely that the guns being surrendered to the city would have ended up being used in a violent crime. 

“The people who are gonna bring those guns [to a buyback event] … are unlikely to be the people who are considering using those guns in a violent crime,” Pelfrey said. “Criminals are unlikely to show [up] to an event where there are probably police.” 

The 152 people who turned in weapons during the weekend event filled out forms identifying why they made the decision: Forty-five people said they had a “longstanding desire” to dispose of their weapon but weren’t sure how; 21 desired to have a “gun-free home”; 17 were concerned about children accessing the weapon; and 15 cited economic hardship. 

A handful of individuals wrote in their own reasons for turning in weapons, which ranged from "too many guns in the world” to “because I love Virginia” and “free money.” Eighty others did not provide a reason for turning in their firearm. 

Pelfrey was surprised that the form provided by the city to participants this weekend included a signature line. 

“Anonymity is important in this because you want to draw people who are not otherwise going to relinquish guns,” Pelfrey said. 

The professor, though, isn't averse to gun buybacks. “Even though I think that they’re unlikely to make much difference, it can’t hurt,” Pelfrey said.  

Gun buybacks are affordable and visible events that can help send a broader message about a community’s stance on guns — an image the police department and city officials have been working on recently. And it gives police a chance to directly engage with Richmonders to talk about getting guns off the street. 

Pelfrey said if it’s done right, programs like the event held this past weekend can start a conversation about public safety. 

While reducing violent crime is important to citizens and police, it’s not the only form of gun violence. There are more gun suicides than homicides in the U.S.  

Having access to a firearm is a major risk factor for individuals who are suicidal. Research from California found that men who owned handguns were eight times more likely to die by suicide than those who didn’t; women who owned handguns were 35 times more likely to die by suicide than those who didn't. 

While it’s difficult to prove that any individual gun buyback stopped a suicide, research following a mandatory gun buyback program in Australia that reduced the country’s firearms stock by 20% found an 80% decrease in the number of people who died by suicide. That buyback came as a part of broader reforms, however, following the passage of extensive gun control legislation, which included the creation of a national gun registry and a direct ban on automatic weapons, semi-automatic weapons and shotguns. 

Overall, Pelfrey said, “Getting guns off the street is great.” But he said RPD and the city must couple the buybacks with a robust violence reduction program in order to affect crime rates.  He said that will take time, especially since Chief Gerald Smith has only been in the job for a few years. He took the top post at the police department in July 2020. 

“It’s really hard to find that kind of long runway of program development, implementation and evaluation,” Pelfrey said.  

RPD and the city do have some programs in place, like the police’s Operation Red Ball — a data-based policing initiative that includes a list of potential “shooters.” So far, the program has resulted in more than 100 arrests, as well as concerns from community members about racial profiling. 

RPD shared crime data for the first half of the year at a recent press conference. Though they reported a rise in major crimes, violent crimes — like homicide and armed robbery — were mostly steady compared to the first half of 2021.