With more homicides and more crime guns traced per capita than most U.S. cities, Rochester has targeted reducing the supply of guns. To do so, it has adopted an approach found in many other cities: a gun buyback program.
But do these programs work? That question does not have a simple answer.
Research suggests that the impact on gun supply and violence is minimal at best. However, buyback programs have the potential to be effective in other ways, experts say.
Annual reports from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives show Rochester consistently ranks among the top three cities for the number of guns traced in New York. When adjusted for population, Rochester jumps to No. 1, with 343 crime guns traced per 100,000 people in 2020.
Crime-gun tracing by the ATF is intended to assist with firearm criminal cases, detect firearms trafficking, and track the intrastate, interstate and international movement of crime guns.
“When you own a gun, your chance of being shot goes up exponentially,” says Irshad Altheimer, director of RIT’s Center for Public Safety Initiatives. “More guns means more chances for shootings.”
As a means of decreasing the number of guns in circulation, gun buyback programs have become increasingly common. Typically anonymous drop-off events with different monetary values for different types of weapons, these programs have been carried out in dozens of cities across the country.
Starting with Rochester
When the New York attorney general’s office began a statewide gun buyback program in 2013, it chose to start in Rochester. Since that year, the OAG has returned to the city three times, in 2017, 2019, and, most recently, 2021, when a record 270 guns were recovered, 20 of which were assault weapons.
So far in 2022, 343 illegal guns have been acquired through arrests in the city, which is a rate of almost two a day, says David Smith, Rochester’s interim police chief.
“It’s unprecedented. Never in my 30 years have I ever seen so many guns on the street,” says Smith, who adds that the gun supply pipeline is complex and involves multiple states, a fact previously reported by the Beacon.
Similarly, District Attorney Sandra Doorley says the 238 arrests through the end of May for illegal possession of a firearm is an increase of over 50 percent compared to this same time frame in past years.
A buyback event was scheduled in April at the Upper Room Family Worship Center in partnership with the Latino Youth Development and Resource Center. Depending on the gun surrendered during the event, participants could earn $25 to $250 loaded on to a credit card.
That event was postponed, but the importance of decreasing the supply of firearms is still top of mind in the North Clinton neighborhood.
“Walking down the street, you can see four or five people with guns in their possession,” Monroe County Legislator Mercedes Vasquez-Simmons says of the area near the Latino Youth Development and Resource Center. “We need to stop the violence, give people a chance to choose peace.”
Rafael Belliard, owner and operator of R&R Grab & Go, a restaurant located in the North Clinton neighborhood, notes that many of these guns are owned legally.
“They have a permit for it or whatever,” he said at a recent Rochester Beacon online event on the city’s homicide crisis. “But it gets scary because I get a lot of gentlemen who come in here to buy food. When they dig their hands in their pockets to pull their money out to pay, sometimes they pull a gun out and put it in the other pocket. Like it’s natural, like moving a dollar to another pocket.”
Of the 21 homicides with firearms so far this year, nine of them occurred in the Clinton police beat, according to data from the Rochester Police Department. Over the past two decades, the Clinton beat has accounted for nearly 40 percent of all firearm homicides in the city of Rochester.
Altheimer is skeptical about the overall effectiveness of attempts to decrease supply, however, and doubtful that gun buyback events are being used by the people who are more likely to commit violence.
“Those guns (that were turned in) were never ‘on the street’ to begin with, so you aren’t taking them off now,” Altheimer says. “The people who participate are usually a person who purchased a long time ago, inherited one, or owns more than one and maybe they’re financially strapped right now.”
Case studies of buyback programs from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 2017 found that the typical participant is white (81 percent), male (74 percent), and over the age of 55 (59 percent). On average, those who participated in buybacks lived 19 miles from a city, in more suburban and rural areas, and had a median household income of just over $65,000.
Altheimer also says there are instances of guns being turned in by adults living with children who are worried about accidental shootings or suicides rather than street-level violence. Gun ownership can increase chances of suicide by eight times for men and 35 times for women.
Since its launch in 2013, the New York attorney general’s gun buyback program has recovered nearly 4,000 guns statewide, with over 700 coming from events held in Rochester. Of the total number, approximately 47 percent were handguns, 38 percent were rifles or shotguns, and 11 percent antique or broken firearms; only 3 percent were assault weapons.
The weapons recovered in buyback programs–like those seized in efforts such as the law enforcement surge undertaken by the 2021 Violence Prevention and Elimination Response (VIPER) Task Force–are statistically insignificant in the face of supply in the U.S., however.
“In 1996, Australia had one of the most successful gun buybacks ever after a mass shooting. They had the political will and, quite frankly, less guns to buy back,” says Altheimer.
The Australian buyback program collected over 600,000 guns, representing 20 percent of privately owned firearms nationwide. As of 2015, for a nationwide U.S. program to achieve that same level of success, more than 77 million guns would need to be collected. That number would be higher now because sales of firearms have “exploded” during the pandemic, Altheimer adds.
A 2021 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research supports Altheimer’s view, concluding that buyback programs are not effective at preventing crime, at most reducing firearm-related crime by only 1.3 percent the year following a gun buyback program.
“The number of firearms sold in a typical gun buyback program is relatively modest, perhaps owed to a city buyback price of $25 to $450 per firearm,” the report states. “This price is often well below the cost of a new, or even used, firearm, which can easily exceed $500.”
“You could put the reward up to $500, but when you start spending that much money, you need to start asking, what’s a more cost-effective way to address this issue? A public health approach, for example, would be a much more effective way to address the underlying issues, I think,” Althiemer says.
Though he questions the effectiveness of gun buybacks in reducing violence, Altheimer believes the programs have value that data-focused research cannot capture.
“It’s in the way we change norms and values surrounding guns, the attitudes we have toward these issues,” he says.
As part of this shift, transitioning buyback events to provide further services might be a way to heal divides. As another CPSI researcher mentioned at the recent Rochester Beacon virtual event on Rochester’s homicide surge that “de-policing” after controversial events such as the death of Daniel Prude can put law enforcement and the community at odds.
“(Police) may rationalize it and say, ‘Well, they don’t want us in their neighborhood anyway. So, why should I get out the car?’” CPSI researcher Libnah Rodriguez said, adding that de-policing can be accelerated by the community itself as well. “The community may say, ‘We don’t trust the police to resolve this dispute. So, we should resolve it informally.’ And so that’s how we may end up with a surge of violence.”
“All of us in law enforcement can tell you, we have our challenges,” says Community Liaison Officer Moses Robinson. “But I hope that we can all understand that blaming the police, and hating the police is not the answer. We need to come together to talk about how do we do better by the community that we serve.”
Robinson believes that Rochester is doing a good job meeting the guidelines set by Executive Order 203, a 2020 initiative by the governor for NY police departments to adopt a policing reform plan in order to maintain public safety and rebuild trust with law enforcement. As both a Rochester native and the officer in charge of community outreach, Robinson finds partnerships with street-level community organizations particularly important.
Among those organizations are Pathways to Peace, which includes a street-level team providing support for youth who might turn to violence to settle disputes; Bigs in Blue, which offers one-on-one mentorships between youth and police officers through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Rochester; ROC Against Gun Violence Coalition, which, beyond educating communities on gun and neighborhood safety, also provides services after a homicide has occurred; and Gun Involved Violence Elimination (GIVE), which works to find proactive community dispute resolution, and more. While all these programs are concerned about the danger of firearms, none specifically use gun buybacks in their strategies.
“This doesn’t just stop because maybe you don’t see the highlights of what’s going on. We’re still in motion to change the paradigm of community policing within the Rochester Police Department,” Robinson says.
Experts also see a role for tighter laws. At the state level, recent legislation spurred by the Buffalo Tops shooting bars the purchase of semiautomatic rifles by anyone under the age of 21, prohibits the purchase of bullet-resistant soft body armor except for those in specified professions, eliminates grandfathering of high-capacity feeding devices, prevents individuals who display red flags of being a threat to themselves or others from purchasing or possessing any kind of firearm, and contains a number of other measures. According to gun safety organization Everytown, New York already ranks third in the country, behind California and Hawaii, in terms of gun-control strength.
Overall, experts agree there needs to be a broader view of success as well as more imagination about what could be possible with buyback programs.
“It’s also their potential for wraparound services, to show people how we can deal with disputes. We can have more direct interventions, connect them with more support,” Altheimer says. “We need a combination of both street outreach and community-based law enforcement strategies. We’re not solving this issue with just one thing.”