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Guns to groceries: Villaraigosa's buyback program good P.R., bad policy

May 11, 2012|By Dan Turner
  • The city of L.A.'s 2009 gun buyback netted a lot of old hunting rifles, which probably weren't going to be used in gun crimes.
The city of L.A.'s 2009 gun buyback netted a lot of old hunting rifles,… (Los Angeles Times )

Imagine you're a carpenter who has fallen on hard times. The city announces that it's giving away $100 gift certificates good for buying groceries to anybody who turns in a full set of construction tools. Are you going to hand in your hammers and saws and assure that you'll never work again? Only if you're exceptionally desperate or exceptionally stupid.

This is the principle at play with the city of L.A.'s gun buyback program, which Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief Charlie Beck announced Friday. Those who turn in firearms at six locations around L.A. on Saturday will receive gift cards ranging from $100 to $200 in value (most people can expect to get a C-note for their guns; to merit a $200 card, you have to turn in an assault weapon).

"Tomorrow is the day before Mother's Day, and we chose this day for the Gun Buyback Program because too many mothers lose their children due to gun violence. This is our opportunity to make a real difference for our children, our families and our future," Villaraigosa wrote on his Facebook page.

But do these programs actually reduce violence?

As we laid out in a 2009 editorial, there's no evidence that they do. In fact, a 2004 National Research Council report concluded that they're ineffective. In part, that's because only a comparatively tiny number of guns are handed in -- perhaps a couple of thousand in a city that harbors millions of firearms -- and in part it's because of the scenario described above. To a career criminal, a gun is the tool of his trade; he's not going to turn it in for a $100 gift certificate at Ralphs. Typically, the participants in gun buyback programs show up with old, unused and possibly broken firearms that they'd like to be rid of but that have little resale value. Some of them are collectors who will take the city's grocery money and use the savings to buy a newer, better weapon. These aren't the kinds of guns that were going to be used in a drive-by shooting.

I don't know about Villaraigosa, but Beck is surely savvy enough to know this. So why does he continue to stand behind these buybacks, year after year? Because the hundreds of handguns and rifles the city will collect on Saturday make a great backdrop for a photo-op. It's a dog-and-pony show -- with shooting irons.

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