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The False Hope Of Gun Turn-In Programs

Thursday, September 9, 1999

The District of Columbia, which has the highest homicide rate of any major U.S. city, locked up only two criminals for breaking federal gun laws last year. Yet D.C. officials still managed to receive glowing press reports for their latest crime fighting ploy: paying residents, with no questions asked, $100 for each gun turned in for destruction during two days in August.

Seeing the headlines, and without bothering to seek any appraisal of the actual effectiveness of turn-in programs, President Clinton rushed to announce a scheme to hand over 15 million taxpayer dollars to other mayors to run their own turn-ins. It was suggested that $50 be paid for each gun.

Prof. Gary Kleck of Florida State University is among several criminologists who have studied such efforts. He writes, "Support for turn-in programs among government officials yields real political benefits, in the form of favorable press coverage and positive feedback from gun control supporters. . . . Nevertheless, these programs have no demonstrable impact on crime." (Targeting Guns: Fireams and Their Control, Aldine de Gruyter, 1997)

Prof. Kleck and others have cited several shortcomings of gun turn-ins, among them:

** They can result in the disarming of future crime victims who could have used the guns defensively to prevent death, injury or property loss.

** As the Law Enforcement Alliance of America has stated, a "no-questions-asked" policy provides the criminal with a legal and foolproof way in which to dispose of any weapon that has been used in crime.

** The guns turned in usually belong to those people--women, senior citizens, etc.--least likely to commit crimes of violence.

** Many of the guns turned in are cheap handguns purchased for the express purpose of being turned in for profit.

** Paying a "no-questions-asked" minimum "bounty" provides criminals with an incentive to steal guns.

** Low bounties encourage the surrender of cheaper, small-caliber handguns, which in turn encourages their replacement with larger-caliber, more powerful handguns.

** Only a tiny share of the gun stock is eliminated, usually not enough to keep pace with additions to the stock.

** Most people who turn in guns still retain other guns.

** Such programs frequently result in guns being destroyed, rather than being returned to those from whom they were stolen. Clearly, any stolen guns turned in must be returned to their lawful owners. The government shouldn't act as a fence for gun thieves.

George Mason University law professor Daniel D. Polsby noted: "It is implausible that these schemes will actually result in a less-dangerous population. Government programs to buy surplus cheese cause more cheese to be produced without affecting the availability of cheese to people who want to buy it. So it is with guns." ("The False Promise of Gun Control," March 1994, Atlantic Monthly)

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