On the second anniversary of the Jan. 8 shooting spree that wounded former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Tucson police held a gun-buying event. They set up tables outside a police station and collected unwanted weapons from residents in exchange for $50 Safeway gift cards. The cops had competition. Gun-rights activists on sidewalks nearby waved signs that read “Cash for Guns” and shouted offers more than two times what police were paying.
Police departments in high-crime areas such as Chicago and Baltimore have hosted gun buybacks for decades to get weapons off the street. In the months after the Newtown massacre, dozens of other communities have adopted the practice. Police confiscate guns that are stolen or can be traced to a crime. Everything else is typically sent to a metal shredder. In Tucson, police had 200 weapons destroyed the same afternoon.
Arizona gun-rights activists want to halt that practice and are backing a bill in the state legislature that would likely end buybacks. The legislation would force police to sell weapons they collect at gun-buying events to a federally licensed firearms dealer or trade them for ammunition or other equipment. “Anything that diminishes the use and the utility of firearms—anything—is gun control,” says Charles Heller, a co-founder of the 8,500-member Arizona Citizens Defense League. “It wastes a perfectly good gun and removes it from commerce.”
There’s little evidence that gun buybacks reduce crime, says Jon Vernick, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. (The school is named after Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, which owns this magazine.) They’re popular mainly because they’re easier to carry out than passing gun-control laws, he says. Still, Vernick doesn’t think it’s good public policy to force police to recirculate weapons. “It seems to be odd to put cities into the role of gun sellers,” he says.
Not if you stop to think about the economics, according to Heller. He says many of the guns police collect in buybacks like Tucson’s are worth more than the $50 law enforcement was offering. Commercial gun dealers might pay more, he says. Cities “are begging for money, and they are literally flushing money … down the metal cutter,” Heller says. “How stupid do they have to be to waste their resources?”
The idea behind the Arizona campaign dates to 1998, when a Kentucky lawmaker successfully sponsored a bill forcing police to sell guns they seize from criminals. Tennessee and Alaska enacted similar laws, and in 2011, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a public-policy group that drafts and pushes conservative laws in state houses, enshrined the concept in a model bill for its lawmaker-members to introduce.
Arizona passed a version of it last year, but Tucson’s city attorney determined that it doesn’t apply to weapons surrendered in buybacks. That’s why activists clamored for the new legislation to stop police from destroying guns. Introduced in January by 16 Republicans and one Democrat in the state House of Representatives, it’s already passed the House public safety committee and has a good chance of approval by the full Republican-led legislature. Arizona’s good to gun owners: A 2009 law expressly lets residents bring their guns into bars.
Tucson City Council member Steve Kozachik, who organized the city’s gun-buying event, says he was inundated by threatening e-mails and attacked on talk radio shows. The backlash surprised him—he says he owns two pistols himself—but it’s not stopping him from fighting the bill. “At some point,” Kozachik says, “it’s not a cost-benefit analysis.”