New gun trade: turning them in

At least 25 countries have tried offering money for guns. But do buybacks reduce violence?

It's a global problem - too many weapons, too much violence.

Now, at least one solution is in vogue around the world: gun buyback programs.

From Mozambique to El Salvador, from the Republic of Georgia to Newark, N.J., gun owners - legal or illegal - are being encouraged to turn in their weapons in return for money, food, footwear, or farm tools.

There is no doubt the programs work, to a degree. They run out of money before people run out of guns, and police forces usually embrace them as ways to get guns off the streets. But they don't significantly reduce crime, experts say, because criminals don't turn in guns. Instead, the programs act more as a way to get a community to focus on solutions to a serious problem.

"It's a feel-good situation - it brings together people trying to stop violence and the community," says William Bratton, former police commissioner of New York City.

In the United States, that feel-good feeling got a bit of a boost at the beginning of the year, when President Clinton announced a $2.6 million "Buyback America" campaign to fund the collection of weapons. So far, 85 cities have signed up for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program, and another 24 either have applied or plan to apply for funding. This past weekend, a dozen US cities, including Rockford, Ill., and Las Cruces, N.M., kicked off programs. And last Friday, HUD committed $350,000 to take 7,000 guns off the streets of Washington.

Globally, gun buyback programs have been tried in about 25 countries. A four-year-old effort in El Salvador, which kicks in whenever money is available, has reaped rocket launchers, grenades, and assault guns. And both Australia and Britain, after tragic incidents, have had huge gun hauls after they banned certain weapons.

The trend has registered with the United Nations, which launched a pilot project in Albania in January. The carrot: development aid in exchange for weapons.

"The whole idea of weapons collection is now huge - it's something you can do," says Ed Laurance of the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. "This is now a global trend."

Turning guns into art

In some cases it is a trend born out of desperation. Take the case of Mozambique, an African country that suffered through nearly 30 years of war. Guns were everywhere. In the first phase of the weapons trade-in, which began in 1995, the effort collected 61,000 different types of weapons, including 2,155 guns. Those handing in weapons received sewing machines, bicycles, hoes, and construction material. Mozambican artists used fragments of the destroyed weapons to create works of art, which are sold to support the project's operations.

Guns are endemic in the Balkans and some of the former Soviet republics as well. Mr. Laurance says this has recently led the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to begin a voluntary weapons program in Georgia. "In the end, you are trying to change a culture, but that takes a long time," says Laurance, whose organization published a weapons-collection guide last month.

That's what the children in Ciudad Jurez, on the US-Mexico border, are trying to do. At a ceremony April 30 - Children's Day in Mexico - 150 children gave up toy pistols and rifles in exchange for educational games. "The idea is to discourage, rather than encouraging, this culture of violence," says Pedro Torres Estrada, spokesman for Jurez police.

While the kids made gun trade-ins look easy, Jurez's attempt to set up a program involving real guns shows how difficult it can be.

Ever since neighboring El Paso, Texas, made news on the border with a successful buyback weekend three years ago, Jurez had contemplated doing the same. But while police announced the program would start in February, it has yet to get off the ground. "The stumbling block was deciding what to offer in exchange for a weapon," says Mr. Torres. "We decided from experiences we saw elsewhere and what residents were telling us that offering food wasn't going to work." Leaders also decided the original idea - to call on residents' "civic consciousness" in a city mired in drug-trade gun violence - wouldn't work, either.

Now Jurez plans to offer 500 pesos per weapon - roughly the equivalent of the $50 Wal-Mart certificates El Paso offered in its second gun buyback this past weekend. "We took in 226 guns and rifles, no questions asked," says Leo Alvarez, a detective with the El Paso Police Department. "We even had an 80-year-old lady turn in a shotgun she'd had sitting around her house for 40 years."

One major problem

In fact, critics of gun buybacks point out that the kind of guns turned in are usually not the ones involved in violent crime, and the people who turn in weapons are not likely to commit a crime. "Young males don't tend to participate in gun buyback programs," says Jan Vernick of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore.

Since criminals don't tend to turn in their weapons, the National Rifle Association says it is concerned about spending tax dollars on the programs "when there is no impact on violent crime."

After Seattle conducted a buyback program in 1992, an evaluation of the $100,000 effort, which collected 1,172 firearms, found it had made no significant impact on firearms deaths, injuries, or crimes. "You probably needed to spend more like $1 million to make a difference," says Frederick Rivara, a professor at the University of Washington who participated in the study.

However, in many cities overseas, the programs are seen as at least one way to try to counter violence and provide some hope. That's the case in San Miguelito, a sprawling suburb of Panama City, where many families live in sagging shacks. Starting next month, guns can be exchanged for building materials - piggybacking off a training program that teaches construction to gang members.

"This will give these kids the feeling they're doing something for their families, that giving up these weapons is serving some purpose," says Mayor Rubn Dario Campos.

Mayor Campos is sanguine about the program's future. "These are poor kids, but they have weapons of war that even the national police don't carry, so there's a dark force behind these guns somewhere." But he says shootings and gang brawls have already fallen with the new skills training. "We're already hearing an interest in the building materials, so when we start getting more of these guns off our streets and people working on their houses, we should see more progress."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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