Gun Exchanges Gain Popularity In Major Cities, But May Not Reduce Violence


IT used to be that a robber itching for a $100 pair of sneakers had to flourish a loaded gun to get his prize. But now in some big cities in the United States, he need only lay down his gun for good.

Chicago police and Foot Locker, a retailer of athletic shoes, last week netted more than 1,100 firearms from Chicagoans by swapping the weapons for $100 gift certificates for footwear.

Gun owners, acting on official promises of profit and amnesty, surrendered to police more than 780 handguns and 285 rifles and shotguns. They also turned in 35 dangerous weapons ranging from air rifles and flare pistols to semiautomatic weapons and a 40mm, 12-round grenade launcher, Police Superintendent Matt Rodriguez said this week.

The Jan. 19-21 ``Shoes for Guns'' effort is just the most recent of at least a dozen police campaigns across the country since 1991 aimed at exchanging guns for either cash or merchandise. It is one of the grass-roots approaches to fighting crime that is gaining popularity as President Clinton's State of the Union address focused national attention on law enforcement.

In late December and early January, New York police hauled in more than 2,000 firearms in return for $75 in cash and $100 in gift certificates from Foot Locker and Toys `R' Us.

Firearm exchanges have probably forestalled many casualties, judging from the estimated 40,000 guns acquired by police since the first large-scale effort in 1974.

``It's just common sense that the less guns you have out there, the less gun-related injuries you have,'' says Philip Andrew, executive director of Illinois Citizens for Handgun Control.

However, there is no evidence that gun swaps decrease gun-related crime. Consequently, some economists and criminologists criticize the programs as mere grandstanding by corporations and local officials.

Buyback efforts are ``like a lot of gun-control programs: Their benefits are entirely speculative,'' says Gary Kleck, a professor of criminology at Florida State University.

The gun exchanges also are criticized widely for rewarding people who illegally possess firearms.

Short-term programs

All of the major gun buyback schemes have been short-term programs staged in areas where police neither intensively curtail the sale of new guns nor restrict the import of guns from elsewhere. Such long-term measures are more far-reaching and effective in curtailing firearms casualties than even the grandest gun swap, according to some gun-control advocates and criminologists.

``So it seems to me it's like trying to empty the sea with a thimble,'' says Philip Cook, a professor of public policy who studies the economics of crime at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Even worse, a criminal could use the buyback scheme to upgrade his firepower, putting the cash he received from police for an old gun toward the purchase of a new one, Professor Cook argues.

Still, buyback programs have proved popular.

For politicians and police, firearms exchanges are a high-profile way to assuage the growing concern about crime among voters nationwide.

For companies, the programs are a showy way to flaunt the company logo on behalf of a progressive, widely popular cause within a targeted market.

Foot Locker, a division of Kinney Shoes Corp. of New York, has used its campaigns in Chicago and New York to seize the high ground on corporate social responsibility.

``We came here [to Chicago] as a leader in the community, we want other companies to stand up and help to prolong our efforts here,'' says Foot Locker spokeswoman Stephanie Falk.

Miami and Atlanta next

``We're not the only people with a responsibility to address this problem and we're hoping that other companies in Chicago will step up and follow Foot Locker's lead,'' Ms. Falk adds. ``You can't just go out and sell your product, you have to really be responsible and that's what we feel we are doing with this program.''

Foot Locker has sponsored a similar campaign in Philadelphia since Sept. 20, offering a $75 gift certificate for each gun. It plans to launch efforts in Miami and Atlanta next week and possibly in Detroit thereafter.

Overall, the company has pledged a total of $500,000 in gift certificates for its ``Shoes for Guns'' crusade outside New York, says Jerry Canning, a vice president for marketing at Foot Locker.

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