A seed for society’s safety: Gun buybacks

New Zealand’s program to buy guns after a March massacre may be a lesson for the U.S. in how to conduct a dialogue with gun owners.

People bring their guns to exchange for money in Christchurch, New Zealand, July 13.

Since July 13, more than 7,000 gun owners in New Zealand have handed over their firearms to police under the country’s first program to buy back guns. The program is just one of several emergency measures taken since March after a gunman killed 51 people at two mosques. While the effectiveness of such buybacks is highly uncertain, one thing in New Zealand is for sure: As the hunters, farmers, sport shooters, and others sold their weapons at more than 90 collection points, many spoke of a change in attitude about what keeps a society safe.

“Anything that makes it safer is a good thing,” said one. “We have to do for the greater good of our society,” said another as he handed over his AR-15 firearm.

Police officials said they were “really happy” about how people engaged with the process. “We look forward to more people taking part in the buyback scheme over the coming months,” said one police commander, Mike Johnson.

The voluntary nature of gun buybacks – along with the incentive of being compensated – gives them a special place in the worldwide debate over gun regulations. In the United States, buybacks at the local level have been very popular since the 1990s, even though most scholars say they do not curb gun violence over time. Even after a program in Australia saw about 20% of privately owned guns turned in, gun ownership is back to similar levels as before.

In the U.S. presidential race, several Democratic contenders now advocate for buybacks after the recent mass shootings in Texas and Ohio. At least two contenders want to make them mandatory. Such a confiscatory approach, however, would be up against a stiff wind in a country with an estimated 393 million civilian firearms. About 70% of gun owners say they could never imagine themselves not owning some sort of firearm, according to Pew Research Center.

The motives for turning in a gun to police or others are mixed. They range from concern for a child’s safety at home to simply wanting cash to buy a better gun. At the least, buybacks help stir the thinking of gun owners.

After the shooting in El Paso, Texas, one longtime gun owner in the city, Bill Vogt, told The Guardian newspaper that he plans to campaign for buyback programs. To most owners, Mr. Vogt said, guns are toys. “Why wouldn’t you be willing to get rid of a toy in order to make sure this does not happen again?” he said.

“I grew up on farms, I grew up in the military, and we were around weapons all the time,” he said. “It develops that kind of mindset that if we don’t have weapons to protect ourselves, we are doing something wrong.”

Buyback programs help bring gun owners in contact with police and others in a community, fostering a dialogue about the ways to keep everyone safe. While criminals or potential mass shooters are very unlikely to turn in their guns, their ability to find guns or their willingness to see gun use as normal can be diminished if enough owners decide society would be safer without guns.

Buybacks help bring a community together to look at the foundations of peace. Then the tough questions can be asked. Do people trust government to keep them safe? Which guns are clearly not useful for self-protection? What social or economic efforts can reduce incentives for gun violence? How much responsibility do gun owners hold in perpetuating a gun culture?

In New Zealand, such a debate has begun on a nationwide level thanks in part to a popular buyback program. Many of its gun owners, when given an opportunity to think about safety, took their arms to the police rather than taking up arms. It is a shift in thought that marks a start toward a consensus on what enables greater peace and safety in a community.

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