When the Seattle, Washington, gun buyback program was announced on January 8, King County Executive Dow Constantine claimed that removing guns from the streets would “certainly prevent … senseless tragedies.” He didn’t say how many tragedies might be prevented, but he certainly couldn’t have predicted that the program would turn into a private gun show.

When the buyback started on Saturday morning, January 26, thousands of people showed up carrying weapons of every variety, which they planned to exchange for gift cards. But private gun buyers up also showed up, and they offered cash instead of gift cards and even provided donuts and other refreshments to attract sellers and displayed signs with messages such as “Fast cash for your gun” and “Want more than a $100 gift card?”

It was private enterprise in action. And it annoyed Police Chief John Diaz, who told the Seattle Fox affiliate that “I would prefer that they would not sell them, but once again this is a decision each individual has the right to make.” Many did decide to turn in their guns for destruction. The Seattle Police Department gave out more than 1,000 give cards of $100 or $200 (depending on the gun) before running out. Private donations totaling nearly $120,000 were raised to fund the buyback program.

Gun buyback programs have been going on for years, each with the stated or implied purpose of removing firearms from the streets in order to (in theory) reduce crime. In Seattle the police announced that no names would be recorded, thus inviting anyone with an unsavory background to come forth and turn in his gun with impunity.

In fact, the impact, if any, on street crime as a result of such programs has been immeasurably small. The National Research Council published a study in 2004 that analyzed any effectiveness of these programs and concluded that “the theory underlying gun buyback programs is badly flawed and the empirical evidence demonstrates the ineffectiveness of these programs.”

The theory is that the program will lead to fewer guns on the streets, and that this will result in fewer guns being available for use in crimes. In reality, the guns traded in for cash or gift cards are, according to the study, “the least likely to be used in criminal activities.” Those turned in are usually old malfunctioning ones with little or no value, or else are owned by people who have inherited them and have kept them in a closet or a drawer or otherwise have little use for them. In contrast, said the study,

Those who are either using guns to carry out crimes or as protection in the course of engaging in other illegal activities … have actively acquired their guns and are unlikely to want to participate in such programs.

Put simply, the guns turned in via buyback programs are not the guns on the streets. Instead, the programs serve as a way to offload useless firearms onto the police department in exchange for cash or gift cards, while the “good stuff” is kept at home. It is Gresham’s Law in action once again.

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