When a police chief from a Hudson Valley city plagued by gang violence described the types of guns collected in a recent buyback program, he characterized them as "grandpa's guns."
The cache was a collection of old handguns, shotguns and rusted rifles -- not the sort typically used by criminals, gang members or deranged gunmen, notably the semiautomatic rifle used in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
It raises the question: Do gun buybacks work?
It's not so easy to answer. Study after study -- including one by Harvard University in the 1990s and another in 2001 by the Department of Justice -- say they are ineffective in reducing community gun violence.
But if we've learned anything during the nation's conversation about firearms, it's that gun problems, and potential solutions, can't be viewed in isolation. There's no silver bullet, so to speak, not when we can't even agree on the effectiveness of background checks, assault-weapons bans and treatment for mental illness, or gain a basic consensus on what might work. Paying cash for guns is but one small way to attack a big problem.
Buybacks date back to the 1960s and follow a typical model: a weapon gets turned in, no questions asked, and the person who delivered the firearm receives cash or a gift card, anywhere from $100 to $300, depending on the make and model. The guns are destroyed and the metal is recycled.
Critics say these programs are nothing more than photo-ops for prosecutors and police chiefs since they attract the wrong guns. What criminal is going to march into a police precinct and trade in a Glock for a Target gift card? It's a fair point, but in the months following the shootings in Newtown, tens of thousands of weapons have been removed from communities all across the country through these exchange programs -- and the bounty wasn't exclusively Saturday night specials or grandpa's antique Luger.
The public seems more focused than ever on gun safety. Studies can't measure the number of crimes prevented, tragic accidents averted or suicides that never occur. Nor can they adequately capture the potential public relations or education value of such programs, or articulate the importance of giving a concerned parent, sibling or spouse the ability to get rid of a weapon they don't want in their home -- or one that's been lying around long after the original, and legal, owner has died.
The effectiveness of buybacks improves when they target areas with known problems and when police departments work with trusted civic groups, local businesses, houses of worship and not-for-profits. They can, and should, be tweaked and modified to address community concerns.
In the aftermath of Newtown, programs have taken place all across the country in places like Oakland, Calif.; Tuscon, Ariz., and Baltimore. A December buyback in Los Angeles netted 2,037 guns, including a rocket launcher. One in Newark, N.J., in February brought in 1,700 weapons, including semiautomatics.
Orange County has collected 200, and Bridgeport, in Connecticut, another 650. Dozens more buybacks are planned in the Hudson Valley, and Westchester County is considering one as part of a Safer Communities initiative.
In New Jersey, police teamed up with a designer who turns the recycled metal into high-end jewelry, the Caliber Collection, which is a creative funding mechanism and awareness campaign.
There are 310 million firearms in circulation, or just about one for every person in this country, and an average of 4 million new guns are manufactured each year.
Many weapons are never used in a criminal act, but for those guns that might be trouble, buybacks offer communities an opportunity, and a choice, to take a shot at curbing gun violence.