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Hudson Valley's post-Newtown gun buybacks: Cops doubt effectiveness

Nassau County police and the county district attorney's

Nassau County police and the county district attorney's office sponsored a gun buyback program at the Grace Cathedral in Uniondale. (Feb. 16, 2013) Photo Credit: Jim Staubitser

After hosting the city's first-ever gun buyback program and shelling out thousands of dollars in exchange for firearms, Poughkeepsie police stopped and looked at their bounty -- a pile of sorry-looking pistols, rusted rifles and dusty shotguns.

"Grandpa's guns" is how Poughkeepsie Police Chief Ron Knapp described them. "The guns turned in at these things are not crime guns."

Poughkeepsie, which has had its share of gang-related gun violence, hasn't sponsored a gun buyback program since that mid-1990s effort. Today, Knapp says gun buyback programs are not effective in removing guns from the hands of people who might use them to harm others.

That question has been an important one since the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Since that tragedy -- which claimed the lives of 20 children and seven adults -- cities, towns and counties large and small have rushed to fund their own buyback programs.

In nearby Bridgeport, Conn., a program last week netted 650 weapons. A buyback in Camden, N.J., yielded more than 1,100 guns, a record for that city. The State of New Jersey has since run out of cash to exchange for firearms. A program in Los Angeles netted more than 2,000 weapons, including two rocket launchers. Now lawmakers in California want a tax on new handguns to fund buyback programs.

In the Hudson Valley, about a dozen buyback programs are being planned or recently have been completed -- including a countywide effort in Orange that netted about 200 weapons.

"We've seen just about everything, from shotguns to rifles to handguns," said Lt. Scott Hamill of the Orange County Sheriff's Office. "We've gotten more handguns than anything else."

Drop-off points for the Orange County program are in Newburgh, Middletown, Port Jervis and Goshen. As with other programs throughout the country, local police said they won't ask questions when people drop off firearms.

In nearly all of the programs, the guns collected are destroyed, usually by melting them down.

In Westchester, County Executive Rob Astorino is considering a buyback program as part of his recently announced Safer Communities initiative, Astorino spokeswoman Donna Greene said. That initiative, aimed at tightening school and community security, was announced Feb. 20.

"That's all well and good, and it could reduce accidental shootings," said Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem Oriented Policing and a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. But most of the time, Scott said, "You get a lot of guns that people were not making much use of anyway."

That's because most of the turned-in firearms come from people who "inherited" the guns -- thus, grandpa's World War II souvenirs -- or people who have malfunctioning or cheap guns, according to a report by the National Research Council, a subgroup of the National Academy of Sciences. The report emphasized the sheer number of firearms owned by Americans -- as many as 310 million, according to the Congressional Research Service.

"In light of the weakness in the theory underlying gun buybacks, it is not surprising that research evaluations of U.S. efforts have consistently failed to document any link between such programs and reductions in gun violence," the report said.

Loretta Ford, of Cortlandt Manor, said she doesn't believe violent criminals would sell their firearms for a small amount of cash or a grocery store gift certificate.

"What are they giving up? They're giving up ratty guns that they don't even want anymore and the taxpayers are dishing out all the money for nothing," said Ford. "People who want to do damage to someone are gonna use anything they want to use."

Gun buyback programs are most effective as political rallying tools and in community public relations, some experts say.

In Poughkeepsie, police decided a multipronged effort produced better results. Last year, police recovered 49 illegal handguns via an anonymous tip line, traffic stops, domestic violence calls and community policing, Knapp said. Two illegal handguns were found in sewer drains by the city's Department of Public Works, and four more were found in the Fallkill Creek, which meanders through the city. The latter likely were deposited by gunmen running from the police or ditched after they were used in local robberies, Knapp said.

"If you want to reduce crime, you need to get the guns that matter," Scott said.

And that involves old-fashion police work and street intelligence, the kind of information detectives and beat cops compile through experience and familiarity.

"Stop-and-frisk, probation checks, consent searches of their homes, special conditions of probation and parole, court orders to turn in guns," Scott said. "It starts with knowledge about the dangerousness of the person, and then getting the guns out of the hands of people that are dangerous."

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