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Editorial: Gun buybacks are one piece in the fight against violence

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) Credit: Jim Staubitser

A gun buyback to be held tomorrow in Amityville, the latest in the region, raises anew the persistent question about this popular tactic to reduce gun violence and make communities safer: Does it work?

It's not so easy to answer. Many of the firearms collected in such events are old handguns, shotguns and rusted rifles -- not the sort typically used by criminals, gang members or deranged gunmen. And 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 from this furious national 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 treatments for mental illness -- or gain a basic consensus on what might actually result in fewer shootings. Paying cash for guns is but one small way to attack a big problem.

Buybacks date to the 1960s and follow a typical model: A weapon is turned in, no questions asked, and the person who delivered it gets a gift card or cash -- in Amityville $100 cash for an unregistered handgun and $300 for an assault weapon. The guns are destroyed and the metal is recycled.

Critics say these programs are nothing more than photo-ops for prosecutors and police commissioners since they attract the wrong guns. What criminal is going to march into a police precinct and trade in a Glock for a few bucks or a Target gift card? It's a fair point, but in the months following the massacre 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 emotional White House event yesterday, 100 days after Newtown's shootings, keeps the focus on gun safety. Studies can't measure the number of crimes prevented, 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, not-for-profits and houses of worship, such as the Prayer Tabernacle Church in Amityville, where tomorrow's buyback will take place. They can, and should, be tweaked and modified to address community concerns.

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.