The dangerous farce of gun buyback programs

perfectDespite local police departments hailing themselves with “success” and touting the acquisition of allegedly dangerous weapons, the various “gun buyback” programs of which you hear (and will likely hear of more) are a total joke. Worse yet, they’re actually dangerous for the public. Here’s why.

Most average citizens are not stupid. Neither are most criminals. In comparison, considering the level of street wisdom and savvy required to remain a successful criminal, it may very well be the case that the average successful criminal is a bit cleverer than the average decent citizen.

The problem with most criminals, at any rate, is not stupidity but immorality.(1) Criminals prefer to use their wit and experience to prey upon the weaknesses and ignorance of decent people. But it isn’t just criminals who do this. It is the heart of all immorality: the advance of selfish ambition to the hurt or damage of other persons and property.

The immediate motive in most thefts and robberies is economic gain. A thief or robber is willing to risk potential punishment in exchange for potential material gain. There are many factors in such a calculation, of course, and not all criminals consider all the factors, but this is the basic outline. This is self-interest without basic morals.

Now, the inherent self-interested economic savvy of the average person is the main reason gun buyback programs are a total joke. Most of these programs present an economic loss to the gun owner. The highest offer I’ve seen yet was $250 for certain guns in Trenton, NJ. The recent program in Seattle (hilariously hijacked by private gun dealers a block down the road) offered up to $100 for handguns and rifles, and $200 for “assault rifles”—and this was only in the form of gift cards, not cash. Now what person who has any economic sense whatsoever would hand over a $600 Glock for a $100 gift card? Who would trade a $1200 Bushmaster for $200?

And if an average citizen wouldn’t do this, what criminal do you think would trade in his Glock or Uzi for such a pittance, especially with the added risk of being identified and arrested on the spot?

There are only a handful of explanations, then, for why someone would make such an exchange:

1)      Ignorance of the value of their gun

2)      Desperation for some quick cash, or

3)      Ideological motivation trumping economic sense

In cases 1) and 2), the police are merely preying upon the weaknesses or ignorance of the seller (and you thought only criminals did that!). Case 3) is extremely unlikely because people who are so ideologically driven that they would take a significant economic loss to advance the gun cause probably don’t own firearms to begin with. If there are any such people exchanging at these events, they have to be very few.

The number of instances of 1) and 2) are also very likely few. Most people who own decent and pricey firearms are aware of what they have. They are unlikely to be ripped off in selling a piece, and if they were desperate enough for cash to sell one, they would know to go to a pawn shop or gun shop (where they probably bought the thing to begin with) and get the best price they could.

This means, however, that the vast majority of the transactions taking place at these events are probably very close to rational exchanges if not purely so. Average, law abiding citizens are selling legally-owned guns to cops for $100 or $200 and not taking an economic loss in the process.

This leaves us asking, then, what types of guns are most likely being sold in these buyback events. Well, what types of guns are worth less than a $100 to most average gun owners? As you can probably imagine, these guns are junk, trash, defunct, worn out, or cheap, old, hand-me-downs. With few exceptions, you can bet the allegedly dangerous weapons being taken off the street are actually dusty junk being removed from people’s closets.

I’d take $100 for that, and probably make my wife happy in the process.

Indeed, one report bears out the truth of this analysis. Seattle KOMO channel 4 reported, “Most of the weapons appear to be older rifles and handguns.”

And consider this: how many of the people who decluttered their closets of junk guns actually sold the cops every single gun they own?

Consider “David,” who played the part of the sacrificial citizen, gladly handing over his dangerous weapons to increase public safety. He told the Seattle media of his guns, “I don’t want them to ever end up in a bad place.”

And yet in the same breath the guy confessed, “I’ve got a lot of guns.” Think he turned them all in that day? Ha! The report made clear he traded in only “two old rifles” among “two dozen firearms” that he still owns.

So both economic sense and the empirical data tell us that 1) most of the guns collected were cheap junk, 2) most of the guns were not “on the streets” (and probably never would be) but in people’s closets, 3) at least some people traded in only some of their weapons (the cheap, junky ones) but still remain armed as we speak.

Considering further that in some cases, IDs were being checked, and yet there was not a single mention of any arrest being made at these events, we can safely assume that no violent criminals disarmed themselves at these events.

What can we learn from these facts?

Gun buyback programs can be better understood as junk purchasing programs. They’re an economic loss for the municipality, but with statist-friendly local press outlets, they’re somewhat of a net profit in terms of publicity for the state. The city is exchanging money (tax money?) for positive publicity with the message that it’s advancing public safety. Of course, it could have achieved much the same by purchasing air time for a well-produced commercial, but the event adds the benefit of camera shots of community involvement and one-sided interviews, and the media provides a free commercial anyway.

The exchange, however, presents absolutely no gain in terms of actual public safety. In fact, considering that some functioning weapons may be taken in from well-intentioned but deceived law-abiding gun owners, it may represent a net loss in public safety, for some formerly armed citizens are now less well-armed or even totally disarmed. The citizen should consider that even a dusty old gun could save your life in a pinch.

The exchange does, however, provide a boost for the police department in terms of perceived public safety. But this, also, can be a net loss in actual public safety. Criminals prefer unarmed victims. Criminals especially prefer unarmed and mentally complacent victims. Unprepared on your part is good for them. Unprepared and unsuspecting is even better. In the absence of any actual advance of public safety, the perception of heightened safety is all the worse. People are then unprepared, unsuspecting, and overconfident.

But what about those dangerous “rocket launchers” and “missile launchers” we hear about being confiscated? Aren’t those dangerous weapons being taken off the street? Most people by now have seen this hot air debunked: the weapons were the empty shells of one-time-use-only weapons already used up by the military. In short, more trash, more junk. No danger was taken off the streets at all, these plastic “weapons” are no more dangerous than a wiffle ball bat.

In the end, therefore, gun buyback programs amount to nothing but an economic farce foisted upon the public at public expense. No criminals are caught or even hindered, hardly any serious guns or “assault weapons” are taken off the streets. Average citizens trade in their junk for petty cash, but keep as many of their good guns as they like (thank God). In short, it’s an expensive closet cleaning for a handful of people.

The police and the media take the opportunity to tout their trash haul as a success for public safety. It is nothing of the sort. If anything, it makes the general public less safe. But as long as the right people believe otherwise, police can pretend, and their smiling marketers in the local media will like it, too.

So will criminals.

And for this, your local police may very well be happy to pay big bucks. Which means, to some extent at least, you’ll be paying for it, too.

  1. The problem with immorality may also be broken down into two categories: 1) the immorality of the person, and 2) the immorality of certain laws which define certain behaviors as criminal. It is the first case we have in view here.()

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John Forster
John Forster

@"I’d take $100 for that, and probably make my wife happy in the process." Ha! I'll bet Joel wouldn't, nor would his wife be. How I know, is that I have heard his series on "Taking Back America: One County At a Time", and read some of his books. He would have second thoughts before he took his relic down to the Station. He would remember that the cash award would not be an authorized, Biblical exploitation of the voluntary contributions from citizens to Law Enforcement (much less of coerced tax money). It would not be part of punishing any crime God defines.


Good article. I like the economic analysis you gave here and also drawing out implications in terms of it's effectiveness and what it means for public safety. Or should I say public less-safety.

Joel McDurmon
Joel McDurmon

True and amen. Except, some of these programs are funded by donations to the police department,