Do Voluntary Gun Buybacks Work… or Do They Miss the Target?

Most candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, including President Joe Biden, supported the implementation of voluntary gun buyback programs. Gun buyback programs have been proposed or implemented in various cities and nations across the globe in an attempt to control firearms in circulation. These programs can be mandatory for citizens and implemented on the national scale, like Australia’s National Firearms Amnesty program, or they can be voluntary and implemented by local governments, like the City of Los Angeles’ anonymous Gun Buyback. Now is a vital time to weigh the viability of these buybacks and to ask: are voluntary buybacks effective? 

What are Voluntary Gun Buybacks?

Simply put, a voluntary gun buyback program offers a reward for turning in a firearm to government officials. These programs offer monetary compensation for voluntarily bringing a gun to officials who then dispose of it often offering gift cards or cash as a reward. Many buyback programs also allow anonymous or risk-free participation to encourage restricted or illegally-obtained firearms to be brought in to officials. The goal of this reward system is to reduce the number of guns in circulation within a community, and in turn, reduce gun-related crimes and crime rates.

The Economics of Voluntary Gun Buybacks

Voluntary gun buyback programs have been generally successful in collecting a significant number of firearms during their applications. During a 1991 buyback in St. Louis, authorities racked up 7,469 firearms in a month; a Baltimore buyback in 1974 collected about 13,400 guns in three months. However, this does not indicate success toward the goals of the programs. Voluntary buybacks are not proven to significantly lower gun-crime, nor have they successfully reduced the number of guns privately owned.

Authorities can lower the number of guns in circulation only in the locality in which the buyback is conducted and only in the immediate short term. In the long run, the supply of guns in the area will not be affected. If these programs are consistently repeated, like in the case of the annual buybacks of Los Angeles, they theoretically may even raise the number of guns within the particular market. This is true because the supply of guns in a local region is very elastic. In Modern Principles: Microeconomics, Tyler Cowen explains that the massive number of guns in the American market, upwards of 200 million, makes the supply of firearms in local markets almost perfectly elastic. The elasticity of supply is the measure of how responsive the supply of a good is to the change in its price. The more elastic, the more reactive to change. Voluntary gun buybacks must accept even low-quality firearms to encourage participation. If any gun can be traded in, the monetary compensation offered in these buybacks increases the price of guns in the market. If a gun purchased drops in value, it can simply be traded into the gun buyback program. This offers a form of insurance on firearms, therefore, raising the price. A perfectly elastic supply would increase along with a price increase. Even though the buybacks temporarily decrease supply, they inadvertently raise the price in the market, and as a result, raise the supply back to the original level. This is because when the price of a good with an elastic supply is increased, economic principles say, supply increases. If buybacks are consistent, they can theoretically increase the supply in a region by permanently raising the price of firearms. Ironically, by attempting to decrease the number of guns in a community, a buyback may increase the quantity by increasing the value. 

Do Voluntary Gun Buybacks Work?

If voluntary gun buybacks fail to lower the number of guns privately owned within communities, it is hard to imagine that they can subsequently decrease the rate of gun crimes; research supports this. A 2008 analysis in the journal Crime and Delinquency found that no research showed that buyback programs had any significant effect on gun-related crimes. More recently, “An Evaluation of a Multiyear Gun Buy-Back Programme: Re-Examining the Impact on Violent Crimes,” written in 2013, examined that a multiyear gun buyback in New York showed no effect on gun crime rates. The study found that gun buybacks resulted in a minor but statistically significant reduction in gun homicide; however, researchers also found a statistically significant increase in gun robbery. These minor contradictions led researchers to conclude the inefficiency of gun buybacks. This lack of impact is because of these programs’ leniency in accepting low quality, and even unusable, firearms and their voluntary nature. Aside from their inability to effectively lower the supply of firearms, lenient buybacks tend to incentivize people to turn in guns that are unlikely to be used in gun crime in the first place. A 2002 study observed in a Milwaukee County buyback that the types of firearms collected “differed substantially,” from guns used in violent gun crimes. Participants are not only statistically less likely to exchange the types of guns typically used in crimes, but they are also unlikely to turn in functioning, high-quality guns. For which would a person have more to gain from turning into a buyback program for money: a low-quality gun or a high-quality gun? Hence, the inefficiency in these programs exists. The buybacks do not seem to effectively change the behavior of the public; rather it incentivizes exploitation of the reward. As observed in Australia, only mandatory, nationally funded buybacks, which differ greatly from voluntary local buybacks, have been able to avoid these issues and show a degree of efficiency. 

The ability to cheat the voluntary gun buyback incentive system by exchanging useless firearms for a reward; the unintended perverse incentive that has no effect on, or even increases, the supply of guns in a community; and statistical evidence that shows no impact on gun crime exemplify the inefficiencies of these policies. Many people fail to voluntarily exchange high-quality guns. Therefore, the positive incentive system of a government rewarding gun owners for turning in firearms to authorities is a weak one. If US legislators seek a policy that will reduce the rates of gun-related crimes they should consider supporting mandatory gun buybacks. The apprehension to do so, however, is understandable. The United States’ foundational culture of individual liberties, its disproportionately high rates of private gun ownership, and its complicated fight for gun control create a high risk for American politicians to support drastic reform. Nonetheless, if officials are interested in seeing actual results, and not just feigning efforts, they should look somewhere other than voluntary gun buybacks. 

By: Eli Polley

Published by LPR Editorial Board

The LPR Editorial Board is comprised of Julia Mattingly (Editor-in-Chief), Nino Owens (Managing Editor), Alex Reynolds (Associate Editor), and Emma Fridy (Associate Editor).

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