Poster Paper: Do Gun Buyback Programs Backfire?

Saturday, November 9, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Plaza Exhibits (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

D. Mark Anderson, Montana State University, Toshio Ferrazares, San Diego State University and Joseph Sabia, University of New Hampshire

There are 1.2 guns for every man, woman and child in the United States, with the total number of firearms in circulation estimated to be over 393 million (Small Arms Survey 2015). Firearms are involved in 51 percent of completed suicides and 73 percent of all homicides (CDC 2016; UCR 2016). The link between the supply of firearms and gun violence has been the subject of intense debate, both among policymakers (Spitzer 2015; Cook & Leitzel 1997) and in the crime literature (Lott 2013; Lott & Mustard, 1997; Donohue et al. 2018). However, there is growing convincing evidence that reduced access to firearms is associated with a reduction in gun crime, both among adults (Donohue et al. 2017) and minors (Anderson et al. 2018).

In an effort to reduce gun crime by limiting the supply of firearms in circulation, over 100 U.S. cities have held gun buyback programs (GBPs) over the last decade. GBPs use public funds to purchase privately-owned firearms from civilians in an effort to reduce the local supply of guns. However, next to nothing is known about their impact on gun crime.

The impact of GBPs on gun crime is a priori unclear. GBPs may reduce crime if the marginal GBP participant is a gun criminal who sells his firearms in the buyback and eschews criminal activity. Law-abiding individuals might also sell their guns in a GBP, reducing the supply of guns available for theft by those who would use them in criminal activity. On the other hand, if law-abiding citizens are relinquishing their firearms, criminals may be more willing to commit gun crimes because they perceive that the risk of victims defending themselves with deadly force has declined. Moreover, if GBPs induce potential criminals to turn in less effective or older guns and use income to purchase newer, more effective guns, crime could rise. Finally, GBPs could generate spillovers to non-gun crime if criminals substitute toward use of other weapons or if they abandon non-gun criminal enterprises that are complementary to gun violence.

Despite advocates’ claims that GBPs may be an important tool in the war against gun crime, we know very little about the impact of city GBPs on gun violence. This paper is the first to examine this question. Using agency-level data from the 1991 to 2015 National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS), we estimate the relationship between GBPs and gun violence. Our findings provide no evidence that GBPs are effective at deterring gun violence either in the short or longer-run. With 95 percent confidence, we can rule out one-year gun crime declines of 1.3 percent and gun crime declines of greater than 2.3 percent one year or more after its enactment. Intriguingly, in the one to two month period following a GBP, we uncover evidence of a 7.0 percent increase in gun crimes with no corresponding change in non-gun crimes. We conclude that GBPs are an ineffective policy strategy to reduce gun violence and in fact may have short-run unintended consequences.