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Success of gun buyback programs is debated

Boston Police Superintendent-in-Chief Albert Goslin,left, and  Reverend Shawn Harrison examined one of 382 firearms turned in during a gun buyback in Boston in 2006.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/file

Boston Police Superintendent-in-Chief Albert Goslin,left, and Reverend Shawn Harrison examined one of 382 firearms turned in during a gun buyback in Boston in 2006.

During a highly publicized Boston Police Department gun buyback eight years ago, a man in his 50s walked into a drop-off site in Grove Hall with two inoperable firearms he wanted to hand over in exchange for the $100 gift cards that were being offered.

“I was, like, ‘This guy seems out of place,’ ’’ recalled Jorge Martinez, a well-known antiviolence crusader in the area and head of the nonprofit Project RIGHT on Blue Hill Avenue. “I asked him where he was from. And he said he was from Maine.”

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Martinez sent the man on his way, without taking the guns or giving him gift cards. But the episode is a stark illustration of what specialists say is now a widely accepted failing of buyback programs: Even when they bring in impressive stockpiles of firearms, they rarely get the ones most sought by law enforcement.

“Unfortunately, there is no compelling evidence that gun buyback programs are an effective crime-fighting tool or that they reduce the rates of crime,’’ said Jon Vernick, co-director of Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

Grasping for solutions to a wave of shooting violence this year, punctuated last week by the death of a 9-year-old boy who was shot, allegedly by his 14-year-old brother in Mattapan, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said the city would launch a large-scale buyback to help get guns off the street. The city has used buyback programs in the past and was considering one for several weeks before the latest shooting death.

Gun buyback programs have been a staple of urban crime-fighting measures across the country for more than two decades, but a growing body of research has concluded they are ineffective, at best. A 2003 study of buyback programs nationwide by Anthony Braga, a crime specialist who is now a professor at Rutgers University, found that the programs had no impact on gun crime or gun-related injuries, and that the programs do not target guns highly likely to be used in violence.

The programs have nonetheless remained popular, particularly in times of crisis. After the December 2012 massacre of 26 people — 20 of them young children — at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., many cities have been stepping up buyback programs or launching new ones, specialists said.

‘Based on what happened to that Pena boy, it should rally everybody to the danger of having a gun . . . in the house.’

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Cincinnati held three gun buybacks last year. In Tucson, Ariz., police collected about 200 firearms in exchange for about $10,000 in gift cards. Seattle — where a study concluded that a 1992 buyback failed to significantly reduce the frequency of firearm injuries, deaths, or crimes — staged another buyback in January 2013. Police called it a success, saying they collected 712 weapons, including a Stinger missile launcher tube and three Street Sweeper shotguns.

Some specialists have criticized such efforts as little more than public relations ploys, letting law enforcement officials display a cache of weapons to give an impression of action in the face of crime.

But Vernick, of the Center for Gun Policy and Research, said buyback programs are not without benefits. They can help raise awareness about guns and mobilize advocates and residents to work with police, he said. He also said the programs do usually net some guns used in crimes, though typically very few.

In Boston, the first buybacks came during the crime waves of the 1990s, when the city offered $50 for each gun. From 1993 through 1996, police collected 2,800 guns.

The program was abandoned after violent crime fell and critics, including a Harvard analysis, blasted the buyback, saying the guns recovered bared little resemblance of the firearms used to commit crime.

A report of Boston buyback programs published last year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine noted: “Licensed gun dealers from the suburbs used the event to clear their inventories of second-hand firearms that were worth less than the $50 incentive.’’

As violence surged in the mid-2000s, Mayor Thomas M. Menino restarted the program vowing to avoid problems that plagued the first program. Using $25,000 of the city’s money, Menino offered a $100 gift card to Target instead of cash, had eight drop-off sites at church and neighborhood centers, and launched a massive marketing campaign that included billboard ads and Internet podcasts.

The program netted 1,000 guns, police said. The Suffolk District Attorney’s Office later said none of the firearms could be traced to killings.

In Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester, neighborhoods where 70 percent of the city’s gun violence occurs, many are skeptical of a new round of buybacks.

“I really don’t think it’s a good idea, because this is not going to get the kids who really have the guns,’’ said the Rev. Vernard Coulter, who works closely with teenagers involved in street gangs. “A lot of these kids are carrying guns because they are afraid, and they protecting themselves. They are saying, ‘I must have a gun on me if someone is going to threaten me and my family.’ ”

Complicating any effort to retrieve guns used for crime, some said, is that gun holders often employ juveniles with unblemished records or recruit their girlfriends or mothers to either purchase the firearms or hide them.

“These are guns that are hidden in stairwells that moms and girlfriends are hiding for their boyfriends, for their husbands, for their sons,” said Nancy Robinson, who runs Citizens for Safety, an antigun trafficking group that is working to educate women about the consequences of holding weapons for their mates.

Police Commissioner William B. Evans said he is considering new strategies to make a new buyback more successful than those held in the past. He said a key target will be mothers who suspect their children might be hiding a gun and legal gun owners who have unused firearms in their homes that could be stolen.

He said the buyback will be a small piece of the department’s overall gun strategy. The program will include new features, such as an anonymous tip line for people to report guns.

Initial plans call for installing kiosks at police stations, where residents can drop off weapons, no questions asked, he said.

Evans has also discussed increasing the amount of the gift cards to $200 to $300. Evans said the department is looking to private companies to raise funds for the program.

“The community’s got to buy into this,’’ Evans said, recalling the 9-year-old who was killed Friday, Jan Marcos Pena. “Based on what happened to that Pena boy, it should rally everybody to the danger of having a gun . . . in the house.”

Martinez, of Project RIGHT, said he has been advising Evans on improving the program. For the program to work, Martinez said it must offer more money, require that only Bostonians participate, and better track and test the guns.

Martinez said the program can work if done properly and he pushed back at critics who say the buyback programs are ineffective.

“Every gun you get off the street is a small victory,’’ he said. “You go to the family of that 14-year-old and ask them if it would have made a difference if we’d gotten that gun off the street.’’

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.
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