The indoor basketball court at Harlem’s Bethel Gospel Assembly church was eerily quiet on a recent October Saturday. A few police officers sat behind computers facing an empty row of chairs. A lone visitor arrived, wearing a cap and holding a large brown paper bag – his contribution to the gun amnesty sponsored that day in a joint initiative between law enforcement and religion.
City police and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office had pooled their funds to offer $200 bank cards for each operable handgun brought in, or a $20 card for shotguns or rifles – with a limit of three guns per person. Handguns were higher value because they are easier to conceal and more often used in the city’s crimes.
Gun buybacks have been staged periodically in the city for at least two decades, but the October program had a special urgency, coming just weeks after the shooting death of Harlem high school basketball star Tayshana Murphy. Rumors that Murphy’s murder would spark reprisals in the neighborhood prompted community leaders like Iesha Sekou, founder of Street Corner Resources, to request the October buyback at a second venue – the Holy Family R.C. Church in Central Harlem.
“We wanted to give young people the opportunity to think about it and to turn in illegal weapons,” Sekou said.
By 4 p.m., 139 guns had been surrendered across the two locations, including a .22-caliber semi-automatic with a silencer.
“Our gun buyback took 139 dangerous weapons out of our neighborhoods, and will hopefully save lives,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. in a post-buyback announcement that reflects the conventional wisdom of elected officials in many states.
Yet critics say gun buybacks are a waste of taxpayer dollars and don’t effectively get guns off the street. A handful of studies have cast doubt on them as a crime-fighting technique, and the prestigious National Academy of Sciences concluded in a 2004 review that “the theory underlying gun buy-back programs is badly flawed.”
“A gun buyback program is a Junk B Gone program for gun owners, nothing more,” said Alex Tabarrok, research director for the Independent Institute, a think-tank specializing in socioeconomic and legal issues in Oakland, Calif.
“It’s like standing outside of McDonald’s and offering to buy half-eaten Big Macs and expecting that this will help address obesity crisis,” Tabarrok said in an email interview. “A Big Mac buyback and a gun buyback are equally ineffective.”
Such sentiments run in stark contrast to the priorities of Vance, the Manhattan district attorney, who has embraced gun buybacks with the enthusiasm of his predecessor, Robert Morgenthau, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who co-chairs the national coalition Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
“I’m more concerned about getting guns off the street,” Vance said in an interview at Bethel Gospel Assembly, where he spent that October Saturday morning to show his support. “It’s that simple.”
Police-clergy buyback partnerships were initiated in New York City in 2008. According to the New York Police Department, some 7,000 guns have been turned in at church buybacks since then.
Officials say they can assure the anonymity of those who want to turn in guns at churches, which are regarded as neutral locations for buybacks. At Bethel Gospel, for example, officials ordered a reporter not to interview the man in the cap – or any of the dozens of others who brought in guns – lest they feel intimidated and change their minds.
Police also say they will not examine security camera footage from around the church to try to identify any of the people who brought in guns.
Still, Mel Hazel, supervisor of security at Bethel Gospel Assembly, wondered how many felt reassured by the police statements. “Some people don’t understand the fact that it really is anonymous” said Hazel. “You can just bring the weapon in, no questions asked. And sometimes people don’t trust that issue.”
Joining Vance at the Bethel Gospel buyback event was District 9 City Councilwoman Inez E. Dickens, who is also a strong supporter of such programs.
“This is one way of encouraging our young people and anyone else that has a gun in their home, hidden, to bring the gun in, with no repercussions,” said Dickens. “If we get five guns off the street today and save one youth’s life, or from being maimed, then it’s been a total success.”
As for the weapons turned in during the buyback, they are headed for the smelter, and could turn up at a dry cleaners near you.
“You’ve heard the phrase swords into plowshares,” said Vance. “Well, we’re turning guns into hangers.”