Dan Horn, The Cincinnati Enquirer
CINCINNATI -- The rifles, pistols and shotguns always look impressive when they're displayed at news conferences celebrating the end of gun buyback campaigns.
Spread across tables or piled high into overflowing stacks, all those weapons reinforce the notion that trading cash for guns works. It gets guns off the street, organizers say, and makes the city safer.
The problem, according to years of research, is that it does neither.
Cincinnati will join a growing list of cities this week that have embraced gun buyback programs in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut. The first of Cincinnati's three planned gun buybacks for 2013 is Tuesday.
The local campaign begins as the national debate over gun violence is intensifying, and as President Barack Obama awaits recommendations this week from his task force on gun-related crime.
Researchers who have evaluated gun control strategies say buybacks - despite their popularity - are among the least effective ways to reduce gun violence. They say targeted police patrols, intervention efforts with known criminals and, to a lesser extent, tougher gun laws all work better than buybacks.
The biggest weakness of buybacks, which offer cash or gift cards for guns, is that the firearms they usually collect are insignificant when measured against the arsenal now in the hands of American citizens.
The government estimates there are more than 310 million guns in America today, nearly enough to arm every man, woman and child in the country.
"They make for good photo images," said Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem Oriented Policing, based at the University of Wisconsin's law school. "But gun buyback programs recover such a small percentage of guns that it's not likely to make much impact."
The relatively small number of guns recovered isn't the only problem, Scott said. Buyback programs tend to attract people who are least likely to commit crimes and to retrieve guns that are least likely to be used in crimes.
Scott and others say violent criminals - the people who do most of the shooting and killing - steer clear of buyback programs unless they're trying to make some quick cash by selling a weapon they don't want anymore.
That means buyback campaigns more often end up with hunting rifles or old revolvers from someone's attic than with automatic weapons from the trunk of a criminal's car.
"They don't get a lot of crime guns off the street," said Matt Makarios, a criminal justice professor who studied buyback programs while at the University of Cincinnati in 2008. "You're only going to reduce the likelihood of gun crimes if you reduce the number of guns used in crimes."
A buyback in Tucson, Ariz., last week collected about 200 firearms, many of them old or inoperable, in exchange for about $10,000 worth of grocery gift cards. A fewhundred feet away, gun dealers set up tables and offered cash for any guns in good enough condition to resell.
"Every gun that came in was an old gun, no assault weapons," Tom Ditsch, who watched the event, told The Associated Press. "They didn't even take any weapons off the streets."
Supporters: Buybacks save lives
Even with their shortcomings, Makarios said buyback programs have a few things going for them. They raise awareness about a serious problem. They also rally community groups to get more involved.
And they really do collect guns, an average of about 30 per event. Some big-city buybacks in Los Angeles and Seattle have brought in 2,000 or more guns in a single day.
When BLOC Ministries held a buyback two years ago in Cincinnati, it became a neighborhood happening that involved several churches and community groups. The program netted 50 guns, most of them old pistols and rifles.
Dwight Young, the director of BLOC Ministries, said he knows statistics show buybacks don't put a dent in serious street crime. But he said the effort is worthwhile because, even if it doesn't address the big problem, it still might save a few lives.
During the buyback, Young said a worried mom brought in a handgun she'd found in her 16-year-old daughter's purse. The girl had been holding the gun for her boyfriend when her mom discovered it.
"Who knows what would have been done with that?" Young said. "We have to assume that we deterred some kind of crime, even if statistically it doesn't show. I have to believe it's worth the time."
The United States is far and away the world's leader in gun-related deaths, with more than 31,000 a year. Organizers of the upcoming buybacks in Cincinnati say takingsome kind of action is better than doing nothing.
"If we can save one life, if we can stop one act of violence, if we can get a gun out of one person's hands, we have made progress in the fight to end violence in our communities," said Ennis Tait, pastor of Church of the Living God in Avondale.
But some say that energy could be better put to use in other ways. Alex Tabarrok, research director of the nonpartisan Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., said investing in buyback programs makes little sense when study after study shows they don't work.
A few researchers believe buybacks may even do some harm: A 1999 article in the Law and Order journal found that some people sold guns to police during buybacks and then used the money to buy new guns.
Tabarrok said buybacks consume thousands of dollars, most of it donated, that would be better spent on police overtime to put more officers on the street, or on other law enforcement efforts that are more likely to have an impact.
Programs 'badly flawed'
Measuring the effectiveness of buybacks is tricky, given all the things that can influence crime rates. But several studies over the years have examined the weapons retrieved during buybacks and the level of gun violence in the months after the events.
Most reached the same conclusion: The guns collected usually aren't the type used in crimes, and the impact of the buybacks on crime was "not statistically significant."
So what does work? Makarios, now a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, said more stringent gun laws that limit access to certain weapons or require background checks are slightly more effective in reducing violence than gun buybacks. But not much more.
The most successful efforts involve old-fashioned police work, in which officers, probation departments and other law enforcement agencies work together to identify and target the biggest threats.
One program, known as "focused intervention," singles out people with a history of criminal activity so police and probation officers can keep close tabs on them.
The approach is part carrot, part stick. Officers meet with high-risk individuals regularly to offer help through social service agencies - and to remind them they will land back in prison if they commit new crimes.
"It is focused on those people who are more likely to be involved in gun violence," said Capt. Paul Humphries of Cincinnati police, which uses the program.
He wouldn't discuss gun buyback programs, but police across the country are divided on the issue.
Scott, of the Center for Problem Oriented Policing, said most police departments now see buybacks as either a distraction, or as a harmless way to mobilize community groups. He said few believe they will solve the problem.
"There's some merit to them," he said. "But if they're done with an eye to reducing intentional gun violence, there's not much evidence they will."