By Jared D. Childress | OBSERVER Staff Writer
An 81-year-old Black woman waited in line for more than an hour to surrender her firearm at the gun buyback hosted by the Sacramento Police Department at the Public Safety Center on Oct. 22.
“I didn’t want someone to steal it and use it on someone,” she said. The antique shotgun belonged to her husband who, she said, “probably never used it.” So she decided to “get rid of this joker right now.’”
She declined to give her name or be photographed. The event was “no questions asked” with no identification taken, a standard practice at gun buybacks.
Gun violence has rocked Sacramento in recent months, and Black people are disproportionately affected. Blacks make up 50% of shooting and homicide victims, according to data provided by Sac PD.
The 81-year-old was “livid about it.”
“It’s scary and I just don’t understand it,” she said. “They need Jesus in their life. That’s all I can say.”
The event yielded 275 firearms in exchange for $50 gift cards, totalling more than $12,000. Privately manufactured firearms – or “ghost guns” – and other illegally configured firearms were among them, said Sac PD’s press release. Guns were safely stored and will be destroyed later.
Buybacks have gained popularity in the last decade. Many tend to follow mass shootings and gun violence, with Sacramento hosting its first in May after the mass shooting on K Street. Anonymity is routine at buybacks; experts say the tactic is meant to encourage criminals to participate. Although it can be a way to engage the community in public safety efforts, many question whether they curb gun violence. The small-scale programs don’t tend to bring in guns involved in crimes.
Officer Chad Lewis said the event’s purpose was to allow participants to safely discard unwanted firearms.
“My hope is we avoid firearms being stolen from people who could potentially be victimized,” Lewis said. “And prevent any kind of negligence that could involve somebody getting hurt on an accidental discharge of a firearm.”
Buybacks Don’t Directly Curb Gun Violence, Experts Say
Jim Cooper will be sworn in as Sacramento’s sheriff in December. He said the guns turned in are not the firearms primarily used in crimes.
“We see a lot of responsible gun owners bringing in guns that may belong to relatives,” Cooper said. “They’re not turning in illegal guns or ghost guns used in crimes. It’s a tough problem because everybody’s carrying guns with impunity.”
Professor Garen Wintemute runs the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis. His research found that buybacks are usually small-scale, bringing in a few hundred guns. Buybacks would need to be much higher-volume to impact gun violence.
Buybacks “are often thought to reduce the rate of gun violence in a community,” Wintemute said. “But frankly nobody expects them to achieve that.”
One buyback has curbed gun violence, data shows, but it was in Australia. After a gunman killed 35 in 1996, the Australian government instituted a national buyback that spanned 12 months. About 640,000 firearms were purchased from civilians at $350 each. An evaluation of the large-scale buyback found the program substantially decreased gun suicide and gun homicide rates.
No buybacks in the United States have come close to those results. And only recently did buybacks come to California.
After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, Oakland and San Francisco held buybacks in December of that year. The cities collectively brought in about 600 guns.
Sac PD hosted its first buyback in May. “Gas for Guns” brought in 134 firearms, including at least one assault weapon, components for privately manufactured firearms (ghost guns) and other illegally configured weapons. The event came on the heels of the mass shooting on K Street in April that left six dead.
Sacramento has continued to see a rise in gun violence. This past summer, local football coach Gregory Najee Grimes was fatally shot leaving a downtown club in July. In September, five people were shot and killed within 72 hours.
To date, more than 250 gun-related incidents have occurred this year, according to a map created by KCRA 3.
Gun Serial Numbers Are Recorded
Gun buybacks often lead with a “no questions asked” approach that does not identify or keep records of participants. Additionally, the guns are said to be destroyed.
Some citizens are concerned that the “no questions asked” policy can aid and abet criminals by allowing them to destroy evidence.
Wintemute said that is theoretically possible, but unlikely.
“I think a common-sense rule applies here,” Wintemute said. “If I have a gun that has been used in a crime … the last thing I’m going to do is give it to law enforcement. I’m going to destroy it in some other way.”
Officer Ryan Woo said serial numbers are recorded for firearms surrendered at buybacks.
“The main intent with recording the serial numbers is to see if the guns are stolen and if they can be returned to the rightful owner,” Officer Ryan Woo said. “If the record check indicates that the firearm may have been used in a crime, my understanding is that it is kind of a case-by-case basis [whether] it will be used as evidence in any type of criminal case.”
Sac PD wrote in an event press release that “firearms will be safely stored and will be destroyed at a later date.” When asked when they will be destroyed, Woo said he didn’t have a timeline “because of the number we received and in terms of the process.”
Programs Proven To Reduce Gun Violence
Buybacks do have a role in fighting gun violence. It can be a gateway for more impactful community action, Wintemute said.
“If a buyback is what gets them organized, great,” Wintemute said. “But don’t stop there.”
He encouraged folks to work with organizations proven to reduce gun violence, naming Advance Peace as one. The Richmond-based nonprofit has helped break cycles of violence with its Peacemaker Fellowship. The two-year program matches formerly incarcerated people as mentors with victims and perpetrators of gun violence.
That mentorship was a key component, said Founder DeVone Boggan. He explained that reformed firearm offenders are the most credible in working with folks involved in gun violence.
“It just breaks down barriers,” Boggan said. “I think the common lived experience is the most critical part.”
The organization received a four-year, $1.5 million contract with the City of Sacramento in 2018. In 2019 the organization helped reduce gun violence by 18% compared to the previous year. During the COVID-19 pandemic, quarantine and social distancing made it difficult for the program which relied on daily face-to-face interaction. But the organization still showed signs of success.
The city did not renew Advance Peace’s contract. Boggan said the city decided to go in a “very different” direction.
When asked about Sacramento’s recent gun buybacks, Boggan said it’s always good to get guns off the street. But he called the idea that buybacks decrease gun violence “laughable.”
“The evidence has shown that buybacks don’t have a direct impact on gun violence reduction among those at the center of firearm activity,” he said.
Wintemute said the upfront cost of programs such as Advance Peace may be expensive, but in the long term they are most effective.
“For this kind of program, we’re talking about a much larger expenditure of funds. We’re talking about full-time employees,” Wintemute said. He added that buybacks “don’t cost very much money.” They rely heavily on volunteers and take in only a few hundred guns.
Buybacks are just a piece of a larger strategy by Sac PD to address gun violence.
At a June city council meeting, Sac PD unveiled a “violent crime reduction strategy” to increase public safety. The strategy relies on data, identifying the “drivers of violence,” and community engagement.
Chief of Police Katherine Lester said gun buybacks have been well received by community members.
“The community supported really creative ideas like the gun buyback program,” Lester said. She described the Gas for Guns event in May as “hugely successful.”
The success of such programs largely depends on the type of firearm being turned in, Wintemute said.
“It’s good news when gun buybacks bring in ghost guns and assault weapons; they are very much used in crime,” Wintemute said. “It’s not good news when buybacks bring in bolt action rifles that are 100 years old; that’s somebody cleaning out grandpa’s weapons from the closet.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: OBSERVER Editor-in-Chief Stephen Magagnini contributed to this story.