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How Come Thoughts and Prayers Don’t End Gun Violence?

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              So, yesterday, somebody evidently walked into a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, pulled out a gun, and by the time he or she was finished shooting the place up, at least five people were dead, and another dozen were injured.

              This time, the thought and prayers were first sent out by the nightclub itself, which also praised some patrons for how quickly they subdued the individual who had the gun.

              The reason I’m not yet sure about the gender of the shooter is that the club, Club Q, isn’t just another place which wants gay patrons to feel welcome. In fact, it promotes itself as an LBGTQ club, not just some gay club, okay?

              Remember back in 2016 when a guy killed 49 people and wounded 53 more at a gay nightclub in Orlando? There were thoughts and prayers all over the place after that mass shooting took place. For that matter, when 58 people were shot to death at a rock concert in Las Vegas and hundreds were injured, even Donald Trump got onto the thoughts and prayers bandwagon following that 2017 event.

              The truth is, there’s only one way that we will get rid of mass shootings, which continue not occur with an almost banal frequency in the United States. And that way is to get rid of the guns which are used to commit mass shootings, meaning guns which shoot military-style ammunition from bottom-loading, semi-automatic guns.

              Note that I say ‘get rid of’ those guns. Not ‘control’ those guns. Not ‘better regulate’ those guns. Get rid of the goddamn guns, period.

              I have been writing about guns and gun violence for more than ten years, and during that time, at least 160,000 Americans have died because someone stuck a loaded gun in their faces, pulled the trigger and – blam! 

              The pro-gun gang of course explains this loss of lives as the price we have to pay to protect our 2nd-Amendment ‘rights.’ The anti-gun gang, on the other hand, says that we can solve the problem by a) getting more research funds from the CDC; b) pass laws which allow people to request that guns be taken away from individuals after they behave in a menacing way; c) ban the sale of new semi-automatic guns but let the 100 million semi-auto guns that are already out there remain in place.

              This is all bullsh*t on both sides, and everyone knows it’s bullsh*t, by the way. But in a country of 326 million people, another ten or twenty thousand unnecessary deaths each year is no big deal, particularly when you can use those deaths to send out an appeal for more funds.

              I have a friend named Mike Hirsh, who is a physician at U/Mass. Memorial Hospital in Worcester, MA. He has gotten together with Pina Violano, the Injury Prevention Coordinator at Yale – New haven Hospital, and together these two individuals (and some others) are committed to doing the one thing that will ever make a difference to gun-violence rates in this country, which is to promote and organize gun buybacks in communities throughout the United States.

              So far in 2022, Hirsh and Violano have become aware of 58 buybacks that have been held in 15 states, but there are probably other buyback events which have occurred. Of course, if you listen to some of the gun-control experts out there, gun buybacks ‘don’t work.’ This is the judgement of Garen Wintemute, who is invariably quoted by the media in a town where a buyback has just taken place.

              But Wintemute doesn’t know what he’s talking about because a voluntary return of guns is not and should not be judged as a program to reduce gun violence. Rather, the whole point of a buyback, which is not a confiscation of guns, is to get people thinking about and talking about the risk to community safety represented by guns.

              Right now, somewhere around 60% of all Americans believe that a home containing a gun is a safer place than a home without a gun. And since maybe 40% of all American homes contain a legal gun, obviously there are lots of non-gun owners out there who also think that having that old Smith & Wesson lying around is a good thing.

              Now the fact that research published thirty years ago indisputably found that access to guns creates medical risk shouldn’t be taken as the last word on why every red-blooded American should own a gun. After all, what do scientists know that the NRA doesn’t know, right?

              I still don’t understand why the gun-control community continues to twist itself in knots to avoid saying what needs to be said, which is the way you reduce a risk to health is to get rid of the risk. Or should we try to reduce the health risks from contaminated water by telling everyone to buy bottled water at Costco and stay away from the tap?

              Maybe that’s what we should be telling those poor bastards who drank poisoned water at Camp LeJeune.

              I hate to break it to some of my public health or medical friends, but there’s no way you can make a Glock ‘safe.’ Gaston Glock didn’t design his gun to be ‘safe.’ He designed his gun to be used to end human life. That’s the only reason for anyone to buy, own and walk around with a Glock or another similar type of gun. Cops? Yep. Everyone else? Nope.

              Would it hurt Mike Bloomberg’s bank account to fund a gun buyback in all 50 states? He can be reached at mike@mikebloomberg.com.

Do Gun Buybacks Work? They Sure Do.

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              If I had a nickel for every time that someone who has absolutely no knowledge at all about guns either refers to himself as a gun ‘expert’ or writes a featured column in a major media outlet about guns even though everything he says is wrong, I really could spend all my time at my club’s golf course which, by the way, opened (yay!!!) today.

              The latest so-called gun expert to rear his head is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Peter Nickeas, who just did a piece on gun buybacks in Chicago for CNN. The Windy City’s Mayor, Lori Lightfoot, is trying to raise a million bucks to do two big buyback every year, but Nickeas knows that the buybacks won’t do very much to help reduce Chicago’s endless gun violence.

              How does he know this? Because he’s read all the so-called studies about gun buybacks done by all the other so-called gun ‘experts’ and the studies all show that gun buybacks don’t work, or at least they don’t take guns away from people who shouldn’t have guns.

              There’s only one little problem with this now-universal belief held by all the experts on how and why gun buybacks don’t work. Not one of these scholars understands how to judge the effectiveness of a gun buyback, so to make a judgement about the effectiveness of something when you don’t know how to define what you are trying to figure out, is an exercise in what Grandpa would call ‘bupkes,’ (read: nonsense) even if it gets you published in some academic journal and quoted on CNN.

              The latest piece of scholarly nonsense which shows that gun buybacks don’t work was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) which is the research outfit required by Congress to determine when a recession starts and when it ends. So, when it comes to knowing how to use economic data, NBER knows what it’s doing, okay?

              This paper is chock-full of data – graphs, charts, statistical formulations, the whole bit. Too bad the research team has absolutely no idea how the value of a gun buyback should be judged. For that matter, they don’t even seem to know how to define a gun buyback because the first buyback they mention was the gun buyback which occurred in Australia in 1996, a nationwide effort which they claim had ‘mixed’ results.

              The Australian effort, however, shouldn’t be compared to any gun buyback that has ever occurred in the United States. In Australia, the government decided that certain kinds of guns that had been legally purchased could no longer be legally owned and had to be turned in – but here’s the kicker – with the owners given compensation at the fair-market price. In other words, the Australian buyback wasn’t a buyback as we use that word here; it was a forcible confiscation of legal property, which you can’t do in our system unless you pay the owners what that property is worth.

              How do you compare that kind of an effort to community-based programs where nobody is required to turn in a gun and when they do show up and hand over a gun they don’t want or need, they are given a gift card that can be redeemed at a local store? You don’t make such a comparison if you know anything about guns.

              The authors of the NBER paper then go on to use FBI crime data (NIBRS reports) to assess gun violence before and after339 gun buybacks in 277 cities between 1991 and 2015.

Looking at NIBRS numbers for a year prior to a year following each buyback, the overall results in gun violence was basically little or no change.

              All this quantitative and statistical analysis really proves is that we are a country which is obsessed with numbers and if you don’t use statistics to make or prove an argument, nobody takes you seriously and you’ll wait until what Grandpa would call ‘shabbos noch schvi’ (read: Saturday after a religious holiday) to get published in an academic journal and list the article on your CV.

              The value and importance of a gun buyback is simply this: It’s an opportunity to spread the word about gun violence and the risk of gun access in a city or a town. And believe it or not, there are lots of well-meaning people out there who don’t realize that the gun in their home represents any kind of risk.

The real value of a gun buyback can’t be quantified by the number of guns that are turned in or whether violent crimes crime goes up or down. Rather, it’s a question of changing community culture which is always a slow and difficult task.

Anyone who thinks that something as complicated and multi-faceted as violence committed with or without guns doesn’t know anything about violence and certainly doesn’t know anything about guns.

Chicago Wants To Reduce Gun Violence By Doing A Gun Buyback That Isn’t A Buyback.

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              There’s a self-styled entrepreneur in the neighborhood where I work who walks around every day with a shopping cart picking up empty bottles and cans. When his shopping cart is full, he goes to some redemption center, dumps the bottles and cans in some kind of big machine which turns them into metal and glass that can be used to make more bottles and cans. Then he gets some cash, goes home and the whole process begins again the next day.

              This guy does particularly well in the summer months because that’s when everyone’s sitting outside on the stoop drinking soda and beer to keep cool. Most of the neighborhood folks dump their empties in a garbage can next to their homes which makes it easier for this guy to fill up his shopping cart without having to run around picking up just one can here or one bottle there.

              I started thinking about my neighborhood can and bottle collector when I read a media story out of Chicago where Mayor Lori Lightfoot has announced a new program to reduce gun violence by paying residents of the 2nd City to turn in unwanted guns. She’s setting up a million-dollar fund which will be used to pay anyone who brings a gun to the police – details to be forthcoming soon.

              What Mayor Lightfoot is referring to as a “bold and creative action” is no different than what happens at gun buybacks which take place in various cities from time to time. In New York, the Attorney General has been sponsoring gun buybacks in different cities since 2013 and has collected more than 3,200 guns.

              Do gun buybacks work? It depends on what you mean by using the word ‘work.’ There doesn’t seem to be any direct connection between the number of guns collected in a buyback and the before-and-after stats on violent crime. But there does seem to be some value in buybacks because they alert the community both to the issue of gun violence, as well as helping to promote more governmental and police attention to reducing the violence caused by guns.

              What bothers me about the Chicago program, however, is not whether the buyback will work or won’t work. The problem is that the program is designed, according to Mayor Lightfoot, to incentivize people to turn in ‘illegal’ guns.

“We need everyone’s help to make sure we are doing everything we can to address this horrible plague of illegal firearms,” says Her Honor, the Mayor.

Actually, the good citizens of Chicago don’t have to turn up at the po-leece and drop off an ‘illegal’ gun. All they have to do is give the cops a ‘tip’ as to where the cops can find an illegal gun. 

So, this program isn’t a gun buyback. It’s a gun tip-off. Call the cops, tell them that so-and-so next door has a gun he’s not supposed to have, and you get some kind of reward.

Did it ever occur to Mayor Lightfoot that crimes are usually solved because the cops get an ‘anonymous’ tip? How can you give an anonymous tip about a gun crime if you want to get a reward? And by definition, anyone in possession of an ‘illegal’ gun has already committed a crime.

I don’t want to play Friday morning quarterback but to me, this scheme (to quote Grandpa) sounds pretty fa-cocktd.  Over the July 4th weekend, the Windy City celebrated our country’s independence with 104 people shot, of whom 19 were killed. In other words, we have a gun-violence pandemic in Chicago which is much worse than the pandemic from Covid-19.

Over the July 4th weekend, an average of 5 persons were admitted to a Chicago hospital for Covid-19 illness each day. Admissions to hospitals for gun injuries should be so low.

Back in 2007, our good friend Kathy Kaufer Christoffel published a fundamental article on gun violence, “Firearm Injuries: Epidemic Then, Endemic Now.” 

I think we need to give Dr. Christoffel’s article a new title because gun injuries were epidemic back then, but for sure they are pandemic now.

Should We Ban Assault Rifles?

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              I normally don’t watch the Democratic debates because it’s still too early in the primary season and no matter who ends up with the nomination I’m going to vote blue every, single time. You see, I have this congenital physical ailment which when I get into a voting booth and reach for the Republican lever, my arm gets paralyzed and I can’t vote. I’m a bone fide gun nut and a yellow-dog Democrat and I’m proud of both.

              So I didn’t watch the debate last night but I did happen to see commentaries about the exchange between Buttigieg and Beto over Beto’s call for a mandatory buyback of AR-15’s. As I understand it, the media has decided that the Democrats are split between a ‘middle’ led by Joe and a ‘radical’ led maybe by Bernie, maybe by Warren, maybe by Ocasio, blah, blah, blah and blah. And the media has further decided that Buttigieg is somewhere in the middle while Beto is somewhere on the extreme. And what the media has decided is the acid test for where these two guys perch is over the issue of getting rid of AR-15’s.

              Now who would have ever thought that any kind of gun issue would be used to define the basic stance of the candidate who wants to lead the blue ticket in the national election next year?  I can see defining the candidates on something like universal health care, or whether or not to ‘tax the rich,’ or some other issue which hits in the middle of the must-do zone. But guns?

              Anyway, the argument between Buttigieg and Beto erupted because the kid from Texas has opted for a mandatory buyback of assault rifles, while Buttigieg wants to try and remain somehow relevant to Gun-nut Nation by saying that we can ask but shouldn’t require that gun owners turn over those lethal guns. And the way that Buttigieg is framing the argument is to challenge Beto to explain exactly how he is going to force assault-rifle owners to turn over their guns.

              Beto doesn’t yet have a plan to invoke the coercive authority of the government to get rid of all those black guns, but why should he be made to come clean on this issue when Liz Warren has promised to reduce gun violence by 80 percent without yet producing any plan at all? And let me tell you something about Lizzie; she produces position papers on just about everything under the sun. But so far we still don’t know how 120,000 fatal and non-fatal gun injuries each year will be cut down to 20,000 or less. So why should we expect Beto to explain how the government will pick up and throw out some crummy, semi-automatic guns?

              If this is the best that Buttigieg can do to vault himself ahead of Beto in the polls, I think he should go back to South Bend and figure out to keep the city parks neat and clean. That’s what municipal mayors are paid to do – collect the garbage, sweep the streets, make sure that everyone scoops up their doggie doo-doo, essential city services like that.  If someone asked me to go out and campaign for Buttigieg after he challenged Beto on something as stupid as whether an assault weapon buyback should be mandatory or not, to quote my old friend Jimmy Breslin, rather I should go lay brick.

              Mandating or not mandating a buyback of assault rifles isn’t going to make any great difference in how we deal with the violence caused by guns. What a buyback does, mandated or not, is to keep the issue of gun lethality where it belongs, namely, whether people understand the risks inherent in owning certain kinds of guns.

If you want to own an assault rifle and assume the risk, that’s fine. We all do risky things every day. But anyone who tells you that an AR-15 is just another ‘sporting’ gun is either lying or doesn’t know anything about guns.

Want To End Gun Violence? Here’s A City That Did.

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              The city of Worcester, MA contains all the ingredients which usually create the environment in which gun violence flourishes.  The city’s population is 180,000, of which roughly 30% are Black and Hispanic minorities living in cramped, inner-city neighborhoods. It was a red-brick factory manufacturing center until World War II and then collapsed. It has lately experienced the beginning of a downtown renewal with medical and hi-tech sectors coming on board, it also happens to be one of America’s twenty cities experiencing the highest rate of increase in poverty over the last five years.

              Here are the gun-violence numbers for the last five years: 2014 – 47; 2015 – 40; 2016 – 30; 2017 – 25; 2018 – 20. Of the five homicides committed in 2018, how many happened with the use of a gun? None. Not one.

              How did this happen?  How does this city now experience a gun-violence (homicide and aggravated assault) of 11 per 100,000, when the national rate is 28.5?  And by the way, it was accomplished without a single dime being spent on any kind of street-corner, ‘cure violence’ type of program, without first conducting any kind of public health gun-violence research, without locking them all up and throwing away the key. Arrests in 2017 were 6,084, in 2018 arrests were 5,358.

              It happened for one, simple reason, which is often forgotten or ignored in the endless discussions and debates about gun violence, namely, a coming-together of all the city’s community safety stakeholders and a decision to address the problem in multiple and coordinated ways.

              What does this involve? First and foremost, this means the cops. And what the Worcester PD has done is to treat every shooting event as a homicide; in other words, maximum resources are deployed even if the victim is barely hurt. Incidentally, a shooting ‘incident’ even includes events where nobody gets hurt due to the use of ‘shot spotter’ technology in specific neighborhoods and an immediate police response when any gun goes off. The PD also carries out a major program in community policing, with continuous meetings in every neighborhood which gives everyone the opportunity to develop positive relationships with the police.

              For those dopes who are arrested for carrying a gun, sentences handed down by the court are as stiff in instances where the gun is brandished even if it doesn’t go off. In other words, when guns are involved, no distinction is made between an actual and a possible assault. The police also have discretion as to who gets a gun license and they exercise this discretion with care. Finally, 2019 will mark the 18th consecutive year for the city’s gun buyback program, which notwithstanding the bad press that buybacks have received from certain gun-violence experts, is an event which helps generate community concern about the risk of guns.

              The University of Massachusetts medical school is also located in Worcester and medical residents and students are afforded exposure to the gun violence issue in multiple ways. They can learn about gun violence in the community-health module which they all must take, a learning experience which includes seminars with cops and gun owners (that’s me,) as well as being encouraged to develop techniques to counsel patients about the risks of guns.

              Worcester’s extraordinary achievement in dealing with gun violence isn’t rocket science. Pardon me for sounding a bit like Sarah Palin (who?) but it seems to come down to a combination of hard work, commitment by multiple stakeholding agencies and common sense. One of my good friends in Worcester, Michael Hirsh, is the pediatric surgeon at the medical center/medical school who runs the gun buyback program each year. He describes the reduction in gun violence as a white uniform, blue uniform collaboration can focus resources both in a proactive manner before the violence occurs, as well as a quick reactive response to both shooters and victims every time a gun goes off.

              For all of us who lament the unending cycle of gun violence in the United States, here’s an instance of where the reverse is true.

Gun Buybacks Work.

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              Earlier this week the North Dakota House of Representatives passed a bill, HB1381, which earns those legislators this year’s award for the single, dumbest piece of legislation enacted anywhere in the United States. The bill not only outlaws taxpayer dollars from being used to fund gun buybacks, but also makes it a misdemeanor for any police agency to support a buyback.

              The supporters of the bill cited a study by Professor Scott Phillips, a former Houston cop who now teaches criminology at SUNY-Buffalo.  He published a paper in 2013 which basically said that gun buybacks don’t work. Why don’t they work?  Because in the city of Buffalo, where gun buybacks collected more than 3,000 guns in buybacks held between 2007 and 2012, rates of gun homicides, gun assaults and gun robberies showed no impact on reducing these crimes.

              Phillips concludes, “Gun buy-back programmes appear to satisfy a local administrator’s need for instant solutions to a problem, despite a lack of evidence demonstrating effectiveness as a violence reduction strategy. If we are to have a meaningful impact on crime,” he adds, “we must enact policies that are based on empirical evidence and not emotion.” Obviously, the North Dakota legislators voted with their heads, not their hearts, right?

              Wrong. Totally and completely wrong. So wrong that anyone who thinks that the value of a buyback can be reduced to a regression analysis comparing number of guns collected to number of gun crimes committed knows nothing either about guns or crimes committed with guns, or both.

              Take a city like Buffalo, where I once spent a lovely afternoon in Ralph Wilson Stadium (now called New Era Stadium) watching Bruce Smith totally demolish the Miami Dolphins offensive line. Last year, Erie County, a.k.a. Buffalo, had the highest gun homicide rate of any county in New York State. Know why there were so many shootings in Erie County? Nobody knows why, okay?  We can assume that one of the reasons for so much gun violence is that there are so many illegal guns floating around. How many illegal guns are floating around in Buffalo?  We have absolutely no idea. Not only don’t we know how many guns are floating around in the ‘wrong hands’ in Buffalo, we don’t know how many guns that might be used to commit a felonious assault are floating around anywhere else.

              If I wanted to do a study, for example, on the outcome of a smoking cessation campaign, I would simply compare the number of people smoking before the campaign started and after the campaign came to an end. But somehow this basic approach for designing a study on the effectiveness of gun buybacks disappears. The first measure of a gun buyback’s impact should be the degree to which the buyback reduced the number of guns. Without that measurement, comparing the numbers of guns taken off the street to the number of guns being used in the street is nothing more than an exercise in self-fulfilling statistical prophecy, or better said, self-fulfilling sophistry.

              I have been involved with a gun buyback program which is now in its 18th year. The program started in Worcester, MA and has now spread to 5 states. We conduct these buybacks in conjunction with Level 1 trauma centers in each state, the buyback sites staffed by medical students and physicians talking  directly to community residents who show up to get rid of their guns.

              What comes out of these interactions is the fact that the buyback gives people, without any threat of government intervention, the ability to decide for themselves whether a gun in their home represents a risk. Until and unless our culture begins to embrace the idea that guns constitute an unnecessary threat to safety, well-being and health, you can pass what Professor Phillips calls laws based on ‘empirical evidence’ and things won’t change worth a damn.

              To quote LaNyia Johnson, a young man who will spend his entire life in a wheelchair thanks to taking a bullet in the spine: “I wish you could have collected one more gun.”

Gun Buybacks Don’t Work? Fake News.

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              I haven’t seen figures for the entire year, but if what happened in Baltimore this past  October had any predictive value, this year’s homicide number might come close  to the all-time homicide number set in 2017.  Which is why I found the media response to a year-end gun  buyback program conducted by the Baltimore Police Department to be not only puzzling, but frankly, stupidly-wrong as well.

              Here was the headline in the Baltimore Sun: “Gun buybacks don’t work.”  To bolster this viewpoint, the reporter, Max Meizlish, went on and on about how the decision to pay Baltimore residents $25 for a high-capacity gun magazine, with a limit of 2 magazines per donor, made the program “ripe for abuse.” 

              Why?  Because according to Meizlish, you can buy a hi-cap magazine on the internet for $9 to $15, which means that a quick online purchase followed by a trip to the buyback site would net someone at least a profit of $10 bucks.  To sum up, “Anyone looking for a quick payday need not look any further; the City of Baltimore was apparently ready and eager to double their money at the taxpayer’s expense.”

              I always thought that the Baltimore Sun, which has been around since before the Civil War, maintained some degree of journalistic standards. But everyone in the editorial department must have been out celebrating the holidays when Meizlish submitted this article which is simply wrong and simply dumb.

              Let’s start with his claim, without any source at all, that hi-cap magazines are available on the internet for $9 bucks. The website that specializes in discounted gun accessories is known as Cheaper Than Dirt.  Get it, cheaper than dirt? Here’s a link to the page which allows you to drill down and purchase hi-cap magazines for just about any caliber and any gun. I surfed through the magazines for Glock, Beretta, Kahr and CZ, brand names of handguns commonly found in the street. Know how many magazines they are selling for less than $25 bucks?  None. 

And by the way, if you live in Maryland and decide to buy a hi-cap mag from Cheaper Than Dirt, when you put in the shipping address and/or the zip code of your credit card, the purchase won’t go through. Hi-cap magazines are illegal in Maryland, as they are in a number of other states, and the online sellers are wary about getting hit with a visit from the ATF because they shipped one of these magazines to a resident of what is known, thanks to George Washington, as The Old Line State.

Incidentally, if you read through Meizlish’s entire story, he repeats again and again that the Baltimore buyback was a dud, but you might notice that nowhere does he state the number of guns or hi-cap magazines that were actually turned in. Now you would think that if he was so intent on proving that the buyback was nothing more than a scam at taxpayer’s expense, at the very least he would tell us how much this useless effort actually cost the public purse. 

Here’s Meizlish’s ultimate judgement on Baltimore’s gun buyback program: “Perhaps instead of doling out dollars to support these buybacks, Baltimore City’s elected officials could find a way to better support law enforcement and increase the number of officers patrolling the city’s streets. Tried and true policing produces results. Misguided and poorly executed buybacks do not.”

Let me break the news to this reporter who knows absolutely nothing about buybacks or guns.  Gun violence isn’t going to be reduced with an either-or approach.  A buyback is one of many tools which need to be used in our efforts to protect our communities from the threat represented by guns. But to say that until and unless Baltimore puts enough cops on the street, that buybacks are a waste of money and time is to say something that is simply not true.

Sorry Max, but your story is nothing more than fake news.

Gun Buybacks Work.

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Next Saturday, December 15, my friends at Worcester Memorial Hospital and U/Mass Medical School are going to sponsor their 17th annual gun buyback that will run all day in the city of Worcester and many of the surrounding towns. This effort is the brainchild of Dr. Michael Hirsh, the pediatric surgeon at Memorial who first started thinking about gun violence when his classmate in the residency program at Columbia Medical School, John Wood, was gunned down across the street from the hospital in 1981.  You can learn more about the Worcester buyback program here.

The Worcester buyback is a partnership between the hospital and the city’s Police Department, or what Dr. Hirsh calls ‘white coats – blue coats,’ and the pic above shows Worcester DA Joe Early handing Hirsh a nice check.  The same buyback with the same white coat – blue coat effort will take place on the same day at New Haven and Hartford with Yale and U/Conn medical schools/hospitals involved, as well as in Springfield, MA with the involvement of the city’s cops and teaching hospital, and maybe several more sites still to be announced.  The choice of dates is not accidental; the buybacks are always conducted on the weekend closest to the anniversary of Sandy Hook.

When Mike Hirsh did his first buyback in 2002, the concept of giving in unwanted guns for a cash card here and there had been going on for at least forty years, but generally speaking, such activities received a bad press. Some of this negative image came from the work of criminologists, other findings about the limited value of buybacks came out of public health. There has also been a lot of mixed news about the 1996 buyback in Australia, although comparing a government-mandated gun turn-in where owners are fairly compensated for giving up legally-owned property to a community-run, voluntary turn-in effort is like comparing riding to work in a car as opposed to riding to work on a horse.

One of the leading scholars who used to find little value in buybacks is Garen Wintemute, who is quoted in an interview with NPR as saying that the ‘symbolic impact’ of buybacks is ‘important,’ whatever that means. Wintemute published some research on the effect of buybacks held in Milwaukee in 1994-1996, he compared the collected guns to the types of guns connected to gun fatalities and concluded that most of the donated guns were not the types that were used in gun violence; hence, buybacks don’t work. In 2013, Wintemure revisited the issue again and this time decided that buybacks, if coordinated with other initiatives, such as increasing community awareness about gun violence, were an effective tool. 

With all due respect to Wintemute and his research colleagues, the December 15 buyback led by Dr. Hirsh and other clinicians not only meets all the criteria mentioned by public health scholars as making buybacks a credible pathway towards reducing gun violence, but by basing these buybacks on a collaboration with medical centers, they do something much more important as well.

In fact, it was Wintemute himself (and Marian Betz) who published an important essay calling for physicians to become versent in the language and culture that would help them counsel patients on gun violence, in particular patients who appear to be at immediate risk. This article is regularly cited in every professional medical journal which carries articles on physicians and guns.

The reason that Dr. Hirsh and his buyback team focus their attention on participation by medical centers is that their buybacks serve as a practical, hands-on teaching opportunity for medical residents, medical school students and hospital staff. When community residents show up to donate a gun, they are asked to fill out an anonymous form which gives them an opportunity to explain why they decided to get rid of the gun.  The form is IRB-approved, more than 500 have been collected to date, and at some point the entire collection will be analyzed and sent to a peer-reviewed journal to be read by the public at large.  You can download the form here.  

Without going into specific details because the pre-publication analysis is not yet done, I can say that roughly half of the people who have completed the questionnaire to date state that they wanted to get rid of the gun because it represents a risk to themselves and others in the home.  In other words, what the buyback does is give people not just an opportunity to think about gun violence, but to make a decision, without government intervention of any kind, that having a gun around the home is too much of a risk. Now it happens to be the case that a majority of Americans believe the reverse; namely, that a gun is more of a benefit than a risk. Beyond what Mike Hirsh has been doing for the last 17 years, I don’t know a single activity being conducted by anyone in the medical community  which gives gun owners an opportunity to vote the other way.

More important than just the message about gun risk is the fact that at every buyback location you will find physicians and medical students from the cooperating medical centers engaging community residents in discussions about why they showed up to get rid of a gun. It’s all fine and well for public health researchers to state that doctors need to be mindful of ‘cultural values’ when talking to patients about guns, but how many times have these public health researchers stood next to a gun owner and ask why he is turning in a gun?  And by the way, for all the talk about gun buybacks being more successful if the value of the gift cards were increased, in fact, probably half the donors who show up at the Worcester buyback don’t ask for a gift card at all. “I don’t like that store,” one guy said to me last year as he rejected my offer to give him a gift card.

For the first time since the last Ice Age (actually since 1993) Worcester didn’t suffer a single gun homicide in 2017, non-fatal shootings totalled 24. Three years earlier, there were 7 gun homicides, the number of aggravated gun assaults was 38.  This dramatic reduction isn’t a function of the buyback program by any means; the cops now have ShotSpotter technology, they deploy patrol resources in a more effective way, community programs keep the kids busy after school and repeat offenders are taken off the streets.

But the point is that Mike Hirsh’s buyback program has become part of the social fabric of the community, it is also an important activity for educating medical staff, and its value should not be judged in quantitative terms. Seventeen years ago one person decided to do something to help make his community a nicer place in which to live. And year after year, his idea and commitment continues to spread.

What Happens When Someone Turns In Their Guns.

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What is it about guns that sometimes brings out the absolute worst, most debased forms of human behavior? On the one hand we have gun owners who decide to check into a hotel, take a room on the 32nd floor, and then fire hundreds of rounds into a concert-going crowd to see how many people they can kill. On the other hand, when the word gets around on social media that someone voluntarily got rid of his guns because of what happened in Vegas on October 1st, that individual is subject to a barrage of the most vile, disgusting and stupid online attacks that could be imagined, up to and including threats on his life.

LV2            I’m not making this up.  Last week a resident of Phoenix, Jonathan Pring, turned in a pistol and a rifle to the Phoenix PD and then made the mistake of putting up a post on Facebook in which he stuck a video of the guns being given to the cops along with a statement that he was taking this step because of the shooting at the Mandalay Bay.  Within hours, he began receiving countless insults, profanities and even threats to his business and his life, with such comments as “someone needs to go shoot this idiot and make him wish he could have defended himself,” being not all that crazy compared to others he received. And this particular comment came from a self-described three-percenter who, of course, makes a point of telling everyone how patriotic she is on her own Facebook page.

What I find interesting about these online outbursts, and I am a target of such attacks all the time, is that such activity often reflects the degree to which much of the chatter on social media is nothing more than the attempt by childish minds (regardless of the age of the body in which this mind is contained) to outdo one another in terms of who can say something more offensive than what the previous post actually said.  And frequently these unreconstructed idiots belong to social media groups which basically exist to allow all the members to engage in this one-upmanship behavior by identifying and targeting individuals who express a contrary point of view.

On the other hand, what really bothered me about the reaction to Pring’s principled and selfless decision to turn his guns in after the Las Vegas rampage was not the fact that his online video attracted some gun-rights crazies to crawl out from under their rocks. Much more disturbing was the fact that his actions were basically ignored by the gun violence prevention (GVP) community who should have been spreading the news of his decision as far and as wide as they could.

If I had a nickel for every time that some GVP advocate or influencer complains about the ‘power,’ of the NRA without mentioning the degree to which opposition to the NRA on social media is so tepid and weak. When some deputy sheriff from Podunk makes a statement about how he supports concealed-carry, the NRA shouts out the message from here to kingdom come. But here’s a guy who made a remarkable statement about the risk of legal gun ownership and the GVP responds to his message with a big yawn. Shouldn’t the Brady Campaign invite Jonathan Pring to come to DC and accept an award? Shouldn’t Gabby and Mark fly out to meet with him? God knows they go everywhere else.

If GVP is ever going to reverse the continued growth of support for gun ‘rights,’ even among people who don’t own guns, their activists must become much more aggressive about using social media to promote their point of view. The video posted by Jonathan Pring showing him giving his guns to the cops should have been the featured post on every GVP Facebook site. And that’s the way you reach out to a wider audience rather than continuing to talk only to folks who already agree with what you say.

 

Despite What Some People Believe, We Need More Gun Buybacks, Not Less.

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Last week my eye caught an interesting gun article in The New York Times, and it’s not like I often read articles in the NYT that are interesting (or correct, for that matter.) But this was an article about two young men who put together a very successful gun buyback in Los Angeles that collected more than 770 weapons in a one-day program last May, and have taken more than 1,100 guns out of circulation since 2013.

confiscated             The two guys behind this initiative have put together an organization, Gun By Gun, which has been operating on the West Coast but with proper care and feeding could obviously become a national thing. The whole deal is funded through crowd-sourced donations which, according to the NYT article, have collected more than $100,000. But what I really found interesting about this effort was not the amount of money donated or the number of guns taken off the streets, but rather the fact that folks who give in their guns get a Target gift card as their reward.  I’ll come back to the significance of that fact in a bit.

But meanwhile I first have to spend a bit of time discussing the manner in which our dear public health friends have viewed the question of gun buybacks, because the truth is that the narrative they have developed about buybacks misses the basic point of such programs, which means that public health gun violence researchers simply get it wrong.

Over the years there have been a number of gun buyback programs whose results have been analyzed by some of our leading public health gun researchers, including Frederick Rivara and Garen Wintemute, along with a summary published by the National Academies in 2004. These articles basically say the same thing, namely, that gun buybacks are ineffective because people turn in old or broken guns whereas the guns which are used in felonies remain in the street. And of course it’s impossible to prove any direct connection between the number of guns which are turned in and whether or not this has any effect on crime, and if you can’t make some kind of connection or what public health loves to call ‘association’ between two sets of facts, then you can’t assume that anything has happened at all.

I would never challenge my friends in the public health community when it comes to understanding or using data about guns or gun violence and I would certainly never even hint at the idea that public health research on gun violence shouldn’t be continued and, if anything, increased in scope and size. But by casting the academic discussion about the value of gun buyback programs in terms of being able to measure results, and public health researchers simply can’t detach themselves from their never-ending commitment to measuring whatever they look at, the discussion about the importance and value of buybacks is pushed in the wrong direction and is simply never discussed or understood.

The real value of gun buybacks, the reason that such programs need to be expanded into every community which suffers from any degree of gun violence, is that when a buyback program occurs, it gets everyone in the community thinking about guns. And the thoughts have nothing to do with whether guns are a good thing to have around, the thoughts are about the importance and necessity of getting rid of guns.

Gun-nut Nation has done a very effective job of convincing lots of Americans that they would be safer if their home contained a gun. They have done such a good job that they are maybe less than 2 Senate votes away from a new law that would allow everyone to wander throughout the entire United States carrying a gun.

A buyback program is the most effective way of telling a community that guns won’t make them safer and that guns should be turned in. If my friends in the public health community have come up with a better messaging about gun violence, please share it with me.

 

Thank you Margaret Ayres.

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