As the conversation on gun control heats up across the country, the New Haven Police Department has taken scores of guns off the streets in three successive gun buyback events over the past month.
Sponsored by the Injury Free Coalition for Kids, a national injury prevention program for children, the buyback program allows Elm City residents to turn in guns, ammunition and weapons safely and anonymously in exchange for gift cards. Last December, the police organized three buybacks, collecting a total of 160 firearms, both legally and illegally purchased. Spreading nationwide in the wake of mass shooting tragedies, gun buybacks have helped reduce the number of legal and illegal firearms in the streets and provided citizens with a process to turn in weapons without fear of prosecution, NHPD spokesman David Hartman said.
Citizens who willingly turn in their weapons to police are guaranteed anonymity and amnesty, even in the case of firearms without permits, Hartman said. No questions are asked about the identity of the participants, but a survey is distributed to collect basic information about how they came into possession of the weapon and their reason for relinquishing it.
“There are millions of guns out there,“ he said. “This is an easy avenue for people to get undesired weapons out of their hands.”
After holding a daylong buyback on Dec. 1, the NHPD decided to organize two additional buyback events in response to the elementary school shooting in Newtown that killed 20 children and 14 adults on Dec. 14.
The last two gun buybacks were held on Dec. 22 and Dec. 28 and netted 128 firearms, said Pina Violano, injury prevention coordinator for Yale-New Haven Hospital. Violano said that the Newtown shooting massacre had a “strong impact” on New Haven residents who were in possession of firearms at the time.
“What happened in Newtown certainly frightened people,” she said “On the survey that we distributed, many people specifically said that they wanted to turn in their guns because of the shooting.”
One of the guns collected in the Dec. 22 buyback was a semiautomatic Bushmaster .223 rifle with a suppressor that is similar to the weapon used in the Newtown shooting. A total of eight potential assault weapons were collected, Hartman said. He added that some of the weapons that were turned in have been linked to violent crime and will be saved as potential evidence.
The rest of the firearms collected will soon be destroyed, Violano said, adding that the NHPD and the Injury Free Coalition for Kids are searching for an artist to melt down the guns and put them to creative use.
“We talked to some students and professors at the Yale Art School, and we’d like to see those guns to be made into a statue, an artwork against gun violence,” Violano said.
The city’s police department launched its buyback program in December 2011, when a total of 60 unloaded firearms were collected in only one day. Since then, the NHPD and the Injury Free Coalition for Kids have organized four more gun buybacks at the New Haven Police Academy, one of which was held in the summer of 2012 and three in last month, Hartman said.
Violano said New Haven modeled its own buyback program after a program in Worcester, Mass., through which over 1,800 guns have been collected since 2002. People who willingly decide to turn in a working weapon are rewarded with a $50 gift card for most guns and a $100 gift card for assault weapons. The gift cards, Violano said, are provided by corporate sponsors and private donors.
Despite the criticism that gun buybacks are ineffective interventions in reducing crime, both Violano and Hartman said the buyback program is primarily intended to reduce unintentional gun-related injuries.
“The general public might think that we want criminals to walk through the door and turn in their weapons, but we understand this is not going to happen,” Hartman said, adding that the majority of the weapons collected through the buybacks are lawfully registered firearms. “Most of these guns belong not to criminals, but to people that have inherited a weapon that they no longer want and that can be stolen.”
Violano agreed that, as an injury prevention program, the focus of the gun buybacks is to remove unwanted arms, which are the cause of thousand of fatal and nonfatal injuries among children every year. About 3,200 children are disabled annually after a gunshot injury, according to the National Pediatric Trauma Registry and the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System.
“Even one gun off the street is one less gun that can harm a child,” Violano said.
Collectively, the five buybacks in New Haven have netted more than 220 firearms and about 20 assault weapons since 2011.