Expert Commentary

Gun buybacks: What the research says

Gun buybacks allow gun owners to trade their firearms to law enforcement, no questions asked. We dive into what the research says on whether they work to reduce gun violence.

Los Angeles gun buyback event, May 16, 2018. (Eric Garcetti / Flickr / Creative Commons)

This research roundup on the effectiveness of gun buyback programs was originally published in January 2020. We have updated it as of October 2022 with new research.

Voluntary gun buyback programs allow gun owners to trade their firearms to government entities — usually law enforcement — for vouchers that can be redeemed for cash or other items of value, such as tickets to professional sporting events. Guns can usually be exchanged “no questions asked.” In other words, people who turn over their firearms are not subject to background checks or criminal inquiries and, in some cases, do not have to provide identifying information.

Early research on gun buybacks, mostly from the 1990s, largely finds these programs ineffective at curbing gun violence. Recent research frames gun buybacks in a somewhat mixed but more favorable light.

On their own, buybacks might not be effective if the goal is to use them to directly reduce violent crime. But research shows buybacks can help if they’re part of a broader effort to reduce gun violence. They can also influence public perception of how authorities are dealing with gun violence and serve as opportunities to educate communities about gun violence reduction strategies, according to researchers.

When candidates for elected office voice support for mandatory buybacks, they usually mean they would push for legislation requiring Americans with high-capacity assault weapons to trade them to a government entity.

There are no government estimates on what a national gun buyback program might cost, but an analysis from The Trace, a national news outlet that covers guns, estimates the total direct cost for a rifle buyback program would range from nearly $1 billion to $87 billion.

Another estimate, from the Institute of Labor Economics, puts the cost of a national buyback program aimed at the types of handguns most often used in violent crime at $7.6 billion. These estimates don’t represent comprehensive economic analyses. For example, they don’t account for labor costs for law enforcement and other government personnel.

Two new studies

The core question that academic research seeks to answer is whether gun buybacks reduce gun violence. There is not an avalanche of new research, but there are two studies published within the past two years that focus on, or include, gun buyback programs in the U.S.

Both studies bolster the research findings from the past decade.

The most recent study, an August 2021 analysis published in the Annals of Surgery, examines the results of 19 studies on whether buyback programs reduce gun violence. After searching for research published from January 1900 to June 2018, the authors focus on 7 studies conducted in Australia and 12 from the U.S. The U.S studies go back to at least 1994, and are as recent as 2017.

The authors conclude that “gun buybacks are, necessarily and by design, anonymous, making it very challenging to study individual outcomes of these programs. Evidence suggests that there may be a small, improved impact in suicide prevention in older, white males, but no effect on interpersonal gun violence or homicides.”

Crucially, the authors note that the “benefits of gun buyback programs may not be measurable in a standardized scientific method. The lack of scientific data is not a referendum on the effectiveness of the programs, but rather a call for more rigorous data and evaluation of these programs.”

Another study, a working paper published in May 2021 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, ponders whether gun buyback programs have “misfired.” The authors analyze federal data on gun crime within the jurisdictions of the 245 U.S. law enforcement agencies that serve at least 50,000 people. They supplement this data with public records on the number of firearms recovered at each of 335 gun buyback events held from 1991 to 2015 in 277 cities. Worcester, Massachusetts, held the most gun buybacks over the period studied — 14 buyback events.

The gun buybacks analyzed “have done little to reduce gun crime or firearm-related violence,” the authors write. One potential reason: Gun buybacks do not usually recover a large share of guns circulating in a community. A 2014 buyback in Somerville, Massachusetts, recovered 15 firearms, compared with more than 1,500 gun permits issued there, according to the authors. Buyback prices may rarely exceed the value gun owners place on keeping a gun, the authors suggest. For example, a gun owner might place a higher value on keeping their gun for self-defense compared with the dollars a municipality offers. Gun buybacks also tend to attract people who live farther from cities and have higher median incomes, “populations with relatively lower crime risk,” the authors write.

“Our results suggest that [gun buyback programs] have been an inefficient use of taxpayers’ dollars in the United States,” the authors conclude. “Perhaps alternative firearm-related policies, such as safe storage laws or stricter background checks would be more effective at deterring gun violence. Our findings also suggest that prior city [gun buyback programs] have been poorly designed to achieve their policy objectives.”

Key context

The general idea behind gun buyback policies is that gun violence can be lessened by reducing the number of guns in civilian hands. In absolute and relative numbers, Americans lead the world in firearm ownership.

The U.S. accounts for nearly 46% of all civilian-held firearms in the world, according to the Small Arms Survey, a research project from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. There are about 121 firearms for every 100 U.S. civilians. Yemen has the second-highest rate of firearm ownership, with about 53 firearms for every 100 civilians. Canada’s rate is about 35 while Mexico sits at about 13 per 100 civilians.

Around one-third of adult Americans own guns, meaning there are more than 81 million gun owners, according to a 2021 survey led by William English at Georgetown University. Gun ownership in the U.S. is concentrated, with 3% of Americans owning half of all guns in the country, finds a 2015 survey from researchers at Harvard and Northeastern universities. Delaware has the nation’s lowest gun ownership rate — 5.2% — while Alaska has the top rate at 61.7%, according to a nationally representative survey of 4,000 U.S. adults from the 50 states and the District of Columbia, published in June 2015 in Injury Prevention.

“We showed that exposure to social gun culture was robustly associated with gun ownership and to our knowledge, this is the first study to establish empirical evidence of the relation between social gun culture and gun ownership,” write the authors of the Injury Prevention study.

There are two threads through the research on gun buyback programs. First, certain types of guns are more likely to be used for certain types of crimes. While mass shootings committed with assault weapons draw national media attention, those crimes are quite rare. Most homicides aren’t from mass shootings, and homicides are usually committed with handguns, according to the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Second, gun violence isn’t just about homicides. Nationally, almost two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides, according to 2017 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Firearm suicide attempts result in death 85% of the time, compared with 3% of attempts involving a drug overdose, according to a 2016 report from Harvard Public Health, the magazine of the T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“What makes guns the most common mode of suicide in this country? The answer: They are both lethal and accessible,” writes Madeline Drexler, editor of Harvard Public Health and the report’s author.

Formative findings

Philadelphia was one of the first U.S. cities to try gun buybacks with several programs in the early 1970s. Baltimore offered $50 per gun in 1974 — roughly $275 in today’s dollars — netting more than 13,000 firearms over three months.

By the late 1990s, municipalities in the U.S. had conducted more than 100 buyback programs. Seattle’s gun buyback program in fall 1992 was among the first to be evaluated via peer-reviewed research. Gun owners turned over 1,172 firearms, almost all of which were working handguns, according to a 1994 evaluation published in Public Health Reports. Participants received a bank voucher worth $50, no matter how many firearms they turned over to the Seattle Police Department. About three-fourths of participants were men. The evaluation didn’t find statistical evidence that the program had an effect on gun violence.

“Gun buyback programs are a broadly supported means to decrease voluntarily the prevalence of handguns within a community, but their effect on decreasing violent crime and reducing firearm mortality is unknown,” the authors write.

Another early evaluation looked at a gun buyback program in Sacramento in August 1993. The program allowed people to turn in firearms to police in exchange for tickets to a Kings basketball game. There were 127 participants, according to an evaluation that appeared in Injury Prevention in September 1998.

Researchers heard from 92 participants via a mail survey that sought, in part, to understand why they turned in firearms. Nearly half said they were concerned children might find and use the gun. (A large percentage of participants in a long-running gun buyback program in Worcester, Massachusetts also cite child safety reasons for turning in their guns.) Some 41% of respondents had no gun in their household after participating in the Sacramento program. Still, those “who still owned guns often kept them loaded and easily accessible,” the authors write.

Milwaukee instituted its own series of buyback programs from 1994 to 1996. An evaluation published in Injury Prevention in June 2002 looked at whether the types of handguns recovered from those buybacks were the same as those typically used in homicides and suicides. The authors compared 941 handguns recovered during the buybacks to 369 handguns used in homicides or suicides from 1994 to 1997.

Two-thirds of handguns used in homicides in Milwaukee and 40% of handguns used in suicides were semiautomatic, compared with one-third of buyback handguns. Most guns turned in to the city were revolvers. Semi-automatic guns automatically load cartridges and fire one bullet per trigger pull. Revolvers have rotating cylinders and each cartridge has to be manually loaded. Three-fourths of handguns recovered during the Milwaukee buybacks used small-caliber ammunition, while much smaller percentages of guns used in homicides and suicides were small-caliber. Two manufacturers produced 30% of the handguns turned in while 5% of guns used in homicides came from those manufacturers.

“Handguns recovered in buyback programs are not the types most commonly linked to firearm homicides and suicides,” the authors conclude. “Although buyback programs may increase awareness of firearm violence, limited resources for firearm injury prevention may be better spent in other ways.”

Finally, a meta-analysis from August 2008 in Crime & Delinquency found no research showing “significant changes in gun-related crimes due to these programs.”

More recent research

The thinking among academics has shifted a bit in the past few years when it comes to gun buybacks. Garen Winmute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, told the news outlet Governing in 2013 that violent crime rates might not be the best measure of success for gun buybacks, and that community engagement and education on gun safety during buybacks also have value.

A meta-analysis from December 2019 in Current Trauma Reports suggests that gun buybacks should be included in broader violence reduction strategies.

“Buybacks in conjunction with other methods have been shown to be successful in reducing the number of firearms that could lead to injury and death,” the authors write. They note that non-Hispanic black men are the most common victims of fatal firearm injury, while gun buyback participants tend to be older white men.

A September 2014 evaluation in Trauma and Acute Care Surgery found that gun buyback programs in Worcester, Massachusetts, New Haven, Connecticut and Phoenix, Arizona were structured differently from programs in the 1990s. Programs in those cities provided gift cards only to people who brought in working firearms, a notable change from earlier programs that offered trades for non-operational guns. In Worcester and New Haven, people turning over assault weapons and sawed-off shotguns got higher-value gift cards.

“The gun buyback program is solely one prong of a multipronged approach in reducing firearm-based interpersonal violence,” the authors conclude.

A 2013 evaluation of a multiyear gun buyback program in Buffalo, New York, found no effect on violent gun crime, including homicides. The authors also note that different parties, like law enforcement officers and politicians, may measure the success of gun buybacks in different ways.

“Given the empirical evidence, police agencies may use gun buyback programs not with the expectation of reducing violent crime, but to satisfy the public’s expectations,” the authors write. “When serious crime problems occur, mayors and police chiefs are under pressure from their constituents to ‘do something dramatic and effective’ about the violence.”

Mandatory buybacks in Australia

In April 1996, a man armed with a semiautomatic rifle killed 35 people and wounded 23 others in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Australian legislators acted swiftly, agreeing less than two weeks after the massacre to outlaw semiautomatic and pump-action rifles through the National Firearms Agreement. A mandatory buyback at “fair value” followed that fall. Experts set the price the government would pay for each type of gun — which amounted to $359 per gun, on average. By 1997, nearly 650,000 banned guns had been turned over, roughly one-fifth of guns in the country, at a total cost of $230 million.

Another buyback in 2003 netted more than 68,000 handguns.

There have been numerous evaluations of Australia’s mandatory buybacks. An investigation of the legislation, published in July 2016 in The Journal of the American Medical Association, reported 13 mass shootings in the 18 years before the legislation and none in the 20 years following its passage — though in June 2019, there was a mass shooting in Darwin committed with a banned firearm. Firearm deaths also declined faster after the legislation, but suicides and homicides not caused by firearms declined, too. Because suicides and homicides overall declined starting around the mid-1990s, the authors couldn’t attribute the improvement in gun violence statistics to the gun laws.

A RAND Corporation analysis, originally published in March 2018 and updated in April 2021, finds that among five studies published since 2015, only one “provides convincing statistically significant evidence that firearm homicides changed after implementation of the NFA — specifically, that there was an absolute reduction in female firearm homicide victimization.”

While the science isn’t settled as to whether Australia’s gun control legislation was the reason for lower rates of gun violence, the fact remains that the country largely avoided mass shootings for more than two decades following the Port Arthur massacre. From the RAND analysis: “There is evidence suggesting that the NFA may have contributed to a complete reduction in mass shootings that lasted for 23 years, although low numbers of such events, coupled with challenges inherent in studying a nationwide policy on national outcomes, limit strong conclusions and raise skepticism by critics.”

A November 2019 paper in Prevention Science takes a slightly different approach from other analyses. The authors try to look at a world where Australia’s buyback program never happened. They use homicide and other fatality data from other countries to create gun-death data for a fictional Australia, sans the 1996 buyback. Their findings suggest that “the universal and abrupt nature of the Australian Gun Buyback program significantly reduced Australia’s homicide rate in the decade following the intervention.”

Subject experts

David Kennedy, professor, John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Lorraine Mazerolle, professor of criminology, The University of Queensland, Australia.

Richard McCleary, professor of criminology, University of California, Irvine.

Scott W. Phillips, associate professor, SUNY Buffalo State.

James J. Sobol, associate professor, SUNY Buffalo State.

Garen Wintemute, director, Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis.

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