Guns Guns more Guns

the United States

Summary: Gun buyback programs compensate individuals who turn over firearms to a public agency or private organization. In the United States, nearly all buyback programs are implemented at the county or city level, and participation is always voluntary. The primary goal of gun buyback programs is to prevent firearm violence by reducing the stock of firearms in a community. Gun buybacks can also serve as venues for raising awareness of the risks associated with firearms, educating participants about safer firearm storage, and connecting violence prevention organizations, all of which could potentially lead to reductions in firearm crimes, injuries, or deaths. The empirical evidence regarding the effectiveness of buyback programs is limited and mixed at best. However, meaningful effects could go undetected because only a tiny fraction of guns in a community is turned in at buyback events. Regardless, buyback programs continue to garner considerable public support and continue to be implemented in many communities. This essay provides an overview of gun buyback programs in the United States, describes key findings from the small body of research on the effectiveness of these programs, and concludes with an exploration of policy considerations.

Advertised by taglines like “Anonymous Guns for Cash” (Bonhometre, 2021) and “Save a Life, Turn in a Gun” (Philadelphia City Council, 2022), gun buyback programs in the United States aim to reduce violence by compensating participants who voluntarily turn in firearms to a public agency or community-based organization. These programs are implemented locally with the support of law enforcement and can rely on a combination of public and private funding (e.g., McGuire et al., 2011). In addition to monetary compensation (often in the form of gift cards), buybacks provide participants with assurances that they will not be asked about their identity nor how they acquired the firearm. The guns turned in at buyback events are usually destroyed or reduced to raw materials and repurposed; in some cases, law enforcement will first attempt to determine whether the firearms are associated with known crimes (Bonne et al., 2021; Carpenter, Borrup, and Campbell, 2020; Wellford, Pepper, and Petrie, 2005). There is little empirical evidence to suggest that buybacks are associated with measurable reductions in firearm violence, but proponents assert that the investment is worthwhile if a single firearm homicide is prevented (Wilson and Sammin, 2022), which is an important impact that would be difficult to measure.

Gun Buybacks Are Popular

Gun buyback programs remain popular despite limited evidence of their effectiveness as a violence prevention tool, as discussed later in this essay. A combination of consistently high public support, low cost, and local control contribute to the political and practical feasibility of implementing buyback programs. In contrast, many other violence prevention efforts face intractable political debates, are cost prohibitive, or are implemented at the state or federal level. Buybacks might also be appealing because the results—the guns that are surrendered—provide public officials with the opportunity to point to immediate and visible “success,” whereas the outcomes of complex violence intervention strategies or policy changes can be difficult to demonstrate. Because buybacks are visible, relatively easy to implement, and politically attractive—but have limited empirical support—some critics dismiss buybacks as political theater (see, e.g., CNN, 2022; Robinson, 2022).

Such criticisms have done little to diminish enthusiasm for buybacks. Carpenter, Borrup, and Campbell (2020) estimated that at least 550 gun buybacks occurred in 37 states between 1988 and 2021, and a working paper (Ferrazares, Sabia, and Anderson, 2021) identified seven buyback events in two months of 2021. Some of these buybacks are held annually (Hazeltine et al., 2019). At the time of writing, news outlets had reported recent gun buyback events in Grand Rapids, Michigan (Hoke, 2022); Summit County in Ohio (Mills, 2022); and in multiple cities in North Carolina (Green, 2022), among others.

Surveys demonstrate that there is broad support for voluntary buybacks, and partisan divides on these programs are less stark in comparison to firearm policy changes. Data for Progress reported findings from a nationally representative survey and estimated that 67 percent of voters would support a voluntary buyback of unwanted guns (Dandekar and Fairclough, 2022). Estimates of overall support were similar for licensing requirements, banning high-capacity magazines, and creating community-operated violence intervention programs, but differences along partisan lines were smaller for buybacks. A report by the National Research Council (Wellford, Pepper, and Petrie, 2005) noted that gun buyback programs also might be appealing because they do not impose monetary or administrative costs on firearm purchasers, which sets them apart from other supply-side interventions that aim to limit access to firearms (e.g., increasing waiting periods or taxes).

Partially because of gun buyback programs’ popularity among voters, policymakers at all levels of government have included these programs—some of which would be mandatory—on their agendas for decades (e.g., Biden Harris Democrats, undated; Merrefield, 2020; Metinko and Burgarino, 2008; Rubinstein, Mays, and Bromwich, 2021; Schmitt, 1999). The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development made available $15 million to support voluntary local buyback programs in 85 communities in 2000, but the program was eliminated one year later when a new federal administration took office (Carpenter, Borrup, and Campbell, 2020; Office of Public and Indian Housing, 2000). Since then, at least two federal bills supporting voluntary local gun buybacks have been proposed but have not been passed into law.

Large-scale mandatory buybacks at the state or national levels have typically been associated with proposals to ban assault weapons, and, as one might expect, garner less support. The results of one national poll in 2019 indicated that 59 percent of registered voters supported mandatory buybacks in conjunction with banning “assault rifles” (Bonn, 2019). A separate poll that same year estimated that 45 percent of adult U.S. residents supported Congress passing “legislation to create a mandatory buyback program of assault weapons” (Montanaro, 2019). At scale, relative to smaller voluntary programs, mandatory buybacks might be more promising because many firearms would be subject to the ban. However, effectiveness would depend both on compliance with the mandate and the likelihood that the guns removed from circulation would have otherwise been used to perpetrate violence. The latter effect is likely to be small: Estimates suggest that less than 7 percent of firearm crimes involve an assault weapon (see Koper et al., 2018).

If implemented, a large-scale buyback in the context of changes to federal firearms policy would be similar in its goals to national buyback programs in Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, which were mandatory and accompanied the implementation of new firearm ownership restrictions (Ramchand and Saunders, 2021; Carpenter, Borrup, and Campbell, 2020). The scale of any such program in the United States might be orders of magnitude larger, however, given the number of firearms typically categorized by laws as assault weapons. In Australia, for instance, fewer than 1 million firearms were bought back by the government, but these represented approximately 20 percent of all privately held firearms in the country (Reuter and Mouzos, 2003). By contrast, in the United States, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm industry trade group, estimates that 24 million such firearms have been manufactured or imported for sale in the United States since 1990 (National Shooting Sports Foundation, 2022).

There is some evidence to suggest that national bans and buybacks led to reductions in firearm violence in other countries, but it is impossible to compare these with buyback programs in the United States as implemented at the time of this writing because U.S. programs are small in scope and geographic reach, they are voluntary, and they are not paired with a ban on the class of firearms that the government is willing to buy back. This essay focuses on the empirical evidence related to gun buybacks in the United States, but it will reference programs in other countries to illustrate key conceptual issues; a review of the 1996 Australian program is included in the Gun Policy in America essay series (Ramchand and Saunders, 2021).

Evidence for the Effectiveness of Gun Buybacks Is Thin

There is little empirical research on the effectiveness of gun buyback programs in the United States, in part because of the challenges associated with measuring the effects of small, locally run programs. While the ultimate goal of most buyback programs is to reduce firearm violence and crime, few studies have demonstrated that these programs have such effects. Instead, researchers have examined the effects of buyback programs on proximal outcomes, such as the number of firearms removed from a community, public awareness of community violence, or the number of buyback participants who received education on how to safely store firearms. This essay reviews available evidence for each type of effect (see also Bonne et al., 2021; Carpenter, Borrup, and Campbell, 2020; Hazeltine et al., 2019; Makarios and Pratt, 2012; Merrefield, 2022; Wellford, Pepper, and Petrie, 2005).

Do Gun Buybacks Remove Dangerous Guns from Communities?

Gun buybacks might remove guns from the community that would have otherwise been involved in an accident or act of violence, so measurable effectiveness will partially depend on whether participants and the guns turned in were at risk for such outcomes, in addition to the availability of other firearms. The empirical research available on gun buybacks suggests that there has been limited success in targeting high-risk individuals and guns; however, the survey findings described in this section should be interpreted cautiously because gun buyback participants who voluntarily respond to surveys are likely to differ from nonrespondents. In particular, groups at elevated risk of firearm homicide might also be less likely to respond to voluntary surveys. For example, in a survey about intentions to participate in the 2020 U.S. Census (Cohn, Brown, and Keeter, 2020), young adults and respondents who identified as Black or Hispanic were among the least likely to say that they intended to participate in the census. Thus, survey findings could underestimate the number of gun buyback participants from demographic groups with elevated risks of firearm violence victimization.

In the United States, firearm fatality rates vary with age, race, and gender. Firearm homicide rates are highest among males, adolescents and young adults, and those described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as non-Hispanic Black or African American (Black, hereafter) and non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native. For example, in 2020, the firearm homicide rate for Black males aged ten to 24 years was 21.6 times that of White males of the same age. Disparities by age, race, and sex widened in 2020, during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, a year in which the number of firearm homicides overall increased by 35 percent (Kegler et al., 2022) and estimates of gun sales reached record highs (Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, 2022).

Partially because of these disparities, gun buyback organizers and researchers have administered surveys at buybacks and used the aggregate reported demographics as an indirect assessment of the likelihood that buyback events removed high-risk firearms from the community in which they took place. Even though many buybacks originate from concerns about firearm homicides, survey findings suggest that few buybacks have drawn large numbers of people from the demographic groups at greatest risk of interpersonal firearm violence. For example, several studies reported that a plurality or even a large majority of survey respondents were older White men (Baumann et al., 2017; Green et al., 2017; Kasper et al., 2017; McGuire et al., 2011; Violano et al., 2014). One paper (Kasper et al., 2017) described efforts to reach individuals at higher risk of interpersonal violence through targeted outreach and by holding gun buybacks at non–law enforcement locations; a total of only 38 guns were turned into three such events.

Higher-risk individuals may be less likely to participate in gun buyback programs for several reasons. Many may distrust the police (see, e.g., Horowitz, Brown, and Cox, 2019; Santhanam, 2020), and law enforcement will be involved in gun buybacks even when held at non–law enforcement locations. Furthermore, gun ownership often is driven by the perceived probability of victimization or the perceived ineffectiveness of police protection (Pierre, 2019). Some individuals are making a calculated decision to own or carry a gun if they are at high risk of firearm violence, despite the marginal increase in community-level gun violence associated with gun ownership (Evans and Kotowski, 2022; Swaner et al., 2020). Finally, the value of a gun on the legal or illegal market might be greater than the compensation offered at a buyback event (Braga and Wintemute, 2013; Carpenter, Borrup, and Campbell, 2020). In short, the benefits of turning in a firearm must exceed the costs to the individual. Regardless of the reason for low participation by individuals from groups at elevated risk of gun violence, gun buybacks are unlikely to result in sizeable reductions in rates of interpersonal firearm violence if few participants are at risk.

Given the demographics of observed gun buyback participants, it is more plausible that buybacks would lead to reductions in suicides. Firearm suicide rates are generally higher for older adults, males, and White or American Indian/Alaska Native persons. Unlike firearm homicides, overall age-adjusted suicide rates remained steady between 2019 and 2020 because increases among younger age groups of up to 15 percent were offset by decreases in suicide rates among older adults (Kegler et al., 2022).

The potential for buybacks to prevent suicide fatalities likely will depend on a gun buyback’s success in removing all firearms from a household. Findings from multiple surveys indicate that this often does not occur. Most respondents (51 to 60 percent, with the number of respondents ranging from 109 to 534) reported having another firearm remaining at home after turning in a gun (Green et al., 2017; McGuire et al., 2011; Violano et al., 2014; Yurk et al., 2001). The continued availability of firearms could contribute to uncertain findings regarding the effects of gun buybacks on suicide (discussed in the next section).

Researchers and gun buyback organizers have also asked participants about their reasons for turning in a firearm. Studies of buyback programs in Massachusetts found that large shares of participants turned in guns because of concerns about safety or because the guns were no longer needed (Green et al., 2017; McGuire et al., 2011; Violano et al., 2014). In addition to Worcester, Massachusetts, Violano et al. (2014) surveyed participants at gun buybacks held in Phoenix, Arizona, and New Haven, Connecticut. Sixty-eight percent of survey participants (n = 186) turned in a firearm for safety reasons, which included being unable to store the firearm properly, concern that the firearm would be accessed by children, or feeling afraid of the firearm.

The percentage of survey respondents that turned in firearms for financial reasons varied considerably. Only 7 percent of survey respondents (n = 382) in Worcester, Massachusetts, between 2009 and 2015 indicated that they turned in a firearm because they needed the gift cards offered in exchange, which ranged in value from $25 to $75 (Kasper et al., 2017). However, relative to all other options, more survey respondents (54 percent and 29 percent, respectively) selected a $50 gift certificate as their reason for turning in a firearm at the Ceasefire Oregon buyback programs in 1998 (n = 269) and 1999 (n = 254) (Yurk et al., 2001). These studies highlight the diversity of motivations behind gun buyback participation, although there could be many reasons for differences among the programs described.

Characteristics of the firearms turned in at buyback events have also been studied as an indirect assessment of the likelihood that the guns that were turned in otherwise would have been used in a crime. In some cases, significant proportions of firearms turned in to buyback programs were not in working condition or were older than guns typically used in crimes (see Braga and Wintemute, 2013; Wellford, Pepper, and Petrie, 2005). For example, nearly one-quarter of survey respondents (n = 127) in Sacramento, California, reported that the firearm that they turned in during a gun buyback event was not in working order, with an additional 24 percent reporting that they were unsure whether the firearm was operational (Romero, Wintemute and Vernick, 1998). Inoperable guns could be used to intimidate or strike victims, but it is unlikely that these guns, unless repaired, would have been used in accidental or intentional shootings had they not been turned in to a buyback event.

More recently, there have been reports of gun buyback participants turning in large numbers of 3-D printed gun parts, in some cases leaving with large cash payments for goods that might have been inexpensively manufactured for the sole purpose of being turned in to a gun buyback program (Associated Press, 2022). As a result, organizers have changed the rules for some buybacks, either (1) requiring that privately manufactured firearms (also known as unserialized guns or ghost guns) be capable of being fired more than once (Associated Press, 2022) or (2) disqualifying them entirely (Homer and Harris, 2022). These situations illustrate the difficulty of adapting violence prevention efforts to address modern challenges. Unserialized firearms—including ghost guns—are untraceable, which hinders investigations, thereby reducing both the real probability of capture and therefore the perceived cost of crime to would-be perpetrators (Associated Press, 2022; Homer and Harris, 2022; Stallworth, 2022; Wintemute, 2021).

Findings were mixed among studies that assessed the similarity of firearms turned in at buybacks to those used in violent incidents in the same jurisdiction, and one study suggests that this metric is affected by features of program design and implementation. Baumann et al. (2017) compared the type, manufacturer, model, and caliber of guns turned in to community buyback events with guns that were seized by the Hartford, Connecticut, police and found that such guns were similar, with the exception that buyback guns tended to be of smaller caliber. However, Kuhn et al. (2002) found that the guns turned in to buyback programs in Milwaukee County, Minnesota (n = 941), differed significantly from those used in homicides (n = 369) but not suicides (n = 125), a finding that was in line with studies indicating that the majority of participants in gun buybacks were older, White men. Fewer of the buyback guns were semi-automatic pistols compared with guns used in homicides, and 75 percent of the buyback guns were small caliber, compared with 24 percent of guns used in homicides and 32 percent of those used in suicides.

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Braga and Wintemute (2013) identified improvements in the design of gun buyback programs that resulted in better targeting of high-risk guns in buybacks conducted in Boston, Massachusetts. Comparing two buyback programs in that city that were conducted approximately 13 years apart, the authors found that a larger proportion of the firearms turned in (1,556 guns in 1993 and 1994, 1,019 in 2006) during the more recent program were handguns (86 percent in 2006 versus 56 percent in 1993 and 1994), were semi-automatic pistols (35 percent versus 17 percent), were turned in within three years of retail sale (9 percent versus 4 percent), or had specific indicators of illegal trafficking. The authors attribute these differences to changes in the design and implementation of the gun buyback programs, which included increasing the value of incentives for handguns, requiring proof of residency, adding community drop-off locations that were not police departments, and directing a communications campaign toward at-risk youth. Braga and Wintemute (2013) hypothesize that the design of gun buyback programs can influence the types of firearms that are surrendered by participants, which could increase the effectiveness of these programs.

The available research suggests that buybacks typically have not drawn large numbers of participants or firearms at risk of interpersonal violence, but that it might be possible to improve targeting through program design and implementation. Nevertheless, the characteristics of actual guns turned in and conceptual considerations (e.g., costs and benefits of firearm ownership, distrust of law enforcement) also support the interpretation that most gun buyback participants are not at elevated risk of interpersonal firearm violence.

Even if all participants and firearms involved in buybacks were high risk, it is unlikely that the effects on firearm violence would be sufficiently large to distinguish them from other sources of variation. Although it can be difficult to estimate the number of guns owned or sold in a community, it is estimated that 32 percent of households in the United States own at least one firearm (Schell et al., 2020). With this level of firearm ownership, there is general consensus in the literature that the number of guns turned into buybacks represent a tiny fraction of firearms in any community (Callahan, Rivara, and Koepsell, 1994; Ferrazares, Sabia, and Anderson, 2021; Rosenfeld, 1996; Wellford, Pepper, and Petrie, 2005). As a result, even at maximum effectiveness, research using standard methods to identify the effects of these programs on firearm violence might have difficulty identifying effects of the size that could reasonably be expected.

Could Gun Buybacks Have Other Beneficial Effects?

In addition to removing guns from communities, some gun buybacks aim to achieve other outcomes that might indirectly reduce firearm injuries and fatalities. These include raising awareness of firearm violence, providing education on safe firearm ownership practices, connecting participants with services, providing education or gun locks that might encourage safer storage, and building coalitions between public agencies and community groups (Bonne et al., 2021; Braga and Wintemute, 2013; Carpenter, Borrup, and Campbell, 2020; McGuire et al., 2011; Pfleger et al., 2022). It is difficult to assess whether these proximal outcomes lead to behavioral changes that would, in turn, reduce the likelihood of firearm theft, injury, or fatality. Nevertheless, in a few cases, gun buyback organizers and researchers measured or described such outcomes of their buyback programs.

For example, Violano et al. (2014) reported that 32 percent of 301 survey respondents in three cities were interested in and received gun locks. In Worcester, Massachusetts, between 2002 and 2009, roughly 75 gun locks were distributed each year. In addition to gun locks, survey respondents “with unsafely stored guns in homes with children . . . received a focused discussion about the importance of gun safety and gun safety educational material” (McGuire et al., 2011, p. S539). McGuire et al. (2011) also reported that gun buybacks improved communication between a medical center, police, the district attorney’s office, and city officials; the authors suggest that this could lead to greater awareness of gun safety.

Several of the surveys administered at gun buybacks asked whether participants thought that such events increased general awareness of community violence or the risks associated with gun ownership. Large majorities of respondents (roughly 87 to 96 percent) believed that the buybacks that they attended would increase awareness in the broader community (Green et al., 2017; Kasper et al., 2017; Violano et al., 2014). However, a survey that includes individuals who did not participate in the buyback would be a better tool to assess the reach of efforts to raise general awareness in a community.

Theoretically, each of these strategies would lead to behavioral changes that could prevent firearm violence or accidents. For example, greater awareness of firearm violence could increase civic engagement or willingness among community members to invest in violence prevention. Relatedly, coalition-building could increase the efficiency or capacity of violence prevention efforts. There is some evidence to suggest that providing education on safer storage, handing out free gun locks, and running public awareness campaigns can reduce firearm suicides and unintentional injuries (for a review, see RAND Corporation, 2018), but the interventions that were studied were implemented on a much larger scale.

Future research could measure more concretely the reach of ancillary efforts or compare buybacks with other interventions that aim to achieve similar results. It is likely that interventions are more effective when they are designed specifically to achieve these outcomes and then implemented at a much larger scale relative to local buybacks. Relatedly, as is the case for gun removal, the potential for these intermediate outcomes to lead to measurable reductions in firearm violence might be hindered simply by the small number of individuals at elevated risk who receive the intervention.

Effects of Buyback Programs on Firearm Injuries and Fatalities

Evaluations of gun buyback programs typically have not detected effects on crime or violence, but most studies had to rely on weak designs. Several studies lacked comparison groups or could only provide comparisons of firearm injuries and fatalities before and after implementation. For example, using police reports, trauma center admissions, and medical examiners’ data from the months just before and after a buyback program in Seattle, Washington, that collected 1,172 firearms, Callahan, Rivara, and Koepsell (1994) found that firearm crimes and deaths increased and firearm injuries decreased, but these changes were not statistically significant. One study reported that, in Connecticut, relative to the two years prior to a buyback program, the incidence of firearm-related related deaths did not differ significantly during the year after the inception of an annual gun buyback in Hartford (Marinelli et al., 2013). McGuire et al. (2011) described downward trends in firearm injuries and fatalities in Worcester County, Massachusetts, that were larger in magnitude than similar trends in other counties, but the authors could not separate gun buybacks from other potential causes.

In Buffalo, New York, buyback events were held almost annually between 2007 and 2012. An interrupted time-series analysis of firearm crimes relative to non-firearm crimes did not identify significant effects (Phillips, Kim, and Sobol, 2013). Finally, a recent working paper (Ferrazares, Sabia, and Anderson, 2021) leverages the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Incident-Based Reporting System and administrative death records to examine the effects of gun buyback programs in 36 cities on firearm crime, homicides, and suicides. Using difference-in-differences, synthetic control, and event-study approaches to estimate effects, the authors found little evidence that gun buyback programs reduced firearm-related crimes or deaths.

Several reviews of the existing research find little or no evidence that gun buyback programs reduce firearm violence in the United States.[3]In a 2004 paper that explored potential explanations for the decrease in crime during the 1990s, Levitt described gun buyback programs as “largely ineffective in reducing crime” using his assessment of four papers (Callahan, Rivara, and Koepsell, 1994; Kennedy, Piehl, and Braga, 1996; Reuter and Mouzos, 2003; Rosenfeld, 1996), one of which pertained to the large-scale Australian buyback that was associated with banning a significant proportion of firearms. A meta-analysis of the same studies reached a similar conclusion (Makarios and Pratt, 2012). Levitt (2004) noted three key issues: (1) surrendered firearms differ from those used in crimes and are no longer of use to the owners, and individuals who commit firearm crimes are not likely to participate in buyback programs; (2) buyback programs might have little effect on the availability of firearms because replacement guns are easily obtained; and (3) the likelihood that any particular firearm will be used in a crime is low. These issues continue to be central themes of the gun buyback literature.

More recently, two reviews concluded that there is little evidence that buyback programs reduce firearm violence but that this may be due, in part, to limitations of the research. Carpenter, Borrup, and Campbell (2020) describe the history of gun buybacks, summarize the research, and offer recommendations for program design and evaluation. The authors highlight studies (e.g., Braga and Wintemute, 2013) that demonstrate the potential for targeting buyback programs toward higher risk firearms, arguing that the lack of evidence should not necessarily invalidate gun buyback programs. They conclude that gun buybacks could be more effective under specific conditions, should be rigorously evaluated, and may be useful venues for educating the public and organizing community groups. A recent systematic review (Bonne et al., 2021) of community-based violence prevention programming, including buybacks, draws similar conclusions.

Policy Implications

Several researchers have advised against dismissing gun buybacks on the basis of findings from studies with weak designs that show uncertain effects of buybacks on firearm injuries. Most evaluations of the effects of small programs on firearm violence lack comparison groups or include only indirect measures (e.g., survey respondent demographics or gun characteristics). However, early findings from a recent study that employs more-rigorous methods across a large number of cities (Ferrazares, Sabia and Anderson, 2021) also do not offer evidence of decreases in firearm crime or fatalities from gun buybacks.

However, some findings and recommendations are somewhat more promising. For example, findings in Boston (Braga and Wintemute, 2013) suggest that, relative to earlier buybacks, higher-risk firearms can be obtained from carefully targeted buyback programs. Researchers and organizers also have tried to determine whether buybacks achieve other proximal outcomes, such as encouraging safer storage or building coalitions (Bonne et al., 2021; Braga and Wintemute, 2013; Carpenter, Borrup and Campbell, 2020), but these studies have not considered the effectiveness or cost of buybacks relative to other interventions with similar goals. As is the case for the removal of firearms, it is likely that the limited reach of buybacks would impede success.

Based in part on studies of Australia’s National Firearm Agreement, some have suggested that mandatory buybacks in conjunction with federal policy reforms could reduce gun violence in the United States (Carpenter, Borrup, and Campbell, 2020; Hazeltine et al., 2019), but this theory remains untested. A federal law was in place between 1994 and 2004 that banned semi-automatic assault weapons, but it did not prohibit possession or transfer of weapons manufactured before the effective date (18 U.S.C. § 921). Provisions that allow continued possession of banned weapons preclude mandatory gun buybacks. Given the stark differences between Australia’s program and gun buyback programs as they are currently implemented in the United States, cities and counties should not include the evidence from Australia in their assessments of potential effectiveness.

It might be more productive for policymakers to consider gun buyback programs in a cost-benefit framework. Violence prevention programs that are run by cities, counties, and community groups likely will depend on overlapping funding sources; local officials and budget offices might be considering the degree to which they invest in one type of violence prevention program versus another. In this context, public officials will need to compare the potential costs, benefits, and fairness of community-based violence prevention and public safety programs in light of the specific needs in the community (Branas et al., 2020). For example, Harris County, Texas, allocated $1 million to a gun buyback program as part of a $50 million investment in violence prevention; to put the buyback allocation in context, $2.5 million is earmarked for the Cure Violence program, and $5.7 million will be allocated to overtime for 125 police officers. This raises questions about the relative efficiency and effectiveness of each intervention; the relatively low cost of buybacks does not preclude the possibility that the funds would be better spent elsewhere.

Survey findings indicate that most Americans support funding community violence intervention programs and voluntary buybacks (Dandekar and Fairclough, 2022; Deitsch and Mangan, undated; Ward et al., 2022), but many communities encounter difficulties sustaining complex, multifaceted programs, such as Cure Violence (see Buggs and Zeoli, 2022; Butts et al., 2015). Both gun buybacks and multifaceted community-based efforts have faced opposition related to the limited empirical evidence that such programs reduce violence. Bonne et al. (2021) reviewed research on community-based violence intervention programs (e.g., Cure Violence and school-based programs, among others) alongside the buyback literature and found that studies in both groups lacked data that could support strong research designs. On balance, evaluation methods and the scant evidence available were strongest for Cure Violence and similar strategies. As several authors note, there is evidence suggesting that the nuances of program design and implementation are important for both buybacks and such programs as Cure Violence (see, e.g., Braga and Wintemute, 2013; Buggs, Webster, and Crifasi, 2021; Butts et al., 2015).


Gun buyback programs aim to prevent firearm violence by removing dangerous guns from communities, but there is little empirical evidence of these programs’ effectiveness. One study suggests that higher-risk firearms are turned in at carefully designed gun buybacks, but it seems unlikely that this would overcome the primary weakness of the conceptual framework of a gun buyback: Even under the assumption of optimal implementation, a tiny fraction of guns in a community are turned in to gun buyback programs while sales and transfers of firearms continue. Although it is possible that gun buybacks have prevented incidents of firearm-related harm, it is very unlikely that such small reductions in the number of guns available would lead to measurable decreases in firearm crime, injuries, or deaths.

Communities continue to hold gun buyback events without empirical evidence that they reduce firearm violence. When buybacks are held, organizers should tailor the events to reach the intended participants. This could include engaging community groups that are working to prevent violence, reconsidering the role of law enforcement and the location of buyback events, increasing the value of incentives for specific types of firearms, or offering additional services at the events.

However, policymakers and community groups first should identify the goals of their violence prevention efforts and whether gun buybacks are the best use of resources in light of the opportunity costs. Assessing the needs of the community will enable decisionmakers to define criteria for success and to compare alternative interventions. Are the guns used in local crimes likely to be turned in at a buyback event? Are there alternative interventions that are more promising in terms of violence prevention or other outcomes? Do the presumed benefits of gun buybacks accrue to the intended community members? It also might be helpful to consider the alignment of political motives with violence prevention goals; gun buybacks could undermine violence prevention if they are used to satisfy stakeholders without making an impact. A gun buyback should add value relative to alternatives, even if it will be incorporated into a larger effort or is intended to meet goals other than reducing firearm availability.

Gun buyback programs, as commonly implemented in the United States, are small, feasible interventions, but they are unlikely to measurably reduce firearm violence, even if they do prevent some incidents. Research on buyback effectiveness is limited, but the findings to date are not promising. Furthermore, the intended impacts are implausible because too few firearms are turned in to gun buybacks, at least as currently implemented. Given these limitations, policymakers and community groups should consider whether the scarce resources allocated to gun buybacks—even if these resources are minimal—might be better spent on more-promising violence prevention efforts.

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