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Some observers say buyback programs are ineffective at best and can sometimes detract from other violence prevention efforts.
More than a year after a Supreme Court decision made it easier for gun owners around the country to obtain licenses to carry, law enforcement officials are looking at ways to keep down Hawaii’s relatively low gun violence rate.
Hundreds of licenses to carry have been issued on Oahu since the June 2022 decision. Even though Hawaii remains one of the states with the lowest rates of gun ownership in the nation, state officials will host a gun buyback program this weekend as a strategy for getting unwanted guns off the streets and out of the hands of young people.
But people on different sides of the gun debate say buyback programs are ineffective at best and can sometimes detract from other violence prevention efforts.
Violent crime on Oahu is going down. Murder, robbery and aggravated assault – the crimes in which firearms are most often used – have decreased by 15%, 32% and 13% over last year, according to Honolulu Police Department statistics.
Hawaii’s violent crime rate is also lower than the nation’s as a whole. There were about 260 violent crimes per 100,000 people in the state last year compared with about 381 in the U.S., according to the FBI.
But many more people in Hawaii can now carry firearms than they could more than a year ago.
The 2022 Supreme Court ruling, known as the Bruen decision, expanded gun owners’ rights to carry firearms. The Honolulu Police Department has issued 975 licenses to carry since the decision.
One concern is keeping guns out of the hands of youth, Honolulu Police Chief Joe Logan said during an Oct. 4 Police Commission meeting, citing a string of recent issues involving young people.
A Waianae-Castle High football game was canceled earlier this month after a campus threat was posted on social media. An 18-year-old was arrested on murder and firearms charges in late September after a deadly shooting at the Waianae Boat Harbor. And a teenager was recently charged with murder in connection with a fatal shooting at a cockfight in April.
Logan said firearms used by young people are often stolen or are ghost guns — untraceable firearms whose parts can be purchased or 3D-printed for assembly at home.
He said the gun buyback program is just one part of a broader community effort to reduce violence among young people.
“It’s going to take a lot of emphasis and coordination with us and communities, because communities know who these individuals are, where they live, where they are, how they are raised,” he said. “And so, how do we help the community understand and keep them all safe by figuring out where these guns are and how to get them off the streets?”
How It Works
The gun buyback event, hosted by the state Department of Law Enforcement, occurred at two locations on Saturday— the Department of Health parking lot at 1250 Punchbowl St. and in the Department of Transportation’s Waianae Corporate Base Yard at 85-630 Farrington Highway — from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Gun owners can bring their unloaded firearms in the trunks of their cars for law enforcement to retrieve and later destroy.
The voluntary program operates on an anonymous, “no questions asked” basis, said Jordan Lowe, director of the Department of Law Enforcement.
Participants will receive $100 gift cards to Foodland for handguns, rifles, shotguns, bump stocks and Glock switches. They’ll get $200 gift cards for any automatic firearm, semi-automatic rifle or ghost gun. Law enforcement will also be handing out free gun locks.
Saturday’s event will cost around $90,000 and is funded partially through a federal Project Safe Neighborhoods Grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The state was awarded a $99,761 grant this year.
If the buyback on Oahu is successful, Lowe said more will be planned on neighbor islands.
“We thought that it was time to try to provide the public a way to safely and properly dispose of firearms that they didn’t want anymore,” Lowe said. “Also in the sense that, we know that some of the firearms that are used in criminal activities are stolen, so this could also be a way to lessen the availability of firearms being diverted to a criminal element.”
Are They Effective?
Gun buybacks, which became popular in the 1990s, are aimed at reducing the number of guns in circulation in a community, recovering illegally possessed weapons and getting firearms out of the hands of people who may want to harm themselves or others.
But whether these programs actually reduce gun violence is up for debate.
“It doesn’t hurt anything, but will gun violence go down because we take 500 obsolete guns off the street from people that probably either still have another gun, who are on the law-abiding side of things or who were never going to use the gun in a crime anyway?” said state Sen. Karl Rhoads, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee who has worked on statewide gun control measures. “My guess is that it just won’t make any difference.”
Amanda Charbonneau, an associate policy researcher with the RAND Corporation, an international public policy research organization, said there is little evidence showing gun buybacks reduce crime in the communities where they occur.
While any gun taken off the streets is a positive thing, she said, often the rewards offered through buybacks aren’t big enough to incentivize people to hand over their guns. The events can also take precious time and resources away from efforts that have proven more effective at reducing crime, such as violence intervention programs that send trusted case workers into communities to assist and mentor those most at risk of becoming involved in violent crime.
“The thing that I worry about is, you have public officials and even community groups and stakeholders putting together a gun buyback event and feeling like they’ve checked a box to meet demands from the community to do something about gun violence,” she said.
The Honolulu Police Department ran four gun buyback events between 1992 and 2000 which were funded by the Housing and Urban Development Department, according to a 2018 attorney general’s report.
A total of 1,498 firearms were collected and destroyed over the course of the four events, but the report gave a tepid review of gun buybacks overall.
The guns recovered “typically are not the type used in the commission of a crime,” the report says.
But certain things can done to make the programs more effective, such as hosting them in neutral locations, making participation anonymous and offering larger rewards for more desired guns — all strategies the Department of Law Enforcement will implement for this weekend’s event.
Lowe said any gun recovered at Saturday’s buyback represents progress.
“If we’re able to provide the gun lock, if we’re able to prevent a firearm from being used in a crime by somebody else,” he said. “I think it’s a positive thing that we’re able to make the community safer.”