When the Baltimore Police Department announced its December gun buyback program, some city residents surely cheered with great enthusiasm at the opportunity to exchange their firearms and high-capacity magazines for cash. Others, however, likely saw an opportunity to lawfully game the system at the taxpayers’ expense.
Here’s how: Any Baltimore resident in possession of a firearm or high-capacity magazine was eligible to participate in the buyback program. But the program’s buyback offerings were ripe for abuse — and indeed, it is likely that the same problems will resurface if the city doesn’t learn from its obvious mistake.
At issue is the police department’s offer to pay $25 to any city resident who brings in a high-capacity magazine. For believers in gun buyback programs, that exchange rate probably sounded reasonable, if not encouraging. Regardless, a quick search shows that many high-capacity magazines can be purchased for just $9 to $15 online. See what is wrong here? 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 taxpayers’ expense. Just show up, drop off your goods, collect your cash and be on your way. It was that easy.
Supporters of the buyback might argue that the payouts were limited to just two high-capacity magazines per person. But someone interested in leveraging loopholes within the system — of which there were many — would have been quick to offer any kid on the street a quick buck to take their high-capacity magazine and exchange it on their behalf. Many in the pro-gun control movement have practically raised arms themselves over straw purchases in which criminals barred from buying firearms pay others to buy them on their behalf. Well, in this case, the police department was unknowingly incentivizing “straw returns” that may have helped line the pockets of anyone conniving enough to take advantage of the city’s oversight. The math was simple. This policy just did not add up.
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While we are at it, before the buyback was over, there were already reports of at least one Baltimore resident publicly boasting that she intended to take the money offered for her 9mm handgun to buy what one shocked reporter described as “a bigger weapon.” Surely, if the objective was to get more guns off the streets, offering $200 for what is practically the down payment on someone’s next firearm is hardly the way to go at it. Yet here we are.
Gun buyback programs can also offer everyday people a quick and easy way to sell their old guns that no longer work. These are not criminals who would otherwise use their firearms in the commission of a crime so much as they are your elderly grandmother who simply does not want to keep around your grandfather’s relic of a pistol around the house.
There is no arguing whether the gun buyback program was well-intentioned. It certainly was. But its merits nevertheless warrant additional scrutiny. Time and again, cities seeking to rid their streets of crime have turned to buyback programs to show their communities that they are doing something — anything — to fix the problem before them. But buybacks, especially those that incentivize the purchase of the very items being bought back, have a questionable record of success to say the least.
By offering cash payments, particularly for low-cost, high-capacity magazines, the city’s buyback program may very well have produced some seriously unintended and costly consequences. Indeed, some nefarious and unscrupulous actors will likely take advantage of the city’s unforced error if such a program is ever again executed. It is therefore incumbent upon the city to right these wrongs and commit to rethinking future buyback programs before more undue damage is done.
Perhaps instead of doling out dollars to support these buybacks, 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.
Max Meizlish is a Baltimore native and policy analyst who works in Washington.