This is the first of a three-part series by Flint Beat exploring each of the city’s elements of their plan to combat gun violence. In each installment of the series, Flint Beat will take an in-depth, expert- and data-driven analysis to see what residents can expect as Flint police carry out their plan.
Flint, MI–Mayor Sheldon Neeley announced at a press conference on July 21, that the city will be launching a gun buyback program as part of a three-part plan to combat the rise in gun violence in Flint.
The other two parts of the plan include the formation of a Special Investigative Unit also focused on seizing illegal guns, and increasing recruiting efforts to fill vacant officer positions.
Neeley said the program will be a series of events held in the community, with a goal of continuously buying guns every day. Although the dates, times and locations are yet to be determined, he said they will “make it a safe place” so people feel comfortable participating.
The program will allow citizens to trade in their firearms for cash, no questions asked. The city will be offering $50 for long guns and $100 for handguns.
The money for the program will be coming from donations, but Neeley and his wife, Cynthia, are donating the first $1,000. The goal is to reach $5,000.
According to a state-by-state analysis published last year by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, the annual cost of gun violence in Michigan is $6.9 billion. That number comes from employer, healthcare and police and criminal justice costs, as well as lost income.
There are also, of course, devastating emotional costs.
Rev. Jeffrey Hawkins of Prince of Peace Missionary Baptist Church lost two of his own children to gun violence.
“Yesterday at a homicide scene, I had the opportunity, as unfortunate as it was, to comfort the mother who stood there watching her son who was on the pavement, covered up, as a homicide victim,” Hawkins said at the press conference. “That’s not an experience that anybody should have, but it’s real. This happened in our community.”
“No parent should have to look at their child, their baby, covered up, a homicide victim, and then take the gruesome task to try to make burial arrangements,” he said. “It has to stop.”
The state-by-state analysis showed that in Michigan, one person dies of gun violence every eight hours. It also showed that “guns are the second-leading cause of death for Michigan children ages 1–17.”
According to the Michigan State Police Department, as of July 19, in Flint, there have been 86 non-fatal shootings and 23 fatal shootings. That’s a 126.3% increase in non-fatal shootings year-to-date, and a 53.3% increase in fatal shootings year-to-date.
Former Flint Police Chief Phil Hart said at the press conference that illegal guns are “causing the issue right now with the uptick in the shootings.”
Will a gun buyback program bring that number down?
Research about gun buyback programs is rarely conclusive about their effects on decreasing gun violence, although they can raise awareness to the problem and build public trust.
Flint has seen these programs before.
In March 1993, Flint kicked off its first gun buyback program called Safe Streets. In their first round of events, they collected 292 guns, most of which were reportedly in working condition.
At that time, they offered $25 for working handguns and $10 for long guns and nonworking handguns.
Funds for the program primarily came from fundraisers and donations. In 1994, a grocery store sponsored a buyback and gave $50 gift cards for their store to participants in the program.
In May 1994, the Safe Streets committee ran out of cash after more than 100 guns were brought in during the first hour of a buyback event, and people continued to turn in their guns anyway.
That was the same year they tried to dispose of the guns by crushing them with a 42-ton steamroller. The guns were too strong.
The city opted for melting the guns down at the most recent buyback event in Flint in 2008, which is what they will be doing with the collected guns this year too.
In an evaluation of a gun buyback program in Seattle from 1992, the authors wrote that “gun buy-back 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.”
Seattle’s program was voluntary but officers took down information about the participants. The most a participant could get was a $50 bank voucher, no matter how many firearms they brought in.
While they reported broad support for the program from households, even from those that owned firearms, there was no statistical evidence showing a decrease in gun violence and crime.
“Some would say gun buybacks don’t work,” Neeley said at a press conference on July 29. “You’re taking guns off the street. That does work.”
But some research suggests that the people turning in guns aren’t the people who would use those guns to commit a crime.
A comparison study done by violence and firearm researchers about guns recovered in buyback programs and guns used in fatal shootings, found that “handguns recovered in buyback programs are not the types most commonly linked to firearm homicides and suicides.”
“By themselves, they don’t tend to get the big guns that they’d really like off the street, off of the street,” said University of Michigan-Flint Associate Professor of Criminal Justice Dr. Kenneth Litwin.
In the early buyback programs in Flint, many of the people turning in guns were older residents who didn’t want guns in their house according to archives from The Flint Journal.
“My understanding from talking to people who have done those in the past, is it’s a cross section, it’s all different kinds of people,” Hart said. “Some people will bring in old weapons that they have in their house because they don’t feel safe having them there, to people who, for whatever reason, are in possession.”
Litwin said that although the guns being brought in might not have been used for violence on the street, there are still potential benefits to getting those guns turned in.
“Most firearm related deaths are suicides,” Litwin said. “This may be saving some lives in that sense because there’s not a firearm in the house.”
According to the state-by-state analysis, “nearly 60% of gun deaths in Michigan are suicides, and half of all suicide deaths in Michigan involve firearms.”
“Getting the guns removed from households could be beneficial, not to say the people who own them are not responsible,” Litwin said. “But if it’s not even there, it’s not even a resource that can be used if somebody is angry or so overwhelmed with stresses going on that they would direct violence toward themselves.”
With COVID-19, businesses closed and financial and job-related uncertainties, Litwin said there is a lot to be stressed about.
“Getting them to sell back guns could be beneficial, but that’s not enough because that’s not getting at the underlying issues related to suicide,” Litwin said. “We need services to meet people’s needs, to alleviate stressors, to feel support.”
The authors of the comparison study concluded that “although buyback programs may increase awareness of firearm violence, limited resources for firearm injury prevention may be better spent in other ways.”
Litwin said the factors correlated with crime, like unemployment, poverty, lack of access to physical and mental healthcare and quality education, are much more challenging to fight.
“You have to convince people in positions of political power that it’s worth the investment,” he said. “See, if people have access to resources that give them hope, that’s beneficial for reducing crime. It’s not usually happy and relaxed people committing crime.”
Australia has had success in reducing gun violence with their gun buyback program–but there was a big difference: it was mandatory.
Australia passed the National Firearms Agreement in 1996 which banned certain weapons, imposed stricter licensing and registration requirements, and implemented a mandatory buyback program for the newly banned firearms. They collected over 700,000 guns.
An assessment of gun violence in Australia from 1997 to 2007, found that the program “significantly reduced Australia’s homicide rate in the decade following the intervention.”
Flint’s gun buyback program will be a lot more like the one in Seattle, given that it’s voluntary and there are no laws being implemented to ban certain types of firearms.
The authors of a review of the history of gun buybacks published in 2019 concluded that “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.”
“I’m looking for the awareness to be made, but I’m hoping in conjunction with everything else we’re doing, we see that drop in crime,” Hart said. “I think mostly because people are aware of what we’re doing, that should eliminate it.”
Newly appointed Police Chief Terence Green said at a press conference Aug. 12, that he would continue any programs started at the department before his appointment, including the gun buyback program.