“It’s not what you don’t know, it’s what you know that ain’t so.” — Will Rogers.
Will Rogers would probably be bemused at the phenomenon of the “gun buyback.” In this latest manifestation of the ancient human capacity for self-delusion made immortal by the Dutch mass tulip-bulb hysteria, men of presumed good will pile up unwanted guns into a knob, hill, mountain or whatever terrain feature they can manage, and consign them to the fires of Perdition. Come to think of it, a better metaphor may be the Salem Village witch trials of 1692, except, in this case, burning the broomsticks rather than the witches. (Of course, no witches were burnt at Salem — that was a European sport — but the meme has taken hold. Curse you, Monty Python!). Other comparisons that seem apt from time to time are Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate and the Moslem Hadj custom of “stoning the devil.” While the people of Airstrip One were unflagging in their condemnation of Emmanuel Goldstein, at least he was human, however innocent he may have been of all the mischief for which he was so calumniated. While Moslems may throw symbolic rocks at a symbolic Satan, they don’t go around taking out thieir fear and hostility on his pitchfork — nor on pieces of machined metal.
Not so, your urban good-government type. They look at thugs shooting people, thugs killing people, and thugs having running gun battles with cops and, naturally, with other thugs, and they conclude that the evil guns have been radiating maleficient rays that have taken over the brains of otherwise lovable thugs. Such a misstatement of the problem can scarcely lead to a good experiment, which may be why decades of emotion-driven gun “buybacks” have not made the desired dent in crime.
You could say, well, it’s a worldview, and everyone’s gotta have one. But when the urban goo-goos desire to feel good about themselves, a project in which they expect us all to join, produces the pop-culture phenom known as the “gun buyback,” it’s time for those of us who can tell humans from machines 8 times out of 10, and who understand which of the above has moral agency and which does not, to call bullshit on their, well, bullshit.
Here are some myths about gun “buybacks” that are widely believed — and not only by the goo-goos.
Myth 1. “Buybacks” reduce the availability of guns to criminals. This myth is central to the mass delusion that is Buyback Nation, and it has a certain internal logic. But for several reasons, “buybacks” have always been unlikely to be effective in crime-fighting. Criminologists know that criminals fall into two groups — professionals who invariably discard guns (one gun, one job), and opportunists who tend to retain guns. Ballistic evidence sends many opportunists to crowbar motel annually. But an opportunistic criminal, who keeps his gun in case further criminal opportunities present themselves, is unlikely to turn it in for $50 to $200, unless he has another gun already lined up. And a professional who already drops his smoking gun at the crime scene, forever severing his connexion to the crime weapon, is already confident he can replace the discarded weapon. Therefore, whatever weapons a “buyback” dutifully collects and destroys, it’s not one of the ones in active criminal circulation. In economic terms, they constitute a second market with only tangential overlap with the legitimate market, and no overlap at all with products which are not on either market — and the guns at “buybacks” come significantly from this third group.
Myth 2. “Buybacks” only yield junk guns. This myth, on the other hand, is common among the gun culture. And there’s a certain logic to it, as well — who but a fool would discard a $600-1000 object for a $100 Walmart card? One answer, though, is someone who has a gun but does not know its value. And we have seen a number of these cases, ranging from a $30,000 registered MP44 turned in in Connecticut, to a Colt AR-15 SP1, a couple of 1911s and a Chief’s Special in the recent Staten Island event, and the guns at the LA buyback. (Note: since drafting this, we’ve learned another MP44 was turned in in CA… and unlike the CT one, this one will not be spared the smelter).
According to news reports, that pile is some of the 817 guns turned in in LA last weekend. Let’s look at that picture above and try to ID some of the guns. A complete ID list is another post, if we get to it, but you can see some premium guns and some mid-range and “decent quality, low-price” guns (including, we are bemused to see, at least three H&R .22 revolvers, suggesting that the pile provided for the cops for the press is not a random sample). Also, at least one “gun” in the pile looks to us like a cast-zamak nonfiring replica. If those are truly buyback guns, then the buybacks don’t only yield junk. (We’re cautious about accepting a staged press conference photo as authentic, given John Dodson’s revelation that ATF sets aside the most photogenic guns and rolls them out for every press conference and other public event. ATF often goes its own way, but in this case other law enforcement might be committing a similar fraud on the public).
Email to LAPD’s media office a couple of days ago has been acknowledged, but not answered in any substance… we’re still waiting.
Myth 3. “Buybacks” help solve crime. Actually, in the few cases of crime guns voluntarily being turned in, they’re being turned in, in part, to ensure that crime goes unpunished. A turned-in gun breaks the chain of custody that ties criminal, through gun, to crime. A turned-in gun is, invariably, destroyed without being evaluated for whether it is evidence in a crime. (It wouldn’t kill police forces to run the guns’ ballistics through IAFIS, although by the time they have custody of the gun, of course, the link to its last criminal owner is gone).
It’s not surprising to us that police forces enthusiastic about gun “buybacks” are the same ones that are complacent about a backlog of hundreds or thousands of homicides in their dusty cold case files. Buybacks help the case go cold, and stay cold. Involvement of police in these programs signals a reckless disregard of the victims of those crimes and their families.
LAPD should know this. After all, they have hundreds if not thousands of cold murder cases, including two murders of their own cops, at least one of which is cold because the fatal bullets were never recovered and so they’ve never been able to match another crime’s gun to their dead brother officer. (In another case, they did recover bullets. It’s possible that one of these anonymously turned-in guns was the murder weapon — in which case, they’ll never know because they don’t test the guns, and even if they did, they’d still have no leads).
Myth 4. A “Buyback” is a buy back. This may be the most insidious myth of all, because the idea that some government entity is buying guns “back” for destruction is rooted in Marxian economics, in which all property is property of the state or collective public, and is merely apportioned according to one economic theory or another. It is, at its center, a denial of private property, and so it has problems far beyond any gun issue.
The underlying belief or ideology of “buybacks” is a mistaken public health approach: the belief that crime is an epidemic, and guns are either a vector or an etiologic agent. The causes of crime are many and varied, from lost police legitimacy in inner cities, to much of the criminal class’s lack of cognitive ability sufficient for gainful employment, but primarily in individual decisions to commit crimes. To say guns on the street cause crime is like saying the appearance of buboes on a person’s lymph nodes attracts yersinia pestis to his body — a public health approach, perhaps, but an ass-backwards one.
So, what’s the alternative? That’s one for another day.