by Tim O'Brien
December 13, 1999
In an effort to reduce violent crime in public housing the Detroit Housing Commission is going to participate in a federal "gun buyback" program that will give residents $50 for every firearm they hand over to authorities. No questions asked. The funding is coming from a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program under which taxpayers will spend $15 million nationwide to purchase and destroy 300,000 guns. So, naturally, local officials are eager to take advantage of the plan and get our "fair share" -- despite the fact that there has been only one murder in Detroit public housing so far this year. And the weapon used in that instance was a knife.
This program has already been implemented by the Cook County Sheriff in Chicago where it has become the subject of a lawsuit. Evidence gathered as part of that case has shown that the majority of firearms that will be turned in for the bounty fall into one of two categories. The first type will be hunting, target or fine antique weapons that widows find among their husband's possessions and for which they have no use. These are generally worth more -- sometimes, significantly more -- than the $50 officials will give them. Individuals in this circumstance would be well advised to first take such weapons to a local gun show (back in operation again, for the moment, anyway, at several locations around the metro area) to get some idea of their actual value. Of course, disarming little, old ladies of weapons they don't even know how to use isn't going to take much of a bite out of crime.
The second type of weapons these "buyback" programs draw are ones that are either rusty old relics that have been gathering dust in an attic or else have been cobbled together -- sometimes from disparate and even incompatible parts -- using super glue, duct tape and baling wire. No one in his right mind would actually put a live round into one of these and pull the trigger, for fear the whole contraption might blow up in his hand. Eliminating these will have little impact on crime either since they were all but forgotten or, perhaps, didn't even exist at all until the incentive to scrounge and/or assemble them was offered. Unlike many in the previous group, these are not even worth the modest sum offered under the buyback program. Like those in the other group, however, neither were they a threat to begin with.
The number of useful weapons turned in by genuine criminals willing to exchange the tools of their trade for a mere $50 apiece will be vanishingly small. Although, it ought to be observed that those who specialize in what police call "B&E's" (breaking and entering) will in fact find a tremendous new C.O.D. outlet for a major part of their loot. Which brings us to another point. Buying or otherwise transferring a firearm with "no questions asked" is a substantial violation of about a dozen different federal laws. And there are some folks in places like Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas who could tell you just how serious the feds can be when it comes to even such minor technicalities as selling a shotgun with a barrel that's a quarter of an inch too short or mere suspicion of possessing prohibited gun parts. Well, at least, their survivors could.
Since we seem to be of a mind to try some new approaches to reducing violent crime in public housing let me propose a simple experiment. Select one, particular public housing project and offer to train and arm every adult resident who has no criminal or mental illness history. For free. The cost of such a program could be kept quite low. People can learn the basics of handgun use, maintenance and safety in a single, one-day class. The weapons themselves could be some portion of the used ones the Detroit police routinely sell wholesale out of state (many of which seem to find their way back home anyway).
Once the program has been fully implemented, prominently display a sign out in front of the apartment complex that says: "More than half of the residents here are armed. Care to guess which ones?" Meanwhile, select another public housing complex of similar size, type and environs where possession of any firearm can then, without exception, be prohibited. The sign out front here can read: "This is a gun free apartment complex.
Please don't hurt us."
Would anyone care to place any wagers as to which of the two will experience the lower crime rate?
Meanwhile, maybe Detroit officials should hold off on their buyback program until the Chicago lawsuit is resolved and we learn whether the court system approves of the government effectively running a fencing operation.
Tim O'Brien is the Executive Director of the Libertarian Party of Michigan.