While gun sales soar nationally, a group of musicians fundraise for a local gun buy-back
In the wake of high-profile incidents of gun violence—from the Sandy Hook school shooting last December to the fatal shooting of two Santa Cruz police officers three months ago—the debate over gun ownership in America centers on one question as it rages on: Do guns make us safer or do they make our lives more dangerous?
The country’s response is dichotomous—the current climate spurs some to promote individuals getting rid of their guns, thereby reducing the number available for violent acts, while it leads others to tighten their grip on firearms and, in some cases, stockpile even more in fear of an outright government ban.
For those living in the Bay Area and Santa Cruz, that divide is illustrated by both a steadily increasing number of gun purchases and record numbers of guns being turned in or sold at buy-backs this year.
Turn-ins allow gun owners to submit their unwanted weapons to authorities, while buy-backs have the added incentive of paying gun owners for their unwanted guns. Buy-backs are usually funded with money from private groups, individuals, nonprofits and, more rarely, government entities. Both types sometimes offer amnesty for people turning in guns, which essentially guarantees a no-questions-asked policy.
Moved by the number of recent gun-related deaths in the country, Palo Alto-based musician Nancy Cassidy has gathered 17 other musicians for a benefit concert at 7:30 on Saturday, June 8 at the Resource Center for Nonviolence (RCNV).
“The general feeling is that guns bring so much violence into our world, and we would like to help,” she says. “Getting guns off the street is a positive thing.”
The group aims to designate the proceeds for local gun buy-backs in partnership with the Santa Cruz Police Department, though the SCPD, which has never hosted a buy-back event, has yet to confirm any arrangement.
SCPD Deputy Chief Steve Clark says holding a buy-back is not out of the question, but that determining how the funds are controlled and administered would require consultation with the city attorney. He explains that if the proceeds were held by SCPD, they would become public funds, which makes their implementation for buybacks more complicated.
On the whole, Clark believes that getting firearms off the street does reduce gun violence.
“Absolutely,” he says. “We know that with gang crime on the streets, a lot of the guns they use are stolen from homes where they’re not stored properly. If you can reduce that kind of availability for these individuals who can’t legitimately purchase firearms, their ability to get a gun goes down. I do see a correlation with safety.”
But the implications, results, and motives of people selling or giving up their weapons is not all that cut-and-dried.
One issue with buy-backs—in which police typically pay around $100 for handguns and $200 for rifles—is that they provide the opportunity for people to turn in old “junk” guns in exchange for money that they can use to purchase new ones, says Stoney Brooke, a retired Santa Cruz police detective and now gun safety advocate. Another wrinkle is the potential for buy-backs that do not require any identification to encourage thieves to steal guns, knowing they can sell them to the police for cash. In these amnesty scenarios, the person submitting the gun must sign a waiver allowing the gun to be destroyed immediately.
Clark has some reservations about amnesty for buy-backs, citing the potential for someone to sell stolen guns or ones used for crimes.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “On the one hand, you get guns off the street, which is good. But on the other hand, you have someone out there who could be creating victims—stealing guns—and I’d love to see some accountability for that.”
The SCPD allows gun owners to turn in their weapons at the police station on an ongoing basis, though amnesty is not offered and a strict safety protocol is followed. When guns are turned in, they hold the weapons for 90 days to provide time for any claims or reports of stolen weapons that might match, and then send them to a firearms dealer who specializes in destroying them.
Although 25 guns were turned in to law enforcement agencies across Santa Cruz County (including nine that went to the SCPD) during an amnesty gun turn-in event on Saturday, May 11, benefit organizer Cassidy argues that buy-backs are much more effective than events where people are asked to hand in weapons for free.
In March, two anonymous, no-questions-asked buy-backs in Santa Clara County took in a record number of guns for the Bay Area: the first paid out $114,000 for more than 1,100 firearms; the second dished out $61,000 for about 600 firearms.
In April, Seaside law enforcement had about $25,000 for a buy-back—enough for 250 guns—but they ran out of money within several hours, and, in February, Palo Alto held a buy-back funded with $52,000 and took in about 400 firearms.
But Brooke, who was involved with organizing the May turn-in event, says buy-backs present several problems, such as one that arose at a gun buy-back event about a year ago in the East Bay. Some drivers were stuck in traffic as they approached the location to turn in their weapons, and others interested in acquiring guns showed up and walked along the road offering those drivers cash for their guns on the spot—something like a gun flea market.
At their core, Brooke says both gun buy-backs and turn-ins are about encouraging gun owners to continually assess whether owning a weapon is the right decision for them, and providing opportunities to get rid of them when they aren’t wanted.
“Owning a gun is not a passive thing,” he says.
Clark, similarly, says the SCPD does not discourage firearm ownership, but emphasizes the importance of responsible gun ownership.
“The decision to have a firearm at home is a deeply personal decision,” Clark says. “People need to understand all the ramifications—the use of their gun and their own capabilities.”
According to Rep. Sam Farr, gun buy-backs date back to the ’90s when Bill Clinton was president and his administration was working to pass a bill through Congress that banned assault weapons—a law that Congress, during the Bush administration, allowed to sunset.
During the ’90s, Salinas had the highest gun buy-back rates in the country, Farr says, which prompted a visit from President Clinton.
“We’ve been very successful when we’ve had these programs on the Central Coast in the past,” Farr says. “I’m glad to see that other communities are stepping forward.”
At their current rate, Brooke says buy-backs and turn-ins do very little to reduce the number of guns on the street—“It’s really not even a drop in the bucket.”
According to the California Department of Justice, the number of gun dealers’ sale transactions went up from about 500,000 in 2010 to about 820,000 in 2012. That is coupled with a soaring rate of gun production—in April, major gun distributor Sturm Ruger reported 2.1 million orders in contrast to 337,000 their previous quarter.
But, Brooke adds, these programs do get unwanted guns out of people’s homes, which helps.
Cassidy says every gun off the street counts, but for lack of a major reduction, hosting a benefit concert for buy-backs makes a statement.
“By singing for this concert, it’s our way of saying we want things to change,” she says. “If you don’t like a war, and you march, like we did during Vietnam. It may not make a difference, but it speaks to the issue. This is our way of using whatever tools we can to make the statement that we want guns off the street.”
“And,” she adds, “if every community in the country did buy-backs, something would change.”
The Buy ’Em Back benefit will take place at 7:30 pm. on Saturday, June 8 at the Resource Center for Nonviolence (RCNV), 612 Ocean St., Santa Cruz. A $15 donation is requested.