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  • Writer's pictureArch Policy Institute

The Complicated Reality of Local Gun Buybacks - Kyleigh Cook

Hello, everyone. I’m Kyleigh Cook, a second-year general body member of API from Baltimore, Maryland. Outside of API, I am studying issues facing American law enforcement in Dr. Dan Silk’s “Special Topics in Law” course. This week, I chose to focus on how local officials and police departments are responding to gun violence. 

Gun violence presents a pressing challenge for communities across the United States. In 2021, the CDC reported that 48,830 people died from gun-related injuries — the highest number of gun deaths ever recorded. To put this figure into context, someone was killed by a gun every 11 minutes.[1] According to EveryStat, EveryTown for Gun Safety’s report based on CDC data, Georgia has the 17th-highest rate of gun deaths in the country, with an average of 17.4 deaths per 100,000 people from 2018 to 2021.[2]

In Clayton County, 272 people were killed by guns between 2018 and 2021, a rate of 23.2 deaths per 100,000 people, which outpaces the state average.[3] In response, the Clayton County Police Department hosted four gun buyback events in 2023. These events aimed to reduce the number of weapons on the street by incentivizing the public to surrender handguns, shotguns and rifles in exchange for prepaid gift cards.[4] A recent report by the RAND Corporation found widespread public support for buyback initiatives despite limited research on their effectiveness.[5

Maj. Stefan Schindler told 11 Alive News that at each event in Clayton County, the department receives about 100 surrendered guns, a number he described as a significant reduction.[6] Proponents of buybacks emphasize the importance of preventing even one gun-related accident. Buybacks allow those with a reason to remove firearms from their household to do so safely. The RAND report mentions other positive effects of the programs, such as increasing public awareness of the risks associated with firearms, providing education on gun safety and connecting violence prevention organizations.[7]

However, recent reporting by The New York Times investigates one aspect of buyback programs that many fail to consider: What happens to the guns after the police collect them? One concern is that most buyback programs, like the one in Clayton County, do not identify participants or investigate firearms in connection with crimes, as this could deter participation.[8] Another issue, the focus of the Times’ investigation, has to do with the cost of destroying the guns and the problem that this creates for police departments.[9

Maj. Schindler informed 11 Alive News that, “The guns are completely destroyed once we take possession of them so they will never make it back to the streets again.”[10] The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) provides guidance on how to destroy firearms. Options include torching and severing the firearm in at least three critical locations or completely melting, shredding or crushing the firearm receiver.[11] However, these methods can be costly, and local police budgets vary considerably. 

The company GunBusters, founded by a former officer, manages to destroy unwanted guns free of charge for police agencies. In 2014, GunBusters patented their firearms pulverizer, a machine housed in their headquarters in Chesterfield, Missouri, designed to destroy and document the destruction of the ATF-defined firearm.[12,13] The ATF interprets the definition of a firearm under the Gun Control Act of 1968 to be the frame or receiver of the weapon.[14] Before the gun enters the pulverizer, GunBusters strips it of its other parts and accessories, which are then packaged and sold in kits online. GunBusters pulverizes the frame or receiver with the serial number, making the remaining parts in these kits untraceable. Since they are not firearms, anyone can purchase gun kits without a background check.[15

The company reports that it has destroyed over 200,000 firearms for 950 agencies nationwide.[16] While GunBusters will destroy the entire gun in exchange for a fee, GunBusters’ president Scott Reed told The New York Times’ investigative reporter Matt McIntire that 98 percent of their clients do not request this option. On The Daily podcast, McIntire points out that local governments can approve contracts like these without close attention to detail.[17] GunBusters clearly states their business model on their website, and agencies themselves are likely aware of the company’s practices.[18] Conversely, those turning in their guns may not be. Participants in buybacks likely want and expect them to be destroyed, an insight Rev. Chris Yaw gathered from attendees at a Detroit-area buybacks’ reluctance to sell their firearms at a higher price to outside buyers that approached them in line.[19

The secondary market created by GunBusters complicates a related policy issue: the ability of police to legally dispose of firearms at all. In the state of Georgia and eight other states, police are prevented from destroying weapons confiscated during criminal investigations.[20] Instead, in most cases, the departments sell these guns at auction in accordance with § 17-5-52 of the Georgia Code.[21,22] Six state senators sponsored legislation during the 2017-2018 session amending this portion of the state’s criminal procedure to allow local departments to decide whether to sell or dispose of confiscated weapons. This initiative, SB323, failed to gain traction.[23]

In North Carolina, another state where police are forbidden from disposing of firearms, police departments across the state are running out of room to store guns. Disinclined to sell the weapons back into circulation, Durham Police Chief Patrice Andrews told WRAL News that her department has leased 20,000 square feet of new warehouse space in part to store seized guns.[24] The cost and liability associated with storing guns further complicate the debate over what police should do with weapons confiscated as evidence or collected through buybacks. What role should local police departments play in controlling gun violence outside of their jurisdiction?

According to Amnesty International, a significant proportion of firearm deaths, in some states, more than half, are caused by suicide and accidents.[25] The Pew Research Center reports that 26,328, or 54 percent, of all gun-related deaths in the U.S. in 2021 were suicides, and 549 were accidental. Additionally, gun deaths among children and teens, who are vulnerable to gun-related accidents, rose 50 percent in just two years.[26] According to the RAND report, a survey of buyback participants in Phoenix and New Haven found that 68 percent turned in a firearm for safety reasons, which included being unable to store the firearm properly, concern that the firearm would be accessed by children or feeling afraid of the firearm.[27] Gun buybacks, regardless of the ability to measure their effect on gun death rates, provide a way for community members to remove guns from their homes while learning more about the importance of gun safety.

It is crucial, however, to consider the implications of facilitating a secondary market of untraceable gun kits online. Combined with a homemade or illegally purchased receiver, these kits can be assembled as untraceable, fully operational “ghost guns.”[28] In 2022, the Department of Justice recovered 25,785 ghost guns in domestic seizures. The nature of ghost guns makes them attractive to dangerous individuals, and they present a problem for law enforcement investigating crime.[29] If buybacks are implemented to provide community members with a safe option for disposing of guns, local officials and police should be aware of the potential impact GunBusters’ practices can have on communities like their own. 

The federal definition of a firearm is unlikely to change in today’s political climate.[30] The responsibility of ensuring that unwanted guns are effectively removed from communities without seeping into others falls to today’s local leaders. The Michigan State Police, GunBusters’ largest client, recently paused the disposal of surrendered or seized firearms in response to the company’s controversial practices.[31] Police departments and local governments in Georgia should examine their ties to similar vendors and the hidden effects of their buyback initiatives. Likewise, Georgia legislators considering changes to police procedure must account for the cost and liability of firearms’ sale, storage and disposal. As the nature of gun violence and regulations surrounding firearms continue to evolve, local and state leaders must seek out evidence-based solutions, listen to their communities and read the fine print. 

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