A city-sponsored gun buyback in New Orleans sparked a social media backlash after scores of people were left standing in the rain without a chance to turn weapons into cash Saturday.
Officials with Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration acknowledged that the buyback quickly “hit capacity,” but they nevertheless described it as a success.
Critics said the event was poorly organized and that the giveaway amount of $500 per person was too high, leading many to show up in an effort to upgrade their arsenal.
Meanwhile, one academic expert who has researched buybacks said there is little evidence that they reduce homicides, suicides or accidental shootings.
“It was a waste of time and it was a PR stunt,” said Algiers resident Cecilia Graham, who left with guns in hand after two hours. “It was totally mismanaged.”
The buyback was scheduled to last for three hours on Saturday at New Hope Baptist Church in Central City. The city said it would give $500 — more than the cost of some new handguns at local retailers — to anyone who turned in a working weapon.
Gun owners had to prove residency in New Orleans, but they did not have to show photo identification.
Money for the event came from the Edward Wisner Donation, a city-administered charitable trust that supports city programs. City officials did not say how many guns they collected or how much money was spent.
Many residents said they arrived at the church to find lines snaking around the block amid general confusion. Dozens or hundreds were turned away well before the event’s scheduled 2 p.m. end time, they said. Cantrell herself tweeted that the event had reached capacity shortly before 11:30 a.m.
Margaret Tastet, of Lakeview, said she stood in the line for 90 minutes with her husband waiting for a chance to surrender two guns.
The scene reminded her of a Black Friday sale, only less organized, she said. She braved the gusty rain until police officers informed the crowd that only the first 200 people in line would receive a payment. If all 200 got $500 checks, that would mean the city paid out $100,000.
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Like some others, Tastet said she and her husband had hoped to use their payday to buy more weapons, and better ones.
“We were actually upgrading and increasing,” Tastet said of their plans, which were dashed.
She said her husband told her, "If we get $1,000 back, it’s not going into any other budget."
Graham and Tastet said they saw dozens of would-be gun sellers leave with their weapons. Some learned that the event was over-subscribed only through a post on Cantrell's Facebook page.
One man turned the gun buyback into a gun show by offering to purchase collectible antique weapons.
Many gun owners took to Twitter and Facebook to criticize the buyback event and the mayor. A few offered thanks, however.
“Let's say some positive things, for a change,” said one man. “I'll use my money to do some maintenance on my pickup truck. While all of this could have been executed better, it was real, and it will help me, a disabled veteran, catch up a little bit financially. Thank You, Mayor Cantrell.”
In June 2017, then-City Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey conducted a buyback that offered gun owners $100 for working handguns, shotguns or rifles and $200 for assault weapons. Officials collected more than 100 weapons at a far lower cost than Saturday's event, according to news reports. City officials did not explain why they chose to offer a payout of $500.
“There was a tremendous turnout for Saturday’s event, with large crowds of people lining up early to participate. We are grateful for the huge response and glad so many stepped up to help get guns off the street,” said Beau Tidwell, the mayor’s communications director.
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He added, “We regret that — because we hit capacity so quickly — some people were unable to participate. For any future events, we will look for ways to keep people informed and better limit the potential for disappointment and frustration.”
Similar gun buybacks are a staple of many municipal governments. Last month a buyback in Baltimore netted 1,000 weapons, including a rocket launcher. Another in San Francisco yielded 244 guns.
Yet despite their popularity with politicians, some experts say buybacks do little to curb street violence.
Jon Vernick, a professor at the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, said the academic literature is nearly universal that gun buybacks don’t work.
Researchers have found that participants tend to turn in old or inoperative weapons and that they tend not to be people at risk of committing violence.
“There is no evidence that they reduce rates of street crime. They cost money that could be better spent elsewhere, and so I do think it’s unfortunate that cities continue to do them,” he said.
Vernick said it is possible that gun buybacks might reduce the household-level risk of suicides or accidental shootings, but there is no hard evidence.
“Relative to some other things we might choose to do, they’re easy,” he said of gun buybacks. “They don’t require going to the state legislature and changing gun laws, and they don’t require changing the way we do policing to focus on gun carrying, so that’s why I think, at least partly, they tend to be so popular.”
The Edward Wisner Donation was a bequest from the estate of wealthy businessman Edward Wisner to the city of New Orleans as a 100-year charitable trust in 1914. The city doles out money each year to public and nonprofit organizations who apply through a competitive selection process. In 2016, it distributed $1.77 million to 68 groups.
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