Do gun amnesty programs work?


March 26th, 2014

Omaha, NE — Sgt. Matt Manhart, bomb squad commander for the Omaha Police Department, said OPD holds several gun amnesty days every year.


OPD tries to hit every corridor of the city: Southeast, Northeast, Northwest and Southwest, according to Sgt. Manhart. OPD’s last gun amnesty day March 15 garnered 21 firearms, along with nine buckets of ammunition and a live grenade.

“Basically they find business partners who allow us to utilize a very accessible parking lot,” Manhart said. “Then we turn around and conduct a gun amnesty day there. We just ask people to drop off their unwanted firearms, ammunition, fireworks or explosive devices no questions asked. Anytime we can take a firearm off the street it is going to make our community a lot safer.”

Samuel Walker, retired professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, couldn’t disagree more.

“Gun Amnesty programs are a feel good program,” Professor Walker said. “They sound good and a lot of people think they work, but there is no evidence that they in fact have any impact at all on gun violence in the community.”

Sgt. Manhart said the OPD bomb squad has conducted an annual gun amnesty and fireworks day after the Fourth of July, for the last 10 years. He points to increasing numbers of turned in firearms over the last three years, from 40 firearms three years ago to 52 last summer.

Professor Walker said if people have guns in their possession that they would like to get rid of, there should be a convenient way of doing so. Walker said gun amnesty programs look nice for police departments in the media, but they don’t have any practical effect on gun violence in communities.

“The fact is our country is drowning in guns,” Professor Walker said. “The estimates put the number of handguns in the United States at over 100 million. So mopping up 21 in Omaha isn’t even going to make a dent there. The other common sense point is the people we want to keep away from guns are not the people who are going to turn in guns. So if someone is a gang member or they are involved with a life of crime, they aren’t going to turn in their guns.”

Professor Samuel Walker said gun amnesty programs are not effective at curbing gun violence. (Photo Courtesy UNO)

Professor Samuel Walker said gun amnesty programs are not effective at curbing gun violence. (Photo Courtesy UNO)

There are nearly 300 million registered guns in the United States, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS). This includes more than 100 million handguns and rifles, as well as nearly 90 million shotguns.

Professor Walker said there is no factual link between Gun Amnesty programs and a reduction in gun violence in Omaha.  However, Walker said there is a better, more efficient way in combating gun violence than relying on gun amnesty programs. He calls it focused deterrence.

“These programs have been evaluated by some of the top criminologists in the country,” Professor Walker said. “What it does is a police department using all of the information that it has at its disposal about known gang leaders and people involved in a high-rate of gun violence. It comes up with a very short list to focus its attention and that’s where the term ‘focused deterrence’ comes from.”

Professor Walker said by focusing on repeat offenders and hot spots where gun violence has historically happened, police are then able to narrow their scope. In turn, police are able to get a better grasp at how gun violence affects their community, according to Professor Walker. He said there is a difference between concentrating on trouble spots and harassing citizens. Professor Walker pointed to Boston and Chicago where focused deterrence programs have been successful. He also noted Cincinnati, Ohio, where University of Cincinnati professor Robin Engel has engaged with local police departments to utilize focused deterrence.

“Their program was so successful that the state of Ohio contracted with Professor Engel to take this program to five other cities in the state of Ohio,” Professor Walker said. “These programs have been proved to be effective in reducing gun violence in the target audience.”

Not only do these programs target those who are more likely to re-offend, but they also offer these same criminals a way out of the underbelly of society, according to Walker. GED programs, substance abuse programs and counseling are just some of the ways focused deterrence programs seek out and help these criminals.

Whether or not OPD takes on focused deterrence programs is uncertain, but Sgt. Manhart said the effectiveness of the gun amnesty program is unquestionable.

“The majority of these guns are guns that could easily fall into the wrong hands, “Sgt. Manhart said. “Even if I hold a gun amnesty day and I get one gun that is turned in – that is one less gun that is on the streets that could potentially be used to commit a crime, hurt somebody or even kill somebody. So I don’t see how anybody could say that it is not successful.”

Professor Walker said even if gun amnesty programs were to gather even double or triple the guns they collect it would still not even scratch the surface or be considered effective. He said more needs to be done to curb gun violence in Omaha.

Some cities around the country like Newark, N.J. host gun ‘buy back ‘programs, where the city pays citizens to turn in their unwanted guns. During the program this year, Newark bought 174 guns for $25,200.

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