ON THURSDAY President Clinton unveiled a federal program to buy back guns in public housing projects. Allocated $15 million, the program is modeled on Washington D.C.'s -- as well as other cities' -- successful buyback endeavors. While this program is a well-intentioned effort to take guns off the nation's streets, it also is significantly flawed.
Clinton's plan provides up to $500,000 each to local police departments who will buy guns from those living in or around public housing. It recommends that police purchase the guns for $50 apiece -- half of what the District paid its gun sellers -- and then destroy them.
The purpose of the program is to reduce the number of guns that are on the nation's streets and in its homes -- an estimated 200 million, according to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo. While the government potentially could buy 280,000 guns with this plan -- and D.C. purchased 2,306 in two days -- it likely would receive them from the wrong people ("U.S. to Allocate $15 Million for Gun Buybacks in Public Housing," The Washington Post, Sept. 9).
According to a letter to the editor in The Washington Post, a D.C. official said that most of the gun buyback participants were grandparents and women ("Some Kept Their Guns," Sept. 2). Removing weapons from these people's homes likely will decrease the rates of accidental injuries and deaths from firearms, but these are not demographic groups who are likely to commit violent crimes. Rather, criminals probably will keep their guns and those people who sold theirs may be left unable to defend themselves from attackers.
Additionally, recipients of cash payments can use this money for anything they desire. Police ask no questions when buying back guns, and sellers are immune from all charges that may be linked to ownership of their weapons. This means that government funds may be used to purchase another firearm or to support an illegal drug habit, for example. Criminals may steal guns just to receive the monetary reward. This program could defeat its own purpose -- controlling gun ownership -- by providing participants with the money with which to buy more.
Other gun control policies are more promising than this one. For seven months the federal government has required background checks on would-be gun buyers. Approximately 100,000 convicted felons and others have been prevented from illegally purchasing guns with this law. Clinton supports a new gun restriction to require criminal background checks for prospective weapons buyers at gun shows. This measure would continue the process of keeping guns out of the hands of criminals ("Clinton Touts Gun Efforts, Unveils Buyback Program," The Washington Post, Sept. 9).
Clinton's buyback program also has the positive stipulation that a national law enforcement agency -- which hasn't been chosen yet -- will receive $1 million to determine the effectiveness of gun buybacks across the country. The organization needs to be selected and begin its work as quickly as possible, studying the effects of past programs. If it finds that gun buybacks have no effect on crime and accidental death, the money should be used for other, more valuable purposes.
Making one major change to the program will improve it significantly: People who sell guns to police departments shouldn't be given money in exchange. Alternately, police can reward those who turn in their guns with a myriad of goods -- food, toys, clothing or medicine to name a few.
This option, which Housing and Urban Development officials will recommend that local police use, will prevent the abuse of federal funds in the hands of individuals. Guns will not be exchanged for money for more guns. Since program participants mainly will be from public housing projects, vouchers for necessary goods will be accepted gladly.
Local government officials will have the leeway to determine what to give in exchange for guns, and they can be creative. Money could go towards a general fund to be used to build a playground in the housing project, or for child care or movie tickets, to name a few diverse options.
Although it's possible that not as many people will sell their guns in exchange for these goods, police departments should have no trouble using all of their funds. In the District, the buyback program was so popular that it ran out of money in the middle and had to turn sellers away. Nationally, people should be eager to participate, even for a non-monetary reward. Most importantly, the funds allocated toward the project would be used constructively.
Clinton's gun buyback program can't be viewed as perfect, or even particularly valuable, in its current form. Effectiveness of the program has yet to be studied, and there are numerous dangers in exchanging guns for money. The plan effectively may decrease accidental deaths caused by guns in homes. In combination with other gun control measures, and if modified to trade guns for goods, the buyback program has promise and should be pursued.
(Jennifer Schaum is a Cavalier Daily associate editor.)