On April 29, Attorney General Letitia James plans to host New York’s first statewide gun buyback. The one-day event will operate at nine locations, where officials will offer prepaid gift cards for up to $500 to people who turn in their firearms — no questions asked.

The buyback program aims to reduce gun violence, according to James’s office, by offering an easy and risk-free way to get firearms off the streets and out of homes. New York is not the first state to attempt such an initiative. Connecticut hosts a similar buyback annually, and locally run buybacks are far more common. 

The relative ease and low cost of running gun buybacks — and the images they produce of tables covered with dozens of firearms — have made them popular, both among law enforcement agencies and the broader public. But buybacks rarely garner national attention, nor are they frequently proposed by lawmakers as a scalable solution to America’s gun violence epidemic. 

That’s led our readers to routinely send in questions about the efficacy of gun buybacks. Below, we attempt to provide some answers. 

What is a gun buyback?

It’s exactly what it sounds like. In a gun buyback, a government, law enforcement agency, or community group offers compensation to people who turn over firearms. Generally, the goals are to reduce the overall number of guns in circulation, recover illegally possessed firearms, and remove guns from situations where people may harm themselves or others.

It’s important to distinguish gun buybacks in the United States from buybacks in other countries, where some have been national in scope and mandatory. For example, Australia launched a mandatory gun buyback, along with other reforms, after a 1996 mass shooting in Tasmania. But in the United States, gun buybacks are typically at the local level, and participation is voluntary. Sometimes, officials accept only operable firearms. In other locales, officials will take any gun, regardless of its condition. In New York, for example, police are offering hundreds of dollars for working assault rifles and ghost guns, and as little as $25 for inoperable firearms, usually in the form of gift cards. Central to most buyback programs is anonymity: Police often say they will not collect names, scan IDs, or ask questions.

In the U.S., gun buybacks date back to at least the 1960s, if not earlier. There has never been a national buyback program, but in 2000, the Department of Housing and Urban Development provided $15 million to support local buybacks. The program was eliminated the next year. Since then, at least two bills supporting voluntary local gun buybacks have been proposed in Congress, but have not passed. Former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke also proposed a mandatory assault weapons buyback during the 2020 primary.

Sounds simple. Do they work?

The answer is complicated. Proponents often point to anecdotal evidence, arguing that even one less gun on the street is a victory. But it’s challenging to empirically measure the broader effects of small, locally run initiatives. It doesn’t help that there’s a dearth of reliable data on gun violence and on the number of guns in circulation, especially at the local level.

As a result, many evaluations have instead focused on short-term effects that are easier to measure — like the number of participants, how many guns were collected, and public awareness — instead of the impact on homicides, suicides, and nonfatal shootings and assaults.

“They’re difficult to study,” Amanda Charbonneau, a researcher at the RAND Corporation who conducted a wide-ranging review of available research on buybacks, told The Trace. “It’s not because people aren’t trying to use the best methods that they can.”

The most rigorous studies of gun buyback programs have found little empirical evidence to suggest that they reduce shootings, homicides, or suicides by any significant degree in either the short- or long-term. 

This isn’t surprising, experts say. “Even under the assumption of optimal implementation, only a tiny fraction of guns in a given community are going to be turned into gun buyback programs,” Charbonneau said. “It’s unlikely that research using standard statistical methods will be able to identify the causal impact of buybacks on firearm violence.”

An analysis by The Trace earlier this year found that more than 16 million guns were produced for the U.S. market in 2020 alone, and somewhere between 350 and 465 million guns may be in circulation nationwide. Meanwhile, even the most successful gun buyback events collect only a few hundred guns at a time. For example, over a nearly two-decade period, New York City’s gun buyback initiative collected just 10,000 firearms.

“Turning in small numbers of firearms does not change the fact that they are readily available in many places,” Charbonneau said. “And so you still have a flow of firearms through a community. If you think of it as a supply-side intervention, the supply is barely affected.”

There are other shortcomings, too. Studies have found that buybacks often collect inoperable guns, guns that don’t fit the characteristics of typical crime guns, or guns from people who are unlikely to be at risk of firearm violence. Several studies have found that people who participate in buybacks tend to be older, less likely to be involved in gun violence, and not residents of the city holding the buyback. And many people who turn over one gun still keep other guns at home.

There are ways to tailor buybacks to get guns that pose a greater risk, but that may further reduce the number of guns collected. Meanwhile, in most of the country, guns are easy to purchase, with limited restrictions and safeguards.

If the evidence isn’t strong that buybacks work, is there a downside to their popularity?

There could be. Some researchers and advocates worry that, by briefly acting on the public’s desire for intervention, gun buybacks could be taking attention and resources from other reforms that are more likely to have an impact.

Other interventions that have actually been shown to be effective at reducing violence are more expensive, take longer to get off the ground, and are politically and practically more challenging to implement.

“Some of the very reasons that people like [buybacks] are the things that could hinder their success,” Charbonneau said. “They’re voluntary, and they’re small in scope, and they don’t change anything about anyone’s ability to purchase a gun.”

Are there other reasons to run buybacks?

Buybacks can serve as opportunities to educate people about firearm safety and safe storage, or to provide free gun locks and safes. But those efforts are also difficult to measure because of selection effects — in other words, the people who are likely to participate in a gun buyback may already be aware of gun safety.

“You might be getting a fairly small number of people exposed to an intervention that’s intended to raise awareness, but it’s only going to be people who already participate or see the advertising around gun buybacks,” Charbonneau said. “And then at that point, you get pretty far away from the intended outcome.”

Even if it’s not realistic to expect buybacks to independently reduce rates of gun violence, the programs may be able to shift views about guns and mobilize communities to work to reduce violence.

“The value of buybacks is principally as a mobilization tool, bringing together people and organizations who want to work on the problem,” Dr. Garen Wintemute, an expert on public health and gun violence at the University of California, Davis, told The Trace in 2021

Wintemute co-authored a study that found that buyback programs could be tailored to collect firearms that better fit the profile of crime guns. The study was unable to determine whether the tailored buyback independently reduced gun violence.

“The key,” Wintermute said at the time, “is for that work to continue beyond the buyback.”