The Exchange: Does Chicago’s cash-for-guns program pay off?

“Let me tell you something: if this were the Wild West, Jesse James and all, we wouldn’t have problems with gun violence.” The smell of hard liquor heavy on his breath, a patch of stubbly white hairs hanging off his lower chin, the man proceeded out of the basement of St. Sabina Catholic Church with $75 fresh in hand. Having voluntarily relinquished his gun minutes before, this seemed like a strange sentiment to be voicing. Even more so considering he gave it to the Chicago Police Department as part of a program to get guns off of the streets of Chicago. But the apparent contradictions of this response aren’t an anomaly; they reflect much broader ambiguities in Chicago’s approach to gun control.

The event at St. Sabina was part of a greater citywide effort by the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy department (CAPS) to buy back and destroy guns from Chicago citizens. From 10am to 4pm on May 8th, the Chicago Police Department set up locations at 22 sites across the city where anyone could turn in a gun. In exchange, participants received a prepaid MasterCard, no questions asked. $100 for an assault weapon, $75 for a handgun, $10 for a model or BB gun.

Upwards of 4,000 guns (and two hand grenades) were collected in total on Saturday, although turnout varied from site to site. At St. Sabina, serving as the official media location on 78th and Racine, upwards of 550 guns were collected. But another location, Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church at 45th and Princeton, the site was struggling to collect 50 guns.

There were no AKs or other assault rifles collected in my presence. Instead, the guns didn’t look too far off from the toy guns I played with in my youth: a variety of small firearms reminiscent of water guns, six shooters out of a John Wayne movie, small revolvers a la Clue. The guns, spanning the range of rusted handguns to hunting rifles held together by electrical tapes, were nothing like the weapons used by the gangsters and drug dealers on the nightly news.

Few of these guns came from the hands of gang members or others likely to commit a crime with a gun. Most of the participants were there because they saw no use for their guns. The former security guard no longer in need of his firearm, the senior who found a gun he had forgotten about in his basement, and the man who had decided that he was tired of hearing about gun deaths all seem unlikely candidates to be implicated in any sort of homicide or gun-related incident. There were a few tales of weapons coming out of the hands of at-risk youth and young adults, such as the father who found a gun in his son’s room (the gift card was going to the kid’s mother for Mother’s Day). But most of the participants seemed to be far removed from the young male demographic that is most likely to commit a crime with a firearm.

This disconnect–that most of the guns come from those least likely to use them–has made Chicago’s gun turn-in program the center of some controversy. The basic points are not disputed: guns kill people, gun violence is an issue in Chicago, gun violence can be at least quelled, if not eradicated. The social cost of a gunshot injury has been estimated at 1 million dollars, and total gunshot wounds at almost 2.5 billion dollars a year for the city of Chicago.

Despite having collected more than 20,000 guns since the program’s introduction in 2005, there have been persistent questions as to whether the program has had any sort of impact on gun violence in Chicago. University of Chicago economist Stephen Levitt has disputed the effectiveness of gun buy-backs in general. In his paper “Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s,” Dr. Levitt argues that “research evaluations have consistently failed to document any link between gun buy-back programs and reductions in gun violence.” A study done on a similar program in Milwaukee found that the types of guns turned in did not correspond to the types of guns most often used for crime. Turn-in programs have been repeatedly called a waste of resources that distract from the issue at hand: finding effective ways to decrease gun crime.

A cynical dismissal of the Chicago program’s persistence would find its real aims more political in nature, nothing but a good photo opportunity. On April 29th, in anticipation of the turn-in, Mayor Daley stood in front of a table of assault rifles and a room full of press, discussing his hard stance on crime. “I don’t know of any other city or state that regularly asks their residents to turn in their illegal weapons like we do in Chicago,” he said sternly. “We’re going to continue removing guns from our streets.”

But gun turn-ins might hold potential for more than just publicity. The University of Chicago Crime Lab, an academic group studying crime in Chicago, has pointed to the irregularity of Chicago’s gun turn-in program as a place for improvement. Holding up a sustained national gun turn-in attempt in Australia as an example of a more successful program, the group has argued that relying on more regular efforts could be a more effective method.

But maybe even the occasional turn-in may have value beyond the immediate, pragmatic returns. Pastor Charles Jenkins of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church argues just this: “I think [the gun turn-in] says number one, the issue is at the forefront of our minds, and I think it says two, the gun turn-in is a statement that we are committed to doing something about the issue, and I think three, the gun turn-in is a voice box of sorts that, in turn, brings more attention to the issue and brings more support to the whole effort to get the guns off the streets.” Rather than a distraction from real improvement, the program may serve as a catalyst for greater public awareness of gun violence, and more community involvement in preventing it. At some point, the hundreds of murders in Chicago each year become a dismissible bottom line, and it is easy for guns to fade into the periphery of community issues.

The debate over the gun turn-in program rests against the backdrop of Chicago’s handgun ban, which is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court case McDonald v. Chicago. Enacted in 1982, the city’s ban on handguns is one of the most stringent gun restriction laws in the nation. In Chicago, all firearms must be registered with the police, but handguns cannot be registered. In effect, it is illegal for a citizen of the city to possess any sort of handgun in the city of Chicago.

Otis McDonald, a South Side resident, decided to challenge the constitutionality of this ban, citing his rights under the Second Amendment. Afraid that he would not be in a position to protect himself against armed assaulters, McDonald sought to decrease the threat of violence in his neighborhood by challenging his right to possess a handgun.

The case comes in the wake of another Supreme Court case in which a similar gun ban in Washington, DC was overturned. Both cases have served as a rallying point for the NRA and other gun rights advocacy groups. The DC case could not be applied to states because DC falls solely under federal jurisdiction, but a repeal of the gun ban in Chicago would limit the ability of states and local governments across the country to regulate gun possession.

The future of the gun turn-in program hangs over McDonald v. Chicago, which is expected to be decided sometime in June. A major caveat of the turn-in efforts is that the compensation money cannot be used to buy another weapon: the whole program is predicated on the idea of reducing the amount of guns available to criminals. An overturning of the gun ban would necessarily dictate a new strategy for the Chicago Police Department and make the gun turn-in program irrelevant.

At 4pm, the police begin to box up the guns and carry them out to armored vehicles, off to be destroyed and never to return to the streets of Chicago. The last stragglers to turn in their guns head up from the basement of St. Sabina, satisfied with the gift cards in their wallets. Since the beginning of 2010, there have been 127 murders in Chicago. There is a chance that one of the guns turned in could have been responsible for a death in the future–at least, this is the hope of the police. Seeing the guns carried out brings a definite sense of accomplishment to the day. And despite the convoluted nature of the turn-in and the questions surrounding its effectiveness, there is a clear logic driving the program. One father’s sentiment could be the city of Chicago’s: “We ain’t keeping guns in the house.”