ACCORDING to the most recent report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, more than 10 million guns were manufactured in the United States in 2013.
That statistic dropped to around eight million in 2014, and numbers suggest less than four million pistols, rifles and shotguns were produced last year. That’s good news for those working to reduce gun violence.
However, since many weapons don’t expire or become less effective with age (there are WWI-era revolvers still in active use), the accumulated 387 million manufactured in the last century means there are currently more firearms in America than people.
Most of them are owned legally and won’t ever be used in an act of violence or crime. But with over 30,000 gun deaths last year in the U.S. and more than 50 gun-related homicides in Savannah alone, there are guns that pose a threat to the safety of a community.
There are at least 22 less of them on local streets in the last few months, due to a recent initiative that buys guns and destroys them.
“That may not seem like a lot, but it’s 22 murders and suicides that might have been prevented,” says City of Savannah Alderman Van Johnson, who has helped spearhead the program along with Savannah Youth City director Beverlee Trotter.
Johnson says the original plan was to collect weapons and turn them into the police. But given that it’s illegal for anyone under 18 years old or with a felony record to own or possess a gun, such up-close-and-personal interaction with officers might have deterred some otherwise willing participants who would rather avoid it.
Also, police gun buybacks don’t decrease the number of guns circulating in a community. A 2012 Georgia state law prevents law enforcement officials from destroying guns, requiring those acquired and/or seized to be sold at auction if their rightful registered owners can’t be located.
No such legislation stops private citizens from collecting and disassembling weapons.
SCMPD chief Joseph Lumpkin and the City of Savannah appeared with Johnson and Trotter at a November press conference about the gun buyback program, though a press release the following day clarified that the department is not affiliated with the privately-funded program.
Both police-supervised and private gun buyback programs have generated controversy over whether such measures are effective. Studies show that the majority of the guns collected are non-functioning or not the type used in violent crimes, and while gun buyback programs are widely supported, they have not proved to reduce crime in violent communities.
In a 2004 critical review on firearms and violence published by the National Academies Press, the country’s top academicians concluded that “the theory underlying gun buy-back programs is badly flawed and the empirical evidence demonstrates the ineffectiveness of these programs.”
Another concern is that gun buybacks are a cloaked attack against the right to bear arms.
Johnson assures Savannah’s program is completely voluntary and not a tactic to limit gun rights.
“We are totally supportive of the Second Amendment. This has nothing to do with legal ownership,” says the District 1 alderman.
“But in our urban communities, we have young people hunting each other.”
Launched in mid-November, the buyback initiative pays between $50 and $200 for a weapon and disassembles them immediately. One woman brought in a sawed-off shotgun she coaxed away from a teen after she saw it peeking out of his jacket while he was walking down her street.
A handgun came from a man who found it in his grandson’s bedroom. Other guns have come from young people who are ready to give them up as status symbols and are looking for alternatives.
“No questions, no judgment,” promises Trotter.
“Just bring us a gun, and we’ll give you the cash.”
Not all gun buybacks around the country offer cash for weapons. Operating on the idea that many people will simply use cash to buy newer, better guns, many buybacks instead give out gift cards that can be redeemed at retail outlets like Target or Visa gift cards that can be used like debit cards.
Trotter, who founded the non-profit Savannah Youth City in 2013, says the initiative provides a specific point of disruption in the deadly cycle experienced by kids raised in generations of poverty and acculturated violence.
“When we remove the gun from the equation, it allows room to be creative instead of reactive,” explains the community activist.
“They’re not all criminals. It’s just the thing to do in these neighborhoods, to have a gun. We need to give these young people better options, positive options.”
SYC spends time in areas where crime and violence are high, recruiting young people and their families into vocational development, personal growth and civic engagement programs.
“We spend time with each individual, learning their strengths and working with that to find them jobs. We’ll create them a job if we have to,” says Trotter, adding that SYC fills the gaps of traditional social service agencies.
“It’s important to recognize that not every child is going to go to college or is a natural employee. We are working to create a hub where there’s a place for every young person to be successful. But first we have to let them know that they are seen.”
The group first began working with Alderman Johnson during his last re-election campaign, and about a dozen teens sat front and center in shirts and ties paid for by the alderman when he was sworn in for the new term.
“Every one of those kids showed up and worked hard, they wanted to be a part of something,” he recalls.
“We have a whole generation of young people who feel they’re invisible, and they’re making themselves heard with guns.”
Local businesses and private citizens have already raised several thousand dollars to keep the buyback flush.
Artist Panhandle Slim donated proceeds from a recent art show to the effort, and a Go Fund Me page continues to accept contributions.
While they admit that they can’t reach everyone, Johnson and Trotter say that incentivizing the surrender of weapons means preventing certain tragedy. A few weeks ago, a 13 year-old handed them a .22 —loaded with ten rounds. As promised, he received his cash, though Trotter hopes to bring him and others into the Savannah Youth City fold.
“Our mission is ongoing,” she says.
“Buying back these guns is just one part of a positive cycle.”
Johnson says that he and other council members are pursuing legislation that would allow municipalities to decide whether its police departments can legally collect and destroy guns in the future.
In the meantime, he is keenly aware that crime continues to be a concern for all citizens and hopes the community will continue to support the program.
“You want to do something to make Savannah safer?” he asks.
“Help us buy a gun back.”