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Can A Gun Buyback Program Stem Violence In Detroit?

Alarmed by new reports that show a marked increase in the chances that a young black man in Detroit will be murdered, the Detroit Police Department has initiated a gun buyback program designed to help get more firearms off the city's streets.

Police will pay from $25 for a gun that doesn't work to $50 for a gun that does to $100 for two or more guns. Cash will be handed out on the spot.

"We have to get guns out of circulation," Interim Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee Jr. said. "We don't know for sure what these guns would be used for, but we know they won't be used for crimes."

I've felt the anger and fear that living under the constant threat of gun violence can produce in young men, so I'm not against Godbee's suggestion or any other idea that will save these brothers' lives. But I still can't shake the feeling that this program will end up as little more than a giant symbolic placebo. Feels good to note it, sure. But will it do any real good in the city's streets? I have my doubts.

First off, gun buyback programs don't do jack to stop the steady flow of illegal firearms into cities like Detroit. Sure, the police may get ahold of a few weapons, but that doesn't mean they're necessarily taking them from the people most likely to use them in crimes. And it certainly doesn't stop those criminals from buying many more. As long as copping a gun in Detroit is as easy as buying a cheeseburger, buyback programs do little except create more room in the illegal firearms marketplace.

Secondly, criminals aren't really into turning in their guns, at least not the guns that work well. I mean, if you just used a gun to, say, shoot a liquor store clerk or a drug rival, chances are, you're not going to hand over incriminating evidence to the cops. Plus, to be quite frank, the average stick-up kid or drug enforcer can get a lot more than $50 out of a pistol if he's willing to "put in work." Even the Justice Department has said that guns obtained through buyback and turn-in programs are the least likely to have been involved in a crime, according to reports.

And even if a criminal gunman were so inclined to turn in his piece, does the DPD have any idea what the going rate is for a really good weapon on the streets? I mean, sure you may be able to buy some cheap Lorcin .380 from your local back-alley arms hustler for a few dollars, but the stuff that people might want to hold on to — say, an AK-47 assault rifle — is going to run you way more than that, even on the black market. If they're serious about buying back the criminals' guns, Chief Godbee and his men might want to sweeten the pot a bit.

All that said, though, I still hope the program yields positive results. I mean, even if a gun hasn't been used in a crime, that doesn't mean it won't be — or that it won't fall into the hands of a child and lead to even more horrifying results. So from that standpoint, certainly the buyback program has its merits. And if it's integrated into a broader set of policies and programs aimed at stemming violence among young men, then that's beautiful, too.

But a buyback program won't offset the social and economic ills plaguing Detroit, won't bring the jobs and training that these young men so desperately need. It won't dissolve the still-congealing subculture of violence that continues to plague places like my old eastside neighborhood and that have left the city's worst-off sections largely abandoned, destabilized and unable to recover. As my homie Carl Taylor told the Detroit News:

When he grew up in Detroit, Taylor said, his teachers were his neighbors, as were area businessmen. There were standards to meet and social rules to follow.

Not so today, he said: "In some neighborhoods, there is almost anarchy and no one wants to address that."

Taylor said public officials have to acknowledge the problem first. He said many leaders have been reluctant to talk about Detroit's murder problem because it's bad news few want to share. Then, they have to act.

"This is well out of control but it's been well out of control for some time," Taylor said. "If you don't do something, the facts I'm looking at, it's only going to get worse."

Yes, get the illegal guns off the streets. Spend what it takes to recover those guns, because it's way too easy to die in Detroit. But damn it, it's not just about "not dying." These young men deserve a better way to live, too. And this city, this state, this country should be willing to pay whatever price necessary to make that happen.

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