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Here’s how Baltimore got more than 1,000 guns off its street this week, including a rocket launcher

The city offered as much as $500 for automatic weapons, usable or not, and as little as $25 for high-capacity magazines.

by Emma Ockerman
Dec 21 2018, 7:19pm

All the city of Baltimore had to do was pony up some cash and offer anonymity to get at least 1,100 weapons off its streets this week.

Friday marked the third and final day of Baltimore’s first gun buyback program in nearly six years. The city offered as much as $500 for automatic weapons, usable or not, and as little as $25 for high-capacity magazines. The city also purchased long guns and revolvers for $100 each, and semi-automatic weapons for $200 each. On Monday, locals turned in 578 guns. On Wednesday, 511 more came in. They’ll all be destroyed, according to police.

The city spent at least $163,000, Baltimore’s interim police commissioner, Gary Tuggle, said in a press conference Friday, although the city had reportedly budgeted $250,000.

During the week, reports quickly surfaced of one unnamed woman selling a cheap gun so she could buy a more expensive one and another person turning in a single-use AT-4 rocket launcher. Since an AT-4 can’t be reloaded after it’s fired, it could have been a useless piece of plastic. But the city paid $500 for it and contacted the military and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to trace its origin, according to Tuggle.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and Tuggle announced during a press conference last week that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, the police department would offer to pay for weapons that locals no longer wanted. Only private citizens, not companies, could anonymously drop off an unlimited number of unloaded weapons to police from noon to 8 p.m. on those days, at a select location in the city.

“We’ve got to get the guns off of our streets because innocent people are being killed,” Pugh said in another press conference last week. Baltimore now has the worst homicide rate among the country’s largest cities and has recorded more than 300 homicides this year, according to recent FBI crime data.

Harriet Wadley, who turned in a gun on Monday, told Baltimore’s NBC affiliate that she figured it’d be safer to get rid of it than leave it sitting around.

"I had a gun that was my father's. I thought it would be good to turn it in to get the gun off the street to make it safer in Baltimore," Wadley said.

For a broken weapon, a buyback can be a pretty good deal. But certain automatic weapons, like machine guns, are worth thousands of dollars, making $500 more of a consolation prize for ensuring your gun is properly destroyed. That’s part of what makes the incentives for gun buybacks a bit wonky, according to research from the late 1990s and early 2000s: Cities wind up buying the defunct, crummy stuff criminals probably wouldn’t use anyway. Plus, the people who return their guns to police for destruction are often upstanding citizens and not the type to commit gun crimes, even if they’re offered anonymity.

“It’s another tool in the toolbox,” Tuggle said during the press conference.

And it’s a tool a ton of cities continue to use. For example, San Francisco police collected 244 guns during a buyback this week, seven of which were assault rifles. Sheriffs' deputies in San Mateo County, California, collected 442 firearms during a buyback last week. Police in New Haven, Connecticut, recently exchanged gift cards for local guns. And in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the city offered up gas coupons to people willing to part with their weapons.

At the federal level, President Bill Clinton partnered with the District of Columbia in 2000 to dole out $350,000 to purchase about 7,000 guns, according to a White House news release at the time. Under the Clinton administration, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allowed certain local housing authorities to use parts of their budgets to buy back guns.

“What we’re asking is, if you’re a legitimate gun owner and if you don’t have a need for that weapon, turn it in, let us buy it from you,” Tuggle said.

Baltimore’s last buyback was coincidentally held the day after the Sandy Hook school massacre, in December 2012, when a gunman killed 20 children and six adults. The program netted 461 guns in one day, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Cover image: Courtesy of Baltimore Police Department Facebook page