San Francisco holds first crowdsourced gun buyback event

New Bay Area website gunbygun experiments with the crowdsourcing model to fund its first gun buyback event

San Francisco police officers Hector Basurto, Nicholas Shihadeh and Warren Lee log examined firearms surrendered during a gun buyback event on August 8, 2013.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Gun buybacks -- programs in which gun owners are encouraged to hand over their firearms to police in exchange for a monetary reward, with the aim of reducing gun violence -- are nothing new.

Following the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which 26 people were killed, including 20 schoolchildren, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) urged the House to add a $200 million gun buyback program to any legislation drafted to avert the so-called fiscal cliff.

But melding crowdsourcing -- the popular form of online fundraising fueled by donation-focused websites ranging from Kiva to Kickstarter -- and gun buyback campaigns has never been attempted.

That is, not until last week, when the first-known crowdsourced gun buyback event took place in San Francisco’s Mission District, organized by newly-launched gun buyback advocacy site gunbygun. The group spent $8,600 raised by dozens of online backers, offering $100 for most guns surrendered by their owners, and $200 for assault weapons.

Frustrated by the lack of legislative change, despite the heightened attention to gun violence following the Newtown shooting, gunbygun co-founder Ian Johnstone sought to find a way to move beyond gun control laws and address the guns that are already in circulation. There are an estimated 310 million non-military firearms in the U.S., according to the Congressional Research Service.

"It's a powerful way to get people involved and engaged in the issue, and give people a sense of efficacy, so they don’t feel so hopeless when [legislation doesn't] happen, like with background checks," Johnstone said. "Any sort of legislation that's being talked about, it doesn’t seem politically feasible that anything will address the current circulation of guns."

Johnstone is a Bay Area-based entrepreneur who also co-founded blissmo, an e-commerce site that sells organic and eco-friendly products. He says that crowdsourcing has hit peak critical mass in Silicon Valley entrepreneurial circles, and "everybody’s finding out new, interesting ways of applying that model."

So he and gunbygun co-founder Eric King, a physics researcher at U.C. Berkeley and gun violence prevention activist, decided to test the crowdsourcing model for organizing gun buybacks. They created a website on Wordpress and used Indiegogo to host their first fundraising campaign, which kicked off during the last week of July and will continue until the end of August.

So far, they've raised of $14,500, and were able to contribute $8,600 to the group's first buyback event last week, which was also sponsored by city supervisor David Campos, whose office chipped in $6,900 and used discretionary funds to publicize the event.

All told, the group said it bought 157 guns, including four assault weapons. Though gunbygun used the "startup approach" to evaluate whether a crowdsourcing model could work for gun buybacks, with more than 160 total donors signed on so far and some 200 people who showed up to the group's launch party, all signs point to more buyback events, potentially in other U.S. cities.

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A personal connection

Johnstone was thrust headlong into awareness of gun violence at the age of 10 after his father was shot and killed in an attempted robbery in San Francisco.

His mother became a strong advocate for gun violence prevention, lobbying for stricter gun-control laws at congressional offices and in demonstrations with the Million Mom March, a gun control advocacy group. Johnstone used to tag along, and soon got involved with anti-gun-violence efforts, too. But gunbygun is his first foray into gun buybacks, having previously focused on violence prevention and legislation.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, there were 31,672 firearm deaths in 2010, the latest year for which accurate statistics are available. The CDC labels 19,392 of those deaths as suicides.

In fact, most homicides are committed with firearms, according to the National Institute of Justice. A national crime victimization survey found that 467,321 people were victims of a crime committed with a firearm in 2011.

However, gun-related homicides have declined in recent decades. They peaked in 1993 at 18,253, but fell 39 percent to an estimated 11,101 in 2011.

Reviews are mixed on the effectiveness of gun buyback campaigns. Proponents of the model point to Harvard School of Public Health studies (PDF) of Australian gun buyback programs, the most prominent of which was initiated in 1996 following a mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania in which 35 people were killed. Australia passed the National Firearms Agreement that year, which banned semi-automatic weapons, bought back more than 650,000 of them from gun owners and tightened gun licensing requirements.

Harvard’s research estimates that the buyback portion of the agreement reduced private gun ownership in Australia by 20 percent nationwide, and concludes that the buybacks reduced firearm deaths, with the largest drop in deaths coming from semi-automatics, the kinds of weapons targeted by the campaign. In addition, firearm deaths decreased more in states with higher buyback rates than in states with lower buyback rates. Perhaps most notably, it reduced firearm suicides by 80 percent.

However, the Australian gun buyback campaign wasn’t voluntary, and took place on a nationwide scale, unlike buyback campaigns in the U.S. A 2004 report from the National Research Council, an arm of the private, non-profit National Academies, says that buybacks don’t attract the most dangerous criminals, and rather, the guns surrendered tend to be old and outdated, not the kinds that will be used in criminal activities.

What’s more, replacement guns are easy to buy, and "research evaluations of U.S. efforts have consistently failed to document any link between such programs and reductions in gun violence,” the report says.

But Johnstone points out that the gun used to kill his father was stolen in a house burglary two weeks before the shooting. "The fact of the matter is, any gun is dangerous," he said. "The correlation between gun ownership and suicide is really clear and really strong."

He added, "Those guns can fall into the wrong hands and very quickly do a lot of harm. If there's any gun owner who is on the fence about owning a gun, they should not have it."

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