Nearly 10,000 guns have been turned in across the state since the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Authorities say the massacre prompted residents to rid their homes of guns.
By James Kleimann, Noah Cohen and Paul Milo
April 8, 2013
The doors of two Camden churches swung open shortly after daybreak on Dec. 14, with law enforcement officials inside hoping a two-day cash-for-guns program might help put a dent in the crime rate in one of America’s most violent cities.
But just 90 minutes after people began to trickle into the churches, a troubled 20-year-old named Adam Lanza shot his way into an elementary school in a small Connecticut town as idyllic as Camden is gritty.
As the scope of the school massacre came into focus that afternoon – 20 children and six adults lie dead – the trickle of people with guns to surrender grew into a stream and, by the following morning, a torrent.
Officials collected 1,137 firearms during those two days in Camden, the most successful gun buyback in state history, including 762 the day after the Sandy Hook school shooting.
And the trend has continued, with buybacks held in Essex and Mercer counties collecting thousands more guns than were turned in during previous programs, and easily besting the number collected in Camden.
In total, New Jersey residents have surrendered nearly 10,000 weapons since the Sandy Hook shooting thrust gun control back to the forefront of the American conversation.
“One of the things we were hearing in Newark was that a lot of people just didn’t want the gun in the home anymore,” Newark Police Director Samuel DeMaio said. “What people saw was that if the weapon gets in the wrong hands it could cause destruction like we saw in Newtown.”
The state has spent more than $1.2 million on the six buybacks held since December.
Record hauls across state
The last Essex County gun buyback, in 2009, yielded about 700 firearms, making it the most successful program of its kind in county history. But in February, 1,770 guns were turned in during a post-Newtown buyback held in Montclair and Newark, Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa said.
Among the guns: an AR-15 similar to the Bushmaster rifle used by Lanza in the Connecticut killings.
“I think [Newtown] was an eye-opener for most people and I think that’s when they made the decision, ‘let me get this gun out of my house so it doesn’t fall into some relative’s hands and it could be used in that manner,” Newark Police Chief Sheilah Coley said.
A buyback in Trenton, held in January, netted 2,604 weapons in two days, including an anti-tank rocket launcher. Just 204 weapons were turned in last May during a buyback in New Jersey’s capital.
The buyback programs, devised to reduce violence in the inner cities, are even spreading to suburban and rural areas of the state. Authorities collected 600 guns last month at a buyback in Morris County. The results of a buyback held this past weekend in Somerset County were not immediately available.
“The snowball continued because we had some of our less urban populations sponsoring buybacks, including Morris County, where the Attorney General’s office contributed $20,000,” said Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office.
Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino is hosting the county’s second-ever gun buyback this coming weekend. The sheriff’s office was moved to hold the buyback after requests for action poured in following the Newtown shooting, spokesman Richard Moriarty said.
“One of the strongest requests came from Garfield. They said, ‘We’re serious about it.’ Other towns started coming on board and it just grew and grew,” Moriarty said.
In 2010, the county’s first buyback netted about 700 weapons.
Gun sales, permits soar
Carole Stiller, president of the pro-gun control group New Jersey Million Mom March Chapters, said that while the Newtown shooting may have helped buoy the success of New Jersey’s buybacks, gun sales are also high.
“I don’t know who buys the guns but it sounds like a lot of people who already have guns are just buying more,” said Stiller.
Permit applications are also up. The police chief in Bloomingdale told town officials last month that gun permit applications have soared in the small Passaic County town since the Newtown shooting.
And though Newtown has sparked debate about gun laws and a flurry of proposed legislation has followed in New Jersey, Stiller said near-daily violence continues to plague urban areas.
“It’s not all about Newtown,” she said, “Things are happening every day. [But] if a gun gets turned in that would have been picked up by somebody in Camden or Trenton, I think it’s helpful.”
The state Assembly in February approved a slew of gun control measures, including legislation that would limit ammunition capacity of magazines to 10 bullets from 15, require safety training, and mandate background checks for private gun sales. The bills are awaiting a committee in the state senate.
Effectiveness of buybacks debated
Bernard Melekian, director of the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that there is little evidence to show the buybacks reduce violent crime. Instead, Melekian pointed to community-based programs that help mediate gang disputes before they turn into shootings.
A study in 1999 by criminologist Larry Sherman concluded – based on other studies – that gun buybacks don’t lead to lower crime rates, said Andrew Karmen, professor of Sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“I do think it has some value,” Karmen said of gun buybacks. “But the amount of guns brought back are unsubstantial or even pathetic when you compare them to the amount of new guns sold at the same time. One group is disarming, the other is arming in a heavy, rapid manner.”
The buybacks can be made more effective with increased publicity and using neutral locations, such as churches.
“The net change is there are more firearms around in society. If the aim is to get it out of certain families, who feel vulnerable and desperate for money, it can work,” he said. “But we’re deluding ourselves if we think buying up unwanted guns solves the problem. We should do it, but it’s far from the solution.”
More than 700 guns were turned in at the Union Baptist Church in Montclair during the Essex County buyback in February, the most of any of five locations where weapons could be surrendered. The four other sites hauled in a total of 1,054 weapons.
“Any weapon you get off the street that could fall into the wrong hands is a positive thing,” Montclair Deputy Police Chief Todd Conforti said in February. “We got a number of weapons we are going to destroy, and that is a success for me.”
Jessica Henry, an associate professor in Montclair State University’s Department of Justice Studies, said in February that the effectiveness of the gun buyback program should be self-evident.
“The reality is that this particular buyback got 1,770 guns off the street,” Henry said. “Every time we remove a gun from the streets or from someone’s home, we are reducing the likelihood that another act of gun violence occurs.”
Shortly after the buyback, authorities displayed the weapons on a conference table at Newark’s emergency services operations center. The guns included 70 that were illegal to own. At least six had been stolen, and one had been used in a Newark shooting, said DeMaio, the director of the Newark Police Department.
The buyback held in Morris County last month – during a snowstorm – netted 600 weapons, including 15 illegal assault weapons. Residents turned in 91 semi-automatic guns, 192 revolvers and 251 rifles or shotguns.
A buyback in Monmouth County took in 1,581 guns, including 45 assault rifles, authorities said.
“All of the weapons are checked to see if they are loaded,” Acting Morris County Prosecutor Fredric M. Knapp said. “Once they’re determined to be in safe condition, they’re brought into the facility and catalogued.”
Authorities then determine whether the guns were used in a crime. Those shown to be involved in a crime are entered into evidence; the others are melted down.