Gun buybacks are not a new tactic to cut the number of firearms in circulation.
But Cumberland County leaders are tweaking that idea by offering food as the trade, in hopes of attacking two problems at once: the proliferation of guns and hunger in New Jersey's poorest county.
Three gun trade-in events will be hosted next month, one each in Vineland, Millville and Bridgeton. County leaders initially planned to hold them over the past three weekends but postponed the events because increased food donations during the holidays may decrease the incentive for trade-ins, Freeholder Jim Dunkins said.
Still, hopes are high that the events could take some guns off the streets.
"I think they help us in an indirect way," said Cumberland County Sheriff Bob Austino, a former Vineland police officer. "The gang bangers in the street we know are not going to come in and hand their guns in. What you're encouraging people to bring is their unused guns that could fall into the wrong hands if stolen."
In that sense, local authorities do not view gun buybacks as a panacea for crime.
Vineland Police Capt. Rudy Beu said he does not think a potential criminal can be convinced to turn in a gun he was otherwise going to use for illegal activity. But he and Vineland Police Chief Tim Codispoti said trade-ins would limit the number of guns that could potentially be stolen.
"Many times we find that people don't know how to dispose of guns," County Prosecutor Ron Casella said. "We've always felt that they're helpful because there's a trafficking of guns going on where guns are stolen from law-abiding citizens."
Gun buybacks have been used in cities across the nation, and over the past year or so, some have done what Cumberland leaders are doing and tweaked the idea to make it a food trade-in, capitalizing on the recession. Organizers give people food vouchers in exchange for their guns.
The Nehemiah Coalition, a group organized to decrease violence in Bridgeton, began discussing the idea this year, and Dunkins, a pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church in Vineland and Commercial Township, asked the county government to support it. Freeholders allocated $10,000 to support trade-ins at three local churches, including Dunkins' church.
Dunkins has followed the trade-ins before, and he said he recalls seeing guns come in with the serial numbers filed off, which allows guns to become almost untraceable and is consistent with the illegal gun trade. He said a key factor that draws people with illegal guns is immunity.
"They really work good when you know there's going to be immunity from prosecution," Jim Dunkins said. "Most of the violence is not done with registered guns. It's done with illegal guns."
Gun buybacks have their critics though. David Muhlhausen, a senior policy analyst for The Heritage Foundation, said the programs often take in nothing more than old hunting rifles or shotguns, guns that are used in crimes far less than handguns.
"In general, there's no scientific evidence that these sorts of programs reduce crime," Muhlhausen said.
Casella said gun buybacks may be more helpful to law enforcement if handguns in particular were targeted, because their easy concealment makes them popular with criminals. Dunkins said the types of guns would not be limited in this round of trade-ins, however.
Organizers of the three trade-ins have yet to select specific dates in January when the trade-ins will be held.
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