Outside Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church on Vernon Odom Boulevard in Akron on a Friday in November 2008, a line formed in a snowstorm before the church opened.

Hundreds of Akron-area residents offered up their firearms for $100 Acme gift cards during the community gun buyback.

It was only the second Akron gun buyback since 1994.

By 10 a.m., a plastic garbage can was filled with the unwanted weapons, and by day’s end, 580 weapons were collected.

Handguns, rifles, sawed-off shotguns, you name it. All for an Acme gift card for $100 of groceries.

Though organizers considered the event a success, Akron hasn't held another gun buyback for 11 years.

 

Do buybacks work?

After mass-shooting deaths of 32 people in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton in a 24-hour period on Aug. 3 and 4, followed by at least five deaths less than a month later in Saturday's shooting in Odessa, Texas, calls for “something” to be done rose to a fever pitch. From the president on down, politicians vowed to attack the problem.

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine proposed a “red flag” law to focus on mentally unbalanced individuals with access to firearms.

On social media, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan denounced gun violence and criticized the federal and state government for restricting the ability of cities to act against the reoccurring scourge.

“This is not inevitable; and we don't have to live like this,” he posted.

Deputy Mayor James Hardy asked organizers of large events to re-examine their security measures.

But calls for a gun buyback program, despite their ability to remove large numbers of weapons from the streets, didn’t come. And they probably won’t come.

The reason, said David Licate, professor of criminal justice studies at the University of Akron, is that they don’t make a dent in gun crime.

“The research does not indicate that gun buybacks are effective in reducing gun violence,” Licate said. “From an evidence-based approach, I would not do a gun buyback.”

Despite the hundreds of firearms culled during the 2007 and 2008 buybacks in the city, the effect is minimal on gun violence in targeted areas. So minimal, Licate said, it’s not statistically measurable.

But the need to reduce gun crime in Akron is apparent.

Last year, according to Akron police statistics, there were 444 firearm incidents in the city. That includes discharging firearm violations, felonious assaults with a firearm and homicides with a firearm.

Through July of this year, there have been 235 such incidents, an increase of 25.6% compared to the same time last year.

Bishop Marc Neal, pastor of Dominion Family Church on Thornton Street in Akron, helped organize and host the 2008 buyback and one in 2007. He said he believes that the buybacks were successful in ways that are difficult to measure with statistics.

“Over the two years, we received upward of 2,000 guns,” Neal said. “We prevented accidental shootings and kept the guns out of the hands of [criminals].”

Neal believes that the weapons turned in could have ended up in tragic mishaps or suicides.

Further evidence of the buybacks' usefulness came with ballistics testing done on some of the weapons, which matched up with shell casings at crime scenes, he said.

“The way things are right now is there are more illegal guns on the streets in Akron than registered guns,” he said. “I’d definitely [be] willing to start a gun buyback program today.”

Neal said that the cost of the programs also is an impediment to their return. The buybacks in 2007 and 2008 cost tens of thousands of dollars.

“The biggest reason it doesn’t happen right now is funding,” he said.

A gun buyback program planned by another Akron church in 2016 was canceled at the last minute, mostly because of lack of funding, organizers said.

 

Other approaches

Licate, however, said that targeted approaches — such as Akron’s Gun Violence Reduction Team, which is designed to remove firearms from individuals associated with gun crimes — are demonstrably more effective.

“You get more [impact] by using certain policing strategies targeting high-risk individuals,” Licate said. “You can do that through policing, probation, a focus on individuals and particular gangs. … Those are targeted types of approaches that show slight to moderate impacts.”

Licate said good intelligence and evidence-based analysis are key to getting the best results.

There are other approaches.

Akron and other area law enforcement agencies have been working with the Justice Department to that go after criminals illegally using and possessing guns. By prosecuting federal gun crimes, offenders are sentenced to more prison time and are often incarcerated hundreds or thousands of miles from their base of operation.

“None of the people we prosecute wants to go to federal prison,” said Justin Herdman, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. “They are going to be in North Dakota.”

Herdman said narcotics prosecutions in the district last year reached a level last seen in 2005. He said drug and gun crimes go hand-in-hand.

“There’s absolutely a correlation between the narcotics trade and violent crime,” he said. “It is big money and often involves Mexican cartels well-armed and violent. They carry a weapon because they have to protect their drugs and cash.”

Herdman called Summit County “ground zero” in the Ohio methamphetamine trade and said Mexican cartels have established a presence here.

Last year, 140 pounds of meth were seized in the biggest bust in Ohio history. Eight people were charged, including an Akron man.

 

Alan Ashworth can be reached at 330-996-3859 or emailed at aashworth@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @newsalanbeaconjournal.