Guns for Guns N’ Roses

GNR frontman Axl Rose Credits:

Remember Measure Y? That was Oakland’s touchy-feely 2004 violence-prevention initiative — and how well it’s working! — wherein voters agreed to fund 63 more cops and provide a heap of additional tax money to an array of unspecified nonprofits to help suppress inner-city violence and steer young people away from crime. Well, in a scheme first publicly ridiculed by Chip Johnson in today’s Chronicle, Joe DeVries, who heads the city’s Measure Y-funded prevention efforts, intends to try and swap Guns N’ Roses tickets for firearms in some of the city’s highest-crime neighborhoods. The ridicule deserves to be taken a lot further…

How is this idea idiotic? Let us count the ways.

Gun exchanges are all about providing the right incentive: You give the people something they want more than what they’ve got. Given the choice of incentives, you have to wonder how much time DeVries, who is tight with County Supervisor Nate Miley, has spent around Sobrante Park, a neighborhood in the East Oakland flats near 105th Avenue and East 12th Street. By day, the place doesn’t appear half bad, but at night, as longtime resident Bobby Hall once told me, “get your gun.” (Hall, whose son Jesse was killed in drive-by shooting during the 1990s, has his own personal collection.)

The gun problem, in short, is profound in neighborhoods like this, but the proposed exchange is a farce in the extreme. Sobrante Park is almost entirely black, and it’s a good bet nobody’s gonna show up for that exchange, except maybe to use it as a second bulky trash day. Why? Because the few black kids in Oakland that are into Guns N’ Roses are probably not gun-carrying types, and even if they were, they’d need those weapons to keep their peers from kicking their ass. (Ever try cruising down 105th bumpin’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” Mr. DeVries? Didn’t think so.) Now if this were an exchange for meth-making gear out in Concord, hey, you might get a decent response.

DeVries told Johnson: “I recognize that Guns N’ Roses isn’t a band that a lot of Oakland kids listen to, but there are so many stolen guns used in crimes in this city we’ll take any guns we can get.” Trouble is, DeVries is not gonna take any guns, because he’s damn sure not gonna get any. DeVries explained that the band had graciously donated $25,000 worth of tickets. And that’s admirable, so consider this alternative market strategy, which any half-intelligent grade school kid could have devised: eBay!

How could the people in charge of our tax dollars miss something so obvious? Earth to bureaucrats: Sell the damn GNR tickets at top dollar to people who actually want them, buy something substantial that a young ghetto tough might want (hint, hint), and then organize a gun trade. Of course, some gun-toters might think of the eBay strategy themselves, trade a gun for tickets, then sell ’em online or scalp ’em at Oracle Arena.

But in truth, all of this overlooks perhaps the biggest obstacle to the success of this ill-concieved swap: Gun exchanges don’t appear to thwart the sort of violent crime that plagues these neighborhoods. Maybe cities have always provided the wrong incentives. Cash is problematic on its face, since if you offer a kid less than he paid for an illegal gun, he won’t want to turn it in. If you offer more, he can afford to buy another street gun and pocket the difference. Oakland’s most successful exchange to date, numerically speaking, was for computers, but c’mon, how many street thugs would trade their street cred for a cheap PC?

A 1998 study of a Sacramento exchange in which 141 guns were turned in demonstrates some of the problems with the exchange approach. Led by Jon Vernick, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, the researchers conducted a mail-in survey that was completed by 79 percent of the gun-exchange participants, a high response rate. Among their findings:

* 40 percent of respondents were older than 55; none was younger than 25.

* 62 percent of respondents were men.

* 28 percent of the guns were not handguns.

* 23 percent of respondents indicated the guns they turned in weren’t working.

Translation: 1) The first finding alone suggests that gun-exchange programs aren’t so valuable. Much of the killing in cities like Oakland is perpetrated by people under 25, and rarely is a killer in his middle age. 2) Since nearly all the killers are male, but less than two-thirds of those turning in guns are men, the second finding also suggests these exchanges aren’t attracting the right people. 3) Handguns are used in the vast majority of gun crimes, yet more than a quarter of those turned in were not handguns. 4) Roughly a quarter of the forfeited guns weren’t dangerous to begin with.

“There is no evidence that gun exchanges or buybacks have an impact on gun violence,” Daniel Webster, who co-directs the Johns Hopkins gun policy program with Vernick, told us in an e-mail. “The types of guns turned in are different from the ones used in crime (they’re older and more likely to be long guns or revolvers rather than semi-automatic pistols commonly used in crime) and it’s unlikely that the ones turning them in are the ones committing a lot of the violence. They may, however, be good for community safety because access to firearms in the home increases the risk of suicide, domestic homicide, and unintentional shootings. If there is follow-up with other community programs to try to change social norms regarding guns and gun violence, gun exchanges might be worth doing.”

That last bit is encouraging. However, it falls outside Mr. DeVries’ mission. To quote from the Measure Y program’s stated goals: “Interventions will reach out to those youth and young adults most at risk for committing and/or become victims of violence.” It also states that the program’s $6 million in funding “is allocated toward specific best practice strategies that intervene with target populations most at risk for being perpetrators or victims of violence.” (That’s their bold text, not ours.)

For heaven’s sake, would someone send this DeVries fellow a copy of Freakonomics already?