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Can we crowdfund gun control?

Can we crowdfund gun control?

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After Congress failed to pass gun-control legislation after the Sandy Hook mass shooting, a new group had an idea: have citizens finance removing guns from the streets.

Crowdfunding is a popular way these days to, for instance, make your new album, launch a new tech product or develop a hoodie that lasts for 10 years. Now, one new group is using it to finance something else entirely –- gun buybacks.

Gun by Gun launched its first crowdfunding campaign in July and held its first gun buyback in San Francisco in August. At that time, it bought 86 guns. In December, it will buy another 100 plus guns with the remaining money from its first crowdfunding campaign. (The amount paid for a gun in a gun buyback varies from city to city, but in San Francisco it was $100; in New York City it is commonly $200.) Gun by Gun is also planning to launch crowdfunding campaigns for buybacks in San Jose and Oakland in November, with the buybacks themselves to happen in December.

“The reason I chose this model is that it is so hard to gain traction on the issue nationally,” says Gun by Gun cofounder Ian Johnstone. “I’ve been around the issue since the early '90s, and the last major piece of legislation passed in 1995. There are more laws coming off the books related to gun violence than being put on the books. Through crowdfunding gun buybacks, we can start addressing the guns out there. It’s a way of creating an opportunity so individuals can do something about the issue without waiting for Congress to act.”

But with about 300 million guns in circulation now and 87 gun deaths a day, can buybacks truly be an effective gun-control technique?

While Gun by Gun recognizes it is not a replacement for gun legislation, Johnstone says it is an important complement, since any legislative changes would only address future gun sales. Additionally, current buybacks are held on an ad hoc basis, with no single source of funding. In fact, he says most gun buybacks run out of money to buy all the guns offered.

Johnstone, who lost his father to gun violence in the early 1990s, says buybacks are an effective way of reducing rates of homicides, suicides and accidental gun deaths.

For instance, one study found that for every one percent increase in gun ownership, the firearm homicide rate increases 0.9 percent. Low-end estimates assert that 230,000 guns stolen from homes each year enter the pool of guns used by criminals. In fact, Johnstone’s father was killed by a gun stolen two weeks before his death. Johnstone also says statistics show a correlation between suicide rates and gun ownership; public health professionals cite gun ownership as an official suicide risk factor. And a recent New York Times investigation revealed that accidental gun deaths, especially of children, are grossly underreported, occurring about twice as often as official records show.

Hildy Saizow, president of Arizonans for Gun Safety, says, "Gun buybacks are important and have a role, but it’s a somewhat of a limited role in trying to address gun violence. But gun buybacks themselves can mobilize the community, and I think that’s one of the best things you can get from this." Having held three successful gun buybacks herself that involved anonymous and corporate donors (they gave out gift cards to groceries and Best Buy instead of cash) and took in double the number of guns she had hoped for, she says that buybacks motivate people to not only do something about the issue but also invest in it.

Gun buybacks are currently funded a variety of ways -- from individual donations, discretionary funding by elected officials, government grants or seized money, such as from a drug bust. Johnstone says that they have not yet been held on a significant scale in this country, but after a series of gun buybacks in Australia, “the number of gun deaths fell off a cliff,” with suicides dropping by 80 percent. “They had 13 mass shootings in the few years before that, and they haven’t had one since. In every statistical category, the Australian gun buyback was enormously successful. But it was a very different situation because it was armed with legislative changes, and they didn’t have the existing pool of guns we have.”

He also says Gun by Gun could do more than reduce the number of guns in circulation; it could also help develop a set of best practices around gun buybacks, such as how much to charge for each gun, and how to make buybacks more efficient and effective.

Finally, Johnstone says these campaigns could help grow a community of people who want fewer guns. “That’s a powerful message that members of Congress can’t ignore,” he says. “They’re not just signing a petition. They’re doing something to remove guns from their community. They’re sending a powerful signal about what they want.”

(Photo: Courtesy Gun by Gun)

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure