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Would a gun buyback help curb violence in Richmond?

Posted at 4:50 PM, Jun 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-13 20:43:00-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond City Council will discuss legislation at its Monday night meeting that could see the launch of a voluntary gun buyback program.

If approved, the program could start in the late summer, according to Mayor Levar Stoney's office.

The program would be run between the Richmond Police Department and a California-based nonprofit called The Robby Poblete Foundation (RPF). The foundation was founded in 2017 by Pati Navalta in honor of her son, who the group is named for, after he was shot and killed in 2014.

"The weapon that was used to kill my son was obtained illegally. And after it was used to take his life, it was resold on the streets, where it was used to commit another crime," said Navalta. "So, this idea of all these unwanted firearms that are susceptible to theft or being sold on the streets illegally being used over and over again to to commit countless crimes really stuck with me and which is why I thought of the gun buyback."

Navalta added that along with the buyback program, they also melt down the guns that are bought (except for those that are found to be stolen or used in a crime, in which case they go to police) and repurpose it for art projects.

The foundation has run gun buyback programs in California and Georgia since 2017 and said it has resulted in the collection of around 2,500 guns.

"Gun violence doesn't know borders, it doesn't know demographics," added Navalta.

The funds for the program would come from a portion of the city's American Rescue Plan Act funding and would cost $83,000. City officials said it is a part of the $500,000 the city committed to gun violence prevention programs (other initiatives include the gun-tip reward program Gun 250 and a public education campaign on safe gun ownership).

The nonprofit would purchase gift cards to then give to the gun owners in exchange for their weapon. A city official said the amount would depend on the firearm. 8th District Councilmember Reva Trammell, and one of the legislation's cosponsors, said it would be $250 for assault weapons, $200 for handguns, and $150 for rifles.

"I think it's good. This is not going to take guns away from people. This is going to be for people that want to turn a gun in — like say maybe their loved one passed away or friend or whatever, or a gun that they found up in the attic or somewhere in the house and they want to get rid of it," said Trammell of her support for the idea. "We're going to have to see what it does...It is just too many people getting shot and killed in our city."

The program is no-questions-asked, so officials hope both legally and illegally-obtained guns would be collected.

"It's a catch all because even legal gun owners — if they are not stored safely, if they're just lying around, are susceptible to gun theft," said Navalta. "The no-questions asked is really for illegal guns, right? So, if there have been crimes committed by a weapon, this person wants to get out of that lifestyle, or whatever the reason may be, they can come to these gun buybacks knowing that they they don't have to answer any questions. And so we want to motivate people who are trying to get out of that lifestyle to surrender these weapons."

The concept was welcomed by some community activists in the city, but not others.

Charles Willis, the Executive Director of United Communities Against Crime, said while he was excited by the gun buyback program's possibilities, he added the price the city paid would have to match what guns are sold for on the black market.

"If you really want to buy back and get them off the streets then we have to offer more than what you can buy them on the street," he said.

Meanwhile, Pastor Ralph Hodge, whose church is a part of Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities (RISC), said gun buyback programs are a "waste of resources".

"Gun buyback programs normally give the community the perception that they're doing something, but please do not do that with the expectation it's going to reduce violent crime," said Hodge.

Hodge said his doubt, along with the economic came from numerous studies into gun buyback programs. A recent CNN report summarizing various studies said that while it does remove guns from circulation, it does not reduce gun violence.

"All of them have said they are not effective in reducing gun violence," he said. "Yes, they're effective in getting some guns off the street, but normally those are not the guns that are involved in violent crimes."

Hodge said he'd rather see the money spent on targeted intervention programs for those involved in violent crime. Programs that support drug treatment, alcohol treatment, affordable housing, and job placement.

"That would be a better bang for your buck," said Hodge.

Navalta said she felt the criticism stemmed from it being hard to quantify success when you remove a gun from the streets.

"What I like to point to is the fact that we have no idea how in how many lives any of these guns could have [taken], but we know that when these guns are surrendered at a gun buyback, that probability drops to zero," she said. She added an anecdotal story from a recent buyback in California where a father turned in an AR-15 he said his son had purchased online and hidden in his room. "The father was so stunned and shocked and afraid of what he was planning to do with this, he literally was going to throw it in the river. And his daughter said, 'No, bring it to the gun buyback, because anyone can find it if you toss it that way.' And he brought it over."

A spokesperson for Stoney said the administration would gauge the success of the program by how well it meets the following goals: "To reduce the number of guns on the street. To provide people a safe opportunity to dispose of their firearms. And to create partnerships and community conversations on public safety."

"Recent gun buybacks have collected illegally configured guns like assault weapons and ghost guns. This program is just one of multiple gun violence prevention strategies being implemented by the city to address this problem," added the spokesperson. "If it saves just one life, it will be worth it."

This is a developing story, so anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.

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