St. Louis Gun Buyback: Good Enough?

By Mike Wiley, Student of Public Policy at the University of Chicago

This column was originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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City officials and community organizers seem to agree: Last month’s gun buyback program in St. Louis was an undeniable success. And they’re right, mostly. After collecting more than 800 handguns and rifles in a single afternoon at the Omega Center, program directors should be proud. More specifically, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis and other groups that raised the $125,000 to pay for the program should be proud.

It is important to remember, however, that this initiative was a response to the 205 murders that occurred in St. Louis last year, the highest number the city has seen in two decades. It was the belief of Mayor Lyda Krewson and others that taking guns off the street will lower the rate of gun violence. But there’s more to it than that. It’sabout taking the right guns from the right people.

Due to the no-questions-asked nature of the buyback, it’s tough to gather a comprehensive profile of its participants, but two things are clear. First, some of the guns came from people who did not live in the city. For example, the Post-Dispatch talked to Kent Oxman, who came to the event looking to sell a dozen guns, even though he works and lives in St. Charles County. Second, and perhaps a more obvious point, these aren’t the right guns. These were unused guns that came from dusty attics and old garages, not from the hands of criminals.

Put simply, county residents aren’t flocking to the city to murder people with old guns. It is unlikely that the city will see a significant dip in the murder rate this year, at least not because of last month’s efforts.

None of this is to say that the buyback was a failure. It did one thing: It sent a strong message that St. Louisans are ready to get serious on the issue of gun violence. Sadly, the same can’t be said for the state in which they live. The people responsible for the buyback—the people who put up flyers, spread the word, raised money—these people have been failed by Missouri politics.

Missouri has proven itself to be a pro-gun state. As if its lax gun laws weren’t evidence enough, its current governor was elected after airing ads showing him firing a machine gun into a lake. By now, residents of St. Louis have gotten used to the fact that they’re living in a deeply red state.

St. Louis’ buyback program did a lot with what it had. It was entirely funded by private groups. In fact, private donations were the only way to circumvent a 2013 state law requiring guns from buybacks to be sold to gun dealers, completely defeating the purpose of any program. Had the city funded the buyback, the state would have forced it to put these guns back into circulation.

If, as predicted, this buyback isn’t successful in lowering the number of gun deaths, it won’t be the city’s fault. The blame will fall on the state politicians who have the power to fight gun violence and instead do nothing. It needs to be harder to obtain a firearm in the state of Missouri. Plain and simple.

What’s the first step? Politicians—especially the kind who like to fire machine guns into lakes—need to recognize that a St. Louis death is a Missouri death. As long as urban Missouri has a gun problem, rural Missouri has a gun problem. It’s up to the state to fix the state’s problems.

As long as the solution is left to private donations, as long as the city is left alone to deal with problems that are much too large, this gun buyback might be the best that can be done. Next year, when we’re looking at number of murders in St. Louis, maybe we’ll be able to answer the question: Was it good enough?


Mike Wiley was raised in south St. Louis, where he attended St. Louis U. High. He’s currently in his second year at the University of Chicago, where he studies Public Policy with an emphasis in urban issues.


Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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