It’s not easy for Antonio Gomes to say goodbye to his gun.
He remembers buying the shotgun in 1960 at a hardware store at College and Brunswick. He used to take it out hunting every weekend, mostly for rabbits or pheasants. About seven years ago, he hung it up for good – and the idea of a free camera enticed him to turn it in. But giving it up is still a little bittersweet.
“This is like your kids. They grow up and then they have to go out and leave the house.”
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Gomes is waiting for Staff Sergeant Chris Boddy to arrive and haul away the old hunting gun as part of the Toronto Police Service’s Pixels for Pistols amnesty program. In exchange, he’ll get a free digital camera and photography lessons.
“Maybe I’ll change from a hunter to a photographer,” he says with his slight Portuguese accent.
When Staff Sgt. Boddy arrives, Mr. Gomes pats the gun before handing it over to the officer.
The exchange was par for the course, according to Staff Sgt. Boddy; most of the guns they’ve collected in the program are similar and come from people like Mr. Gomes. Although, Staff Sgt. Boddy adds, they did pick up an AK-47 just two days earlier.
At first glance, the program seems like a good way for gang members to ditch their gats and pick up a lens but, in reality, criminals aren’t the ones handing over their weapons. The majority of firearms collected in the program – a joint effort with Henry’s cameras – are long guns, usually old hunting guns the owner no longer uses, or inherited guns the recipient doesn’t know what to do with.
“For the most part, they’re old guns that seniors have had in their home for decades and didn’t know how to get rid of safely,” said Staff Sgt. Boddy, who has been running the program.
It’s not as exciting as reformed criminals turning over their guns and pledging to a crime-free future – the program has faced some criticism as simply being a publicity stunt – but Henry’s CEO Ian Landy said that was never the point.
“There are no Pollyannas anywhere,” he said. “No, the criminals aren’t turning it in, but the people who don’t want [their gun] can get something out of it.”
Staff Sgt. Boddy said the police don’t expect criminals to call officers to their home to pick up guns – all the guns collected are tested to determine any link to past crimes and then destroyed and participants are required to give their personal information along with the gun. It’s not a no-questions-asked deal, so criminals would understandably be unlikely to participate.
Critics flag this point when questioning whether the programs are actually effective. Philip J. Cook is a professor of economics and sociology at Duke University who researches gun violence prevention. He said the premise behind gun buyback programs is far from the reality.
“It’s hard to say if it will do any good,” Dr. Cook said, noting the latest studies haven’t showed any evidence of a decrease in gun violence of any kind as a result of a buyback.
“It’s possible in some few cases it might make a difference, but the difference it does make has not been large enough to show up in the statistics in any significant way. I don’t expect you will see drop in gun violence.”
But Staff Sgt. Boddy said the amnesty offered helps prevent crime in other ways, by keeping guns out of the hands of people who pose a threat, either to others or to themselves.
This year is the second time they’ve run the program. The first time, in 2008, they collected 1,800 firearms and more than 14,000 rounds of ammunition. This time around, things are a little slower. As of Thursday morning, police had collected just shy of 350 guns, though they raked in a hefty 16,000 rounds of ammo. Staff Sgt. Boddy attributed this to the fact the previous amnesty program was so recent.
“Why would someone give away a gun now that they didn’t five years ago?”
But there’s no set goal for the number of guns they’d like to collect, according to Mr. Landy, who helped come up with the idea for the program.
“In February, 2008, we had our first ever armed robbery at our Kennedy Commons store [in Scarborough],” Mr. Landy said. “This person put my staff and customers’ lives at risk for a few hundred dollars. This was our way of saying, ‘Let’s do something good out of this.’”
After the success in Toronto the first time around, Henry’s hooked up with other police services to run the amnesty program in Halifax and Winnipeg. He said they continue the program because he believes private companies have a duty to give back to their community, though he admits there are some benefits that come along with it.
“Yeah, there’s the halo of ‘Oh, isn’t this great?’ and all that marketing good will,” Mr. Landy said.
“But this is done with such good intentions.”
Along with the long guns, which make up the majority of the haul, police have also collected several handguns this time around. Staff Sgt. Boddy noted getting guns out of the house can keep them off of the street.
In 2011, the most recent data available, 58 guns were reported stolen in Toronto. The majority – 60 per cent – were firearms other than handguns: rifles, shotguns, replicas and antiques.
Staff Sgt. Boddy also pointed out that long guns, while not as often used in gang activity, are just as deadly.
“They’re all equally dangerous. We most often hear of handguns being used in gangs, but long guns are more common in suicides and domestic assaults.”
According to reports from Statistics Canada, suicides make up as much as four fifths of all shooting deaths in Canada each year. In 2004, 475 Canadians committed suicide using a long gun, 5.4 times the number of suicides with handguns.
But aside from criminal activity, critics still have some concerns with this kind of buyback amnesty. The Canadian Shooting Sports Association doesn’t object to the concept in general, but balks at the idea of valuable antiques getting turned over unawares, according to spokesman Tony Bernardo.
“Most of [the] guns turned in are junk pellet guns, but once in a while you get something really valuable,” Mr. Bernardo said, pointing to several historical guns recently collected in a similar program in Vancouver.
If police determine the guns to be of historical value, they can donate them to a museum, but the original owner could miss out of tens of thousands of dollars, Mr. Bernardo said.
“I really believe there needs to be some kind of refinement to the program. It just seems a shame to take these precious historical artifacts and just burn them.”
But Staff Sgt. Boddy shrugs off most of the complaints. With a city still reeling from 33 shooting homicides in 2012, he said it boils down to one simple point:
“The goal is just to reduce the number of guns in the city of Toronto.”