Why Not Privatize New York City's Gun Buy-Back Program?

By Adam Hanft

The state doesn't have the money to take all the assault weapons out of circulation. Here's an opportunity for rich New Yorkers to step in.

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Sam Hodgson/Reuters

Like many cities -- including San Francisco, Detroit and Boston -- New York City currently has a hand-gun buyback program. Turn in a weapon, and get as much as $200 bucks, no questions asked. These programs work; on December 15th, in fact, one worked so well in San Francisco that the police ran out of money and had to issue IOUs.

But here in New York, where everything happens on a grander scale, we have a problem. The New York Post reported that the state simply can't afford what it would take -- estimated to be a billion dollars -- to buy back (or confiscate) all the assault weapons that are out there. The math is simple and ugly: rifles like the Bushmaster -- which is New York-made, by the way -- cost around a thousand dollars each. To take them out of circulation is a budget buster.

And a million weapons may well be an understatement; the Post writes that "Unlike the millions of legally licensed handguns that are possessed by 1 million New York residents, the exact number of legally possessed semiautomatic assault rifles is not known because owners do not have to register them."

What to do, what to do? I have a simple and modest solution. We draw upon the combination of largesse and tangible signifiers of generosity that have always characterized affluent New York donors. From hospitals' marquis to mantles cresting with slowly tarnishing, engraved Tiffany gifts-of-civic-virtue, giving is also about getting. What's more, as Nick Kristof pointed out in the New York Times this week, giving has become "cool." And my proposal is uber-cool.

So here's the model: New York sets up a non-profit organization. Let's call it "Adopt-A-Gun." Anyone can donate a thousand dollars and take an assault weapon out of circulation. While anonymous donors have funded gun buy-backs before, the innovation here is that it's not a random gun you're buying, but a very specific one.

So for your thousand dollars you'd get a certificate with the full history of the assault rifle you just bought and took off the streets: not just its serial number, maker and date of manufacture, but any incidents it might have been involved in -- its full sordid provenance. From a marketing point-of-view, the more details, the better. Think how wonderfully magnanimous the donors will feel with this kind of eleemosynary tangibility. It's a kind of reverse fetishization that parallels our sexualization of the gun itself.

And consider the upsell possibilities, as they call it in the development business:

But wait, there's more. For an extra $250 you get a framed photograph of the gun, taken and signed by a police photographer. It's a permanent record of your generosity that will be a living reminder of the contribution you've made by taking this instrument of violence off the streets. Did you save a life? More than one? We can only wonder and feel grateful for your help.

And, if some of these wealthy individuals want to get up close to the action -- they can pay for that, too. As part of the "Adopt-A-Gun" program, for an extra $500 donors can ride in a police car to the actual assault-weapon buy back, and actually choose the gun they want to buy take off the streets. They might even get a chance to meet the individual who's getting the cash. How exciting, how New York noirish is that? There's nothing like a taste of the underworld to send the upper-world into a paroxysm of vicarious joy.

I can even imagine a gift business. What better present can you give someone than taking a gun away from someone else?

If you're detecting some some ill-disguised irony, some pandering to the egos of wealthy who need signifiers of their charitable endeavors, well, you have indeed sniffed the sweet snark of success. Do some of you find the idea of socially acceptable assault-rifle porn to be offensive? In truth it would be no different than what lubricates and fattens the budgets of every non-profit in New York -- from benches at Central Park to plaques in the lobby of museums to lists of bold-faced names on programs at benefit dinners.

What is offensive, though, is that there are more than a million guns in sickening circulation in New York, patiently waiting for victims to find their hapless and tragic ways in front of them. Call it tacky (I prefer to think of it as innovative), but I'd rather see certificates from my Adopt-A-Gun program to death certificates, any time.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/12/why-not-privatize-new-york-citys-gun-buy-back-program/266678/