Cash for guns programme hits its targets amid financial crisis

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 November, 2008, 12:00am

New York

New York City may be staring down the barrel of a budget crisis, but it isn't going to worry about handing out cash for one thing - guns.

The New York Police Department's cash for guns programme has been relatively successful, particularly in recent months. The mechanism is simple - you hand in your gun to the authorities and get US$200. No questions asked, no hassles.

The NYPD has been working with district attorney's offices and churches in Brooklyn and Manhattan, holding several gun buy-back days in the two boroughs in the past few months.

The last one took place on October 25 in five churches in the Harlem area, and saw 744 guns turned in, the highest one-day turnout since the programme was launched six years ago.

'This is the largest take we've ever had,' Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said, noting that the financial crisis may be helping as more people are desperate for money.

The programme mainly targets illegal guns - which in New York means guns kept without a permit. But it may not be able to reduce the total number of guns because the financial crisis is also leading to concerns that New York might face more crime. And that may lead more people to try to legally buy firearms.

The number of gun permits issued by the NYPD in the city has have dropped to 35,000 from 41,000 five years ago, but some observers say that trend may be over.

The collapse of major Wall Street banks and the subsequent loss of tax revenue has prompted the city to tighten its belt. The 2.5 per cent and 5 per cent budget reductions for the police this year and next year, respectively, could lead to fewer police at a time when rising unemployment will create more idle, cashless hands. The city's murder rate has jumped 9 per cent so far this year, and there was a spate recorded towards the end of last month.

'People are worried, they want to buy a gun to protect themselves from the rising crime,' said Charles Hu, who manages the John Jovino Gun Shop in Manhattan's Little Italy area. Last month, the shop helped 20 clients apply for permits, almost 10 times the normal volume.

It is not easy to become a legal gun holder in New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the most enthusiastic anti-gun politicians in the country, has made New York one of most difficult places to get a permit. There is a US$500 fee and the process can last for more than a year. Applicants also have to prove that they are in danger or need to carry big amounts of money or valuables. But without clear criteria, it is largely left to the individual judgment of application officers.

'There is a level of vagueness about the policies ... it is difficult to tell a client definitely what things will fly and what things won't,' said John Chambers, a lawyer focusing on gun licensing.

But that may be changing. In June, the US Supreme Court ruled that keeping a gun at home for self-defence is a constitutional right. Some legal experts expect this could lead to a change in New York. 'I don't think the licensing system will be eradicated in New York City. However, I think it will dramatically change because in New York it was a privilege to have a gun and now it is a right,' Mr Chambers said.

He acknowledged that legal gun holders are much less likely to be a threat. Of the thousands of clients he has represented, only two killed somebody with a gun and both did so in self-defence.

Tomorrow: London