Mayor Sylvester Turner spoke at a press conference to promote the program alongside other Houston leaders as well as members of Congress.
The gun “buyback” is one initiative of the mayor’s One Safe Houston (OSH) program to address the spike in violent crime following the COVID-19 pandemic. The first event in the program was held on July 29.
Turner said the event was “an overwhelming success,” explaining that while it was scheduled to run for four hours between 8:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m., it continued until 7:00 p.m. due to the sheer number of attendees. Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) said people had started lining up at 6:00 a.m.
According to the City of Houston’s Twitter, the first event collected 845 guns and distributed nearly $100,000 in gift cards. A press release from the mayor’s office claimed just 793 firearms were collected, including 512 handguns and 281 long guns.
Turner thanked private religious and fraternal organizations that used their own money to get the word out about the “buyback,” expressing that the event “enabled the community to participate.”
“I do want to thank the media community,” he added. “Because, quite frankly, it was because of our partnership with the media community that made the last gun buyback program so successful.”
The event was advertised as “no questions asked,” meaning Houstonians could turn in their firearms for gift cards worth up to $200 each. This drew criticism from Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, who warned criminals might use the program to dispose of weapons used in crimes.
Houston Police Department (HPD) Chief Troy Finner retorted at the press conference, “Don’t act like we’re not going to check all these guns for being stolen. Don’t act like we’re going to not run them through to see if they’ve been involved in a crime.”
Turner noted the process would be tweaked to make the next event more efficient. This time, HPD will create multiple lines instead of just one, which led to back-up the first time. Also, the 150 people who could not turn in guns last time due to HPD running out of gift cards and received “priority vouchers” for the second event will be allowed to go first this time around.
Turner and Finner addressed the critique that the first event allowed people to turn in 3D-printed firearms, stating those weapons could no longer be exchanged for gift cards. “We’ll accept them, but you’re not getting any money for it,” quipped Finner.
“If we take only one gun off the street that could have been stolen or used to injure or kill someone, then the initiative has been worth it,” Turner asserted. “Every gun we can get off the street today can help us create a safer tomorrow for everyone in our community.”
The mayor called the gun “buyback” initiative “one tool in the toolbox” of OSH and celebrated that violent crime in Houston was down 10 percent and murder down three percent. He did not provide a timeframe for those statistics.
According to Turner, OSH received $53 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), $1 million of which went to the “buyback” program. He and Ellis thanked U.S. Reps. Al Green (D-TX-9) and Sylvia Garcia (D-TX-29), also present, for helping pass ARPA in Congress.
In response to a reporter’s question about criticism from Ogg over supposed better uses of ARPA funding, Turner said OSH aims to provide overtime for 125 more HPD officers. The funding for that overtime started at $5.7 million and has grown to $13.2 million, not counting the $1.9 million set aside for more park rangers, he said. He also mentioned that more funding was also going to new technologies and providing for “underserved” communities.
“I don’t know how anybody in Harris County — Houston, Harris County — can criticize this One Safe Houston program,” said Finner. “Because around the nation, all the way up into D.C., and in counties all around this nation, people are applauding it. And you have all these people who come out and turn in guns. What’s negative about it?”
Ellis noted that the “buyback” would not solve the problem of gun violence, but that it would help. “We’re not just going to sit back and hope and pray that gun violence will go away,” he added.
He noted that September is Suicide Prevention Month: “That’s 900 less guns in the hands of somebody who could have committed suicide.”
Ellis said that Harris County has set aside $1.1 million for the “buyback” program and $1.4 billion for justice and public safety, the largest amount ever allocated in a Harris County budget, and that it was “on Judge Hidalgo’s watch.” Democratic Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo faces criticism from Republican Comptroller Glenn Hegar as well as fellow Democrats over claims of having “defunded law enforcement.”
Ellis also noted that Harris County did not have time to put up the funding for the first event, so he provided funds from Precinct 1’s coffers himself, hoping to “get it back” later. Precinct 1 has a reported $34 million in carryover funds for Fiscal Year 2023.
All four politicians concurred that teamwork between the different levels of government made the program possible.
Garcia stated that in 2021, 3,600 Texans died from gun violence and that it is the number one cause of death for children. “One child’s life is worth more than all the guns in the world,” she said.
It is unknown where Garcia’s “3,600 in 2021” number comes from, but according to the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, there were 3,683 firearm-related deaths in Texas in 2019. 61 percent of those were suicides and 35 percent were homicides; 388 deaths were children or teenagers.
“The smarty-pants in the room know that the AR-15s are the automatic weapons, military style,” Garcia also claimed. AR-15s are in fact semiautomatic weapons, meaning the trigger must be pulled for each shot; automatic weapons allow continuous fire with a pulled trigger. The original Colt AR-15, on which modern AR-15-style rifles are based, was a civilian version of the M16 automatic rifle American troops used in the Vietnam War.
One reporter asked whether or not identification would be required to turn in guns, noting that “there’s been an issue with that in the past” in “the Latin community.” Finner responded that ID will not be required. “No disrespect to your question, but we just want people to bring in the guns.”
Some rewards for the second event are identical to those of the first: a $50 gift card for a nonfunctional firearm, $100 for a shotgun, and $150 for a handgun. But whereas the first offered a $100 gift card for “rifles” and $200 for automatic rifles, the second offers $100 for “hunting rifles” and $200 for semiautomatic rifles.
The second gun “buyback” will be at the Houston METRO Westchase Park & Ride at 11050 Hardwin Drive on Saturday, October 8. This event is also scheduled for 8:00 a.m. to noon, though officials noted that like last time, the hours will be flexible.
The officials hope that the second event will collect even more guns than the first, and that there will be even more events in the future.
A poster for the second “buyback” event can be found below.
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