In a letter addressed to Houston Police Chief Troy Finner, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, and Precinct 7 Constable May Walker dated July 28 — the day before the first buyback event — Ogg wrote that while she agreed on the importance of “getting guns off of our streets and out of the hands of violent criminals in an effort to reduce violent crime,” the city’s program as structured created multiple legal issues.
“Under its current parameters, this program could harm public safety, impede the prosecution of violent criminals, and encourage the theft of firearms in and around Harris County.”
One of the problems Ogg listed is the city advertisements stating participants could sell guns in exchange for gift cards “with a no-question-asked policy by law enforcement,” and that the weapons would be destroyed after testing to determine if they had been used in a crime.
By accepting guns with “no questions asked,” Ogg wrote, the city and Houston police officers are effectively offering “anonymity and immunity” to those who turn in weapons. However, only the district attorney has the statutory authority to do so. She added that anyone turning in a gun connected to a crime is a witness “as a matter of law.”
Ogg noted that money or anything of value given to a witness by law enforcement must be disclosed to defense attorneys, and that Houston’s program could make law enforcement a party to tampering with evidence. She warned that destroying such evidence without a chain of custody could imperil future exonerations of suspects.
“In the matter of pending cases, this program may do irreparable harm to the prosecution and therefore, to the crime victims themselves.”
In this first Houston event, the city offered gift cards of $50 for “non-functioning firearms,” $100 for rifles or shotguns, $150 for handguns, and $200 for automatic rifles. Afterwards, they announced that they had collected 845 firearms and distributed $100,000 in gift cards.
Crime Stoppers of Houston Victims Advocate Andy Kahan told The Texan that there are at least seven hundred unsolved murders with known suspects in Harris County, but the number without known suspects is not readily available.
Despite the legal issues raised by the district attorney, Houston proceeded with the gun buyback as planned. Mayor Sylvester Turner held a press conference along with U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-18) and Al Green (D-TX-09), Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1), and other government officials.
While the city provided no official response to Ogg’s statements, Jackson Lee defended the program, saying it adhered to both federal and local law. She added that the gun owners “are here for the cash card but you can imagine there’s a little trepidation and they want to really know that this is anonymous.”
“And so, I’ve been out here since 8:40 [a.m.] and to watch the police interact with these citizens where they can explain to them that they are held harmless,” said Jackson Lee. “That is a big important point.”
Ellis touted similar programs in Philadelphia, Seattle, and Chicago, and said he would push the county to match the $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for gun buybacks Turner included in his “One Safe Houston” plan to combat rising crime and homicide rates in the city.
Numerous cities have hosted gun buyback events since the 1960s. This year, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called her city’s event a “bold, new initiative,” but decades of research counters that assertion, stating that these efforts do not reduce gun violence “in part because they do not result in guns being taken from people who are not supposed to have them.”
Data obtained by The Texan from the HCDAO indicates that there are at least 1,877 suspects charged with Felon in Possession of Weapon at large in Harris County either on bond or not arrested.
During a July 21 meeting of Houston’s Public Safety and Homeland Security committee, Assistant Police Chief Milton Martin said that Ellis would provide the gift cards with the expectation that the commissioner would be reimbursed by the city.
After the event, FOX 26 Houston reported a man had shared receipts showing he exchanged 62 homemade 3D-printed guns for $50 gift cards for each. He said his cost to make the guns amounted to $3 each, netting him a profit of nearly $3,000.
During the press conference, Turner showed a 9 mm handgun that had been taken in, claiming both rifles and “automatics” had been collected.
The process for legally owning an automatic weapon is complicated and expensive, and the guns themselves are typically sold for tens of thousands of dollars regardless of condition.
During the Houston event, some gun buyers walked down the lengthy line of those waiting to sell and offered higher amounts than the city’s offerings, effectively creating a “pop-up” gun show that allowed gun sales without checks or documentation.
The city has announced that they will not accept 3D-printed firearms at the next event, but has not yet addressed Ogg’s concerns or other issues surrounding the gun buyback. Ellis told reporters he hopes they can host another such event prior to the start of the school year in Houston ISD on August 22.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.