Author Shane Claiborne turns donated guns into artwork and garden tools

Despite Philadelphia’s seemingly intractable gun violence epidemic, you can’t hand over a firearm to Philly Police no questions asked.

Unless it’s during a special give-back event, department policy requires anyone turning in a gun to provide identification, a police spokesperson confirmed to Billy Penn.

That poses a potential conflict for people who want to get rid of weapons without risking criminal charges for themselves — or their loved ones. For example, if a parent finds a gun in their child’s room, they have no guarantee that turning it in won’t incriminate their offspring.

“If a citizen surrenders a firearm at a police station or to a responding officer, the officer will ask for identifying information,” department spokesperson Staff Inspector Sekou Kinebrew said via email. “That person could then be the subject of an investigation.”

Whether or not the person is investigated, the weapon does undergo examination, including ballistic testing and legal status, Kinebrew added.

The city does host gun buyback and give-back initiatives where folks are able to surrender a firearm anonymously, but only a handful. According to police, the department has held five gun surrender events in the last year. Another one is set for this Saturday. (See below for details.)

This year to date, at least 338 people have been murdered in Philadelphia, a 3% increase compared to last year. More than 1,380 people have been shot.

In nearby Baltimore, which has a smaller population but has seen nearly as many homicides (322 so far), the policy is different. Police will accept unwanted guns at anytime, and “[t]he citizen can remain anonymous if they wish,” according to a spokesperson.

In Philly, individuals can hand over a firearm at any time by calling 911 or visiting a police district office — but only if they’re willing to provide ID. Philly Police have no plans to change the gun surrender policy to allow anonymity, the department told Billy Penn.

During a give-back or buyback event, things are different.

When the public is urged, largely through media outreach, to turn in unwanted weapons at a specific day, time and place, they can do so anonymously. Many times, guns are exchanged for cash, gift cards and other monetary incentives.

Added benefits: Public awareness and relationship building

Data on the effectiveness of give-back and buyback efforts is mixed.

In a primer on incentivized gun-return efforts, Temple University criminal justice professor Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe highlighted evidence that shows guns returned during these events are not the same guns used in crime. There’s no evidence, he said, that gun buy-backs are effective in reducing shootings.

“Gun buybacks might raise public awareness,” Ratcliffe wrote, “but often the demographics of people who surrender guns are not the high risk group.”

Juwan Bennett, a criminology PhD candidate at Temple University, draws a contrast between gun buyback events that provide amnesty, and everyday gun surrenders that do not.

“If you’re saying, ‘You can turn your gun in with no record,’ and that’s kind of giving them a fresh start, I think that’s a good measure of faith,” Bennett told Billy Penn. “I think if it can incriminate them, that may de-incentivize it.”

Maj Toure, a onetime Libertarian candidate for City Council at-large and co-founder of Black Guns Matter, said he believes communities targeted by gun return initiatives are actually less safe.

“In areas where there’s a lot of gun buybacks, where there’s a lot of gun restrictions and things like that, that usually goes hand-in-hand with high violent crime rates,” Toure said in a phone call.

Like in Philadelphia, the NYPD requires identification when individuals turn in a firearm. New York recently scaled down its nearly two-decade long “Cash for Guns” program that offered $100 and amnesty for anyone who turned in weapons. That program yielded more than 5,000 guns between 2010 to 2015. But so far this year, New York City held just one gun buyback event.

Philly Police joined elected officials last week urging parents to search their childrens’ rooms for guns in light of the 110 child shooting victims this year in Philadelphia. One victim was 16-year-old Ceani T’Kai Smalls who was murdered by a man shooting as passengers got off a SEPTA bus in North Philly.

On Saturday, the city hosted a four-location gun surrender event in East Germantown and West Philadelphia. Six firearms were turned in.

Temple criminologist Bennett, a South Philly native, said that while research shows buybacks and give-backs may not effectively reduce gun violence, there’s another benefit that makes the initiatives worthwhile.

“I think one of the greatest aspects of the gun buyback programs, which is kind of underrated, is this idea of relationship building and building trust with the community,” Bennett said. He believes that “when police are seen as trustworthy, transparent [and] flexible, that individuals [are] more likely to not only confer with police protocols but also willing to help police.”

On Saturday, Dec. 14 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., individuals can turn in firearms anonymously at the following locations:

Taylor Memorial Baptist Church
3817 Germantown Ave.

Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church
419 S. 6th St.

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...