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Gun Recovery Strategies

Date Published
June 29, 2008

Police use seven tactics to recover firearms and potentially reduce gun violence:

  • Search warrants
  • Gun buybacks
  • Consent searches
  • Pedestrian stops
  • Traffic stops
  • Arrests
  • Gun turn-in campaigns

As each tactic has something to contribute to illegal firearm recovery, the police should employ a mix of complementary tactics to be effective in reducing illegal firearm use. Communities considering gun violence reduction strategies may want to carefully balance factors of risk, outcome, and costs (see exhibit 1).

Risk. A gun recovery intervention should first consider the level of risk for each strategy. For example, search warrants and arrests generally identify persons at high-risk of offending who pose a danger to officers. Because consent searches target individuals considered to be at risk for involvement in crime, either as victims or persons convicted of a crime, they are likely to have a greater crime-reduction payoff than pedestrian or traffic stops — while posing less risk for police.

Probability of gun seizure. A second criterion for choosing a gun recovery intervention is the probability that a gun will be found. Those efforts most likely to yield guns — search warrants and gun buybacks — are the most dangerous and least dangerous tactics, respectively. Although traffic and pedestrian stops are deemed the least likely to get guns, they account for the majority of gun seizures because of the sheer volume of these stops — literally thousands per year. [1]

Search warrants, gun buybacks, and gun turn-in campaigns have a high yield in firearms but account for only a fraction of the guns recovered by the police. Guns recovered through buybacks and turn-in campaigns are the least likely to have been involved in crime.

Crime reduction and social costs. Another consideration is whether the removal of guns through a given tactic or set of tactics results in a net reduction in crime. Search warrants and arrests usually are executed because an offense has occurred or is imminent; therefore, they are most likely to reduce criminal activity in the near term. All of the other tactics, including consent searches, are less likely to identify an individual involved in crime during gun seizure or in the near future.

Tactics that have an immediate effect on crime have an intuitive appeal. Search warrants, arrests, and some traffic and pedestrian stops have this potential if officers are trained to look for firearms. [2] But traffic and pedestrian stops can have substantial social implications. A major complaint about U.S. law enforcement is the alleged use of racial profiling to stop minorities in proportions far greater than their representation in the population. Thus, traffic and pedestrian stops generate distrust of the police for many Americans.

Search warrants, arrests, and consent searches exact more moderate social costs because, although these tactics are invasive, the perceived crime-control benefits offset their intrusiveness. When done in close partnership with the community, consent searches may actually increase police-citizen cooperation and therefore have a low social cost.

Collaboration. A final dimension for comparing these strategies is whether a collaborative partner is needed. Activities that rely on collaboration between police and the community — such as consent searches — are more difficult to execute than those that the police can perform themselves. Nonetheless, consent searches based on police-citizen collaboration have proved to be an effective, relatively low-risk tactic to recover illegal firearms from juveniles.

Exhibit 1: Impact of gun recovery tactics
Strategy Level of risk from subject Probability of getting a gun Difficulty of getting a gun Crime reduction impact Cost ($) Social cost Collaboration required
Search warrants High High High High High Medium No
Arrests High Medium Medium High Medium Medium No
Traffic stops Medium/ Low Low Low Low Low Medium/ High No
Pedestrian stops High Low Low Low Low High No
Consent searches Medium/ Low Medium Medium Medium Medium Low Yes
Gun buybacks Low High Low Low Medium Low Yes
Gun turn-in campaigns Low High Low Low Low Low No

About This Article

Information on this page is from the NIJ Report Reducing Gun Violence: The St. Louis Consent-to-Search Program, published August 2004.

Date Published: June 29, 2008