In recent years, cities across the United States, from Los Angeles to Detroit to Camden, have held gun buyback events, where gun owners anonymously trade weapons for cash or gift cards. In most places, the buybacks are run by police departments, and with public funds — but Silicon Valley, true to form, is going its own way.
Roger Lee, a venture capitalist at Battery Partners whose investments include Groupon and Angie’s List, was moved by the Sandy Hook shootings. “We struggled with how to respond. We wanted to do something in the memory of those children and to protect our own kids,” says Lee. So he decided to spearhead a buyback program of his own.
For help with logistics, he reached out to the police department in East Palo Alto, which, despite its proximity to some of northern California’s wealthiest areas, struggles with crime and poverty. The median income in East Palo Alto is less than half that in Menlo Park and Palo Alto. Between 2009 and 2011 there were 20 murders in East Palo Alto, compared to one in Palo Alto and two in Menlo Park.
East Palo Alto police, in turn, reached out to departments in Menlo Park and Palo Alto for additional help. All three cities have had buybacks in recent years, but on very small scales, and offering gift cards, not cash. Lee, with his Silicon Valley connections and a moneyed Rolodex, thought he might be able to do better.
He emailed 15 of his friends and neighbors asking for donations, and word began to spread. In six weeks, he raised $52,000 dollars from about 100 people.
In Silicon Valley speak, this was seed money. If the event went off smoothly, he could use it to attract larger investments for future buybacks.
Last Saturday, people waited for up to two hours to get in to the East Palo Alto City Hall parking lot, a mile from the Apple campus, where they were promised $100 for a handgun, $200 for a rifle or shotgun, and $300 for an assault weapon. Lee was pleased with the results: In all, the buyback reclaimed 355 firearms, including 111 handguns, 227 rifles and shotguns, and 11 assault weapons, as well as detachable magazines, half of a 44-gallon garbage can of ammunition, and one inert hand grenade.
Julie Anderson, of Palo Alto, said she wanted to sell her semi-automatic glock to “to be free of the burden.” She had had a boyfriend who urged her to buy it so they could go to target practice, but they split up shortly after she bought it.
“We see that there is real demand for people to sell guns,” says Lee. “And there is a broad base of support from concerned residents of Palo Alto and Menlo Park. It touched a nerve.”
Other regional police departments, including Fremont’s and Santa Clara’s, attended the event and asked for advice setting up their own. Lee hopes to create a guide book for future events — a franchise, of sorts.
The buyback ran out of money within two and a half hours. At the last minute, the City of East Palo Alto added another $4,000 in the form of IOU voucher from its own $15,000 buyback allocation fund. Many were turned away and handed flyers about another buyback program next weekend in San Jose.
“It was a nice experiment today that proves it works on a small scale,” says Lee. “Fundamentally it was constrained by the dollars. We want to do it on a bigger scale next time.”
A team of Stanford graduate students are collecting violent crime data from before and after the event to measure the event’s effect, if any. A representative from Stanford wasn’t available to speak for the story.
In any case, with one round under his belt, Lee is ready to do what comes naturally: He is going to approach more investors.
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