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Some 2020 candidates are calling for an assault weapons buyback. How would it work?

A buyback is not an original concept, with precedents on the local level and in other countries. But how candidates assure U.S. voters it’s not a “gun grab” may prove to be challenging.

Some 2020 candidates are calling for an assault weapons buyback. How would it work?
[Photo: Flickr user Neon Tommy]

As he struggled to pass gun safety legislation during his tenure, President Obama repeatedly had to bust the unfounded fear that Democrats were out to lead a jackbooted disarmament of American citizens. “At no point have I ever proposed confiscating guns from responsible gun owners,” he told a town hall audience in 2016. “It’s simply not true.”

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And, with one viral, meme-worthy moment at the September Democratic debate, Congressman Beto O’Rourke re-stoked the paranoia of many proud gun owners. “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said vehemently. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”

This is the first presidential race where gun control is a top-tier issue, with student groups like March For Our Lives leading the charge and hosting a presidential forum dedicated to gun violence. In particular, longtime El Paso resident O’Rourke has taken the personal pain of August’s massacre in his hometown to drive aggressive momentum to overdue reform, and at the debate, he doubled down on his promise to implement a national assault weapons buyback program.

California Congressman Eric Swalwell, who ran his short-lived presidential campaign on gun control, arguably paved the way for more substantial gun control. The lawmaker called for a buyback in a 2018 USA Today op-ed, and criticized his rivals at the first debate for their comparatively restrained plans: “They wouldn’t do a single thing to save a single life in Parkland.” Now, Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker are expressing some support for a buyback. And Joe Biden told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that his administration would absolutely come for people’s assault weapons.

There’s a fine line between a gun buyback and confiscation, but there are several distinctions. This is nowhere near a blanket seizure of firearms. O’Rourke is calling for a buyback of assault weapons: those semiautomatic, military-grade rifles such as the AR-15, which was the type of firearm used in most of the mass shootings that have plagued the nation over the past decade. Civilians are prohibited from owning weapons of war like rocket launchers and tanks, so proponents argue they also shouldn’t have these guns whose firepower is designed for use on the battlefield.

Implementing a buyback seems daunting—but it’s not unprecedented. They aren’t a new concept; cities from Boston to Los Angeles have administered them on the local level for decades, to curb urban gun violence.

How it works

Sergeant Sean Begley runs the annual buyback program in Daly City, California, “to reduce the availability of unwanted, unsafe and illegal guns.” Residents are invited to drop off their guns of any kind—no questions asked. Begley explains that individuals drive up to the City Hall parking lot with their unloaded guns in the trunk. They stay in their vehicles while police inspect the weapon, after which they receive their payment, and are free to leave.

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The police then run a search on all guns using their serial numbers. If they believe a weapon has been implicated in a crime, they’ll keep it as evidence. But they’ll destroy most guns, usually by melting them down at a foundry.

But the logistics of a national buyback are infinitely more complex. The Daly City program is voluntary, whereas a national program would be mandatory. (For assault weapons, that is; O’Rourke’s plan also mentions a voluntary handgun buyback.) The ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, would enforce criminal fines for those who don’t show up to drop off their rifles during the amnesty period.

The Daly City buyback collected approximately 86 guns this year (of which six were semiautomatic rifles); while the number of semiautomatic rifles in America is undetermined, estimates range from 3 million to 16 million. To collect such a supply of weapons is no small feat. But, there is precedent of a buyback on a national scale.

In 1996, after a mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania, which killed 35 people, the conservative Australian government swiftly implemented a comprehensive gun control package, including a ban and mandatory buyback of assault weapons. Rebecca Peters led the grassroots gun control campaign in Australia during this period, ensuring that the government made good on its promise. She says the buyback was a key component of a rounded gun reform package. “The ban was turning off the tap,” she says, “but the buyback was mopping up the floor.”

It employed a similar approach to Daly City, using police stations or community centers as drop-off locations, where rifles would be partially destroyed—crushed in a hydraulic press or chopped with shears—in front of residents, as proof that they wouldn’t enter police inventories. They’d then be transported in high-security convoys to steelworks, where they were melted down.

The incentive for gun owners to participate in a buyback, of course, is compensation. Australians were paid retail value for their arms and accessories, plus an extra percentage. While some argued that gun owners alone should foot the bill, the government decided to introduce a one-off tax levy for the whole population, arguing that the buyback was a public health solution that benefitted everyone.

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It was hailed a success. During the initial buyback, the country collected some 650,000 weapons. While gun crime was declining anyway, the drop accelerated following the gun reform, and since then Australia hasn’t had a mass shooting at anywhere near the same scale. Two researchers at Harvard School of Public Health, David Hemenway and Mary Vriniotis, wrote in a 2011 study that “firearm deaths in states with higher buyback rates per capita fell proportionately more than in states with lower buyback rates.”

The frustrating dynamics of the debate in America

In the U.S., a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 52% of the population supports a national gun buyback, vastly lower than the 89% that supports background checks, and 86% for red flag laws (which would allow police to take guns away from people deemed dangerous). That explains why most presidential candidates and lawmakers take a more cautious route to gun control, pushing for more popular legislative steps. Even a reinstitution of a ban on the sale of assault weapons, which was written in the law between 1994 and 2004, is now viewed as a risky step, only supported by 56%.

“One of the frustrations I have is that, in the U.S., the discussion is often in terms of either-or,” Peters says, explaining that politicians tend to select a single route rather than embrace a broad array. “We never say, ‘Should we have seatbelt requirements or should we have drink-driving laws?’ No, we have them both. When you’re trying to prevent death and injury, you put in place all the measures together.”

Still, that’s ambitious talk for the U.S., where suggestions of even incremental change on this polarizing issue is met with extreme political backlash. Unlike Australia, where the package was implemented with bipartisan support, the U.S. has hostile partisan division, an enormously powerful gun lobby, and a culturally instilled right to bear arms. Though movements like March For Our Lives have energized the gun reform campaign since Parkland, a buyback is more than a baby step. For skeptics, it has echoes of a “gun grab.”

It would need a committed buy-in from constituents and lawmakers, who’d need to support the expense of a buyback program, which some estimate at $15 billion, and which O’Rourke plans to finance by taxing gun manufacturers and traffickers. It would need cooperation from local police in every pocket of the country. There have already been reports of sheriffs refusing to enforce background checks.

O’Rourke’s plan is murky as it stands. He hasn’t specified how much gun owners would be compensated. When asked by CBS News if law enforcement would visit those who didn’t comply at their homes, he initially denied the proposition, but continued, “If they flagrantly abuse that law, yes, that weapon would be taken from them.” There are even nitty-gritty terminology debates around what “assault weapon” actually means, and whether a buyback would include semiautomatic handguns and shotguns as well as rifles. The O’Rourke campaign declined to speak to Fast Company to clarify the details.

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Still, he’s the only candidate who’s wholeheartedly embraced the concept of a buyback. Harris and Booker have delicately praised the plan but stopped short of endorsing it. And Biden released a gun plan Wednesday that fails to honor the promise made on Cooper’s show. Under this new plan, owners would have the alternative option of registering their assault weapons with the ATF.

After the El Paso tragedy, O’Rourke has rerouted his campaign trail, shunning the traditional path of visiting early-vote states like Iowa and New Hampshire in favor of visiting communities affected by xenophobia and gun violence. He’s stayed resolute in the face of critics. In Eric Swalwell’s absence, the mantle of gun reform has been passed to O’Rourke, who’s made it his signature issue.

Swalwell believes that education around the policy will raise more support for the measure. “It’s not a roundup of any sort, or a door-to-door get-the-gun,” Swalwell tells Fast Company. “It’s just like any other prohibitive contraband, where you would be criminally liable if you possess it.”

But he has no doubts about the daunting nature of the task, and of the safety risks. Since the debate, online vendors have sold t-shirts reading, “Hey, Beto, come and take it,” printed with a menacing images of semiautomatic rifles. An Arizona gun shop announced a Beto Special, offering discounted AR-15s. “I’ve had death threats sent to me, that ‘if you try and do this program, I’ll kill you,'” Swalwell says. “But, we can’t be bullied into doing nothing.”

Peters agrees that the end result is worth the mountainous undertaking. “We don’t say, ‘because there are always people trying to rob banks, we don’t have laws against bank robbery,'” she says. “Of course, there will be people who do their best to undermine the law, but if you take the appropriate preventative measures, then it’ll make a difference.”

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