Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke boasted in the last debate that he will, in fact, come for your guns. Joining him were fellow Democratic candidates, Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.
The talk in some quarters switched with impressive quickness from “nobody wants to take your guns” to “hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” But what those people don’t understand is what a mandatory gun “buyback” — more appropriately known as gun confiscation given the government never owned the guns in the first place — would actually mean. It’s unprecedented, unconstitutional, and unworkable.
O’Rourke’s call to confiscate AR-15s and AK-47s is unlike any policy ever instituted in the United States. Beto wouldn’t only ban future sales of the firearms — as was done in 1994 — but also force millions of Americans who already legally own them to give them up or face fines, jail, or worse.
The realistic chances this proposal could become law and survive a legal challenge are currently vanishingly small. Beto is unlikely to win the primary given that he’s polling at about 3% and hasn’t seen any real bump from his confiscation declaration. Such a scheme couldn’t pass the House or Senate as things stand now (even the Democrat-controlled House seems unlikely at this point to pass a ban on the sale of the same guns). And it isclearly unconstitutionalunder theHellerandMcDonaldSupreme Court precedents, which recognize an individual right to own firearms that are in common use by Americans for lawful purposes. There’s no rifle in more common lawful use in America than the AR-15. Additionally, many police officers are unlikely to be willing to enforce such an order should it ever come.
Still, it’s important to look at the reality of what such a proposal would require.
There are no official statistics on how many guns Americans own, but the Small Arms Survey is the most widely recognized estimate of civilian, police, and military gun ownership in the world. Itsmost recent estimateputs civilian-owned firearms in America at about 400 million. That’s far more than in any other country in the world. There are more guns here than there are people. Civilians own 100 times as many guns as the military. Americans own so many guns it amounts to three times all the world’s militaries combined.
Likewise, we don’t know exactly how many AR-15s and AK-47s there are, but the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry trade group, estimates that it isabout 16 million. Beto has said he would base confiscation on the Assault Weapons Ban of 2019, introduced but going nowhere, which applies to many guns other than just AR-15s and AK-47s, so the number of guns affected would likely be much higher. If you stick to just the ARs and AKs Beto called out at the debate, the task seems somewhat less daunting than trying to seize 400 million guns from our 350 million citizens andupwards of 120 million gun owners. Those rifles are about 4% of the total number of guns owned in the U.S.
It also seems clear that Americans would be less willing to give up their guns than New Zealanders have been. There is a long history here of resistance to the taking of the people’s arms. It goes back to a thwarted effort by Gen. Thomas Gage, a redcoat, toseize arms from the people of Concordin 1775.Texans refused at the Battle of Gonzalesin 1835 to turn over their canon to Gen. Santa Anna. Charlton Heston declared that the only way anyone could take his guns was “from my cold, dead hands!” It’s fanciful to think a country with that kind of ingrained commitment to guns would accept a confiscation scheme when New Zealand, a place where such a scheme was passed with near-unanimous support, is having trouble implementing it.
New Jersey’s recent ban on the possession of ammunition magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds is instructive. In April, New Jersey State Policetold Ammoland.comthat not a single magazine had been surrendered to them.
But if an American confiscation plan did somehow manage to get a 90% compliance rate, there would still be at least 1.6 million ARs and AKs left in the wild. To put that in context, theSmall Arms Survey estimatesthere are about 1 million firearms held by police in the U.S. That means even if the vast majority of American gun owners gave up everything they’ve believed since John Parker and his Minute Men met Maj. John Pitcairn and his red coats on a field outside Lexington, there would still be more leftover AR-15s out there than the entire stockpile of every police force in the country.
Of course, many Americans would not turn over their guns. Many would not surrender their guns during a “mandatory buyback.” Many wouldn’t turn them over even if you sent armed men to their homes to collect them. In the end, to get every AR-15, you would have to be willing to kill some gun owners.
You would have to kill your fellow Americans to deny citizens their constitutional rights and accomplish what Beto O’Rourke says he wants. It’s an inescapable truth.
And what purpose would this serve?
Rifles play a small role in crime. Rifles, of which ARs are only a subset, were involved in 403 (2%) of the 15,129 murders committed in 2017,according to the FBI. They were used far less often than handguns (7,032) but also less often than knives (1,591) or blunt objects (467) or even hands and feet (692). ARs have, of course, been used in a number of high-profile attacks, but they arenot the most common guns used in mass shootings,and some of the worst attacks we’ve seen have been perpetrated with handguns and shotguns, making it questionable at best that confiscating them would prevent mass shootings.
The reality is that there are so many of these rifles that even an astronomical surrender rate would leave a massive stockpile in civilian hands. The surrender rate would probably be low, leaving tens of millions of rifles in circulation.
Even then, the potential benefit would be extremely limited. The violence required to implement a comprehensive confiscation plan aimed at AR-15s would probably far outweigh any drop in gun violence.