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The Futility of a Gun Buyback

Before you ask how many Americans will give up their guns, ask how many cops will even try to take them.

JON STOKES | 9.5.2019 8:00 AM

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(Randall Goya/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Gun bans are back in the news again, with the 2020 Democratic field lining up behind the (old, already-tried-and-failed) idea of a ban on the AR-15, the AK-47, and any other gun that looks remotely "military."

The most aggressive recent version of this proposal was floated by a certain Texan who's currently sinking in the polls, and it includes a mandatory buyback. When asked if he plans to actually take away people's guns, Beto O'Rourke replied: "I want to be really clear that that's exactly what we are going to do. Americans who own AR-15s, AK-47s, will have to sell them to the government."

Meghan McCain's response to O'Rourke on The View-"if you're talking about taking people's guns from them, there's going to be a lot of violence"-and Tucker Carlson's subsequent pile-on (that it'll spark a "new Civil War") sent the usual suspects straight to the fainting couch, pearls in hand.

Media Matters has already put out two pieces on the remarks, one focused on Carlson and a breathless followup focused more generally on "right-wing media" reactions to the proposed gun ban. HuffPost reporter Zach Carter accused McCain of "mainstreaming apocalyptic thinking." (One wonders what he thinks of HuffPost headlines like "Are We Heading Toward Extinction?") Crooks & Liars amped everything up another notch by claiming Carlson's rhetoric about the danger of gun confiscation is itself dangerous.

Before we go any further with the back-and-forth about armed resistance, let's think about the reaction we can realistically expect to a watered-down AR-15 ban, with no mandatory buyback. How many gun owners would either hand over or destroy their assault weapons? And how many of the authorities whose job it would be to put refusers in jail would even try to enforce a ban?

We don't have to look to New Zealand's recent flop of a mandatory buyback, where less than 10 percent of the country's estimated number of newly banned weapons have been handed over so far, to answer those questions. There's a great case study right here in the bluest of blue states: New York.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo hailed the 2013 New York SAFE Act as the toughest gun control law in the nation, and one of its most important provisions was the mandatory registration of all "assault weapons" in the state. This isn't a confiscation or even a ban, so it's nowhere near as severe as what O'Rourke and others are pushing-it's just a teeny weeny little registration requirement.

So how has that worked out? Well, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation's conservative estimate, New Yorkers owned about 1 million "assault weapons" at the time the ban was passed. So the 44,000 that were actually registered are about 4 percent of the total. This noncompliance with the law is widespread and mostly open, but the police aren't doing much about it. For instance, Hudson Valley One reported in 2016:

I could give several more examples of such reporting. But the upshot is that gun owners are overwhelmingly ignoring the law-and the police are overwhelmingly looking the other way.

A 2017 article from NYU law professor James Jacobs sums up the state of play. After detailing the electoral damage the backlash against the act did to New York Dems-"In 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo was reelected by a much diminished majority and Republicans regained control of the State Senate"-Jacobs concludes that the "SAFE Act's impact on gun crime, suicides and accidents has never been seriously assessed, although both gun control proponents and gun rights advocates make extravagant claims. In truth, there seems little likelihood that the SAFE Act has had much, if any, effect since it has been only partially implemented, almost completely unenforced, and widely ignored. Its various provisions are easily circumvented" (emphasis mine).

New Yorkers are famous for their attitude, but this local police pushback on state and federal gun laws is not at all limited to New York. Nor is it a recent development. In 2013, for example, NBC reported on local sheriffs from Maryland to Colorado who publicly touted their refusal to enforce any gun laws they feel infringe on the Constitution. The growing Second Amendment Sanctuary movement, active in California, New Mexico, Oregon, and a handful of other states, is being led by local law enforcement.

If you're one of my many pro-gun control friends, you're no doubt offended at the spectacle of local police officials and city governments flat-out refusing to enforce democratically legislated marijuana laws...sorry, I mean immigration laws...oops, I mean gun laws.

I totally get that. When I read a quote like the following, there is indeed a part of me that thinks that if this radical insurrectionist loves cops and hates democracy this much, then maybe he should move to Hong Kong: "When [a prominent politician] kind of goes after these phantom sanctuary cities and talks about how bad they are, basically what he's going after is police chiefs. And I trust police chiefs, in terms of knowing what should be done to keep their communities safer, and police departments and mayors, a lot more than I trust [that Washington politician]."

Oh, no-I got mixed up again. That was former Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine, in a 2016 CNN interview on the topic of immigration sanctuary cities, and the politician he was criticizing is Donald Trump.

My point, other than the fact that hypocrisy around federalism is depressingly bipartisan, is not that it's either good or bad for local cops to veto laws. My point is that regardless of what you think of the gun owners who won't comply or the cops who'll inevitably let them off without even a verbal warning, there is no gun registration, gun ban, or gun confiscation that a U.S. Congress can pass and a U.S. president can sign that will be even close to fully complied with or enforced. Not one.

That isn't a boast or a threat. It's just a prediction, and a fairly safe one.

So the question I have for everyone who still wants to go down this road is this: What will you do in the face of the inevitable mass noncompliance? What is your Plan B?

Is the next step increased penalties for lawbreakers? If so, then how will you catch these lawbreakers in order to penalize them if the cops aren't interested in going after them?

Is your plan to go after the police, then? Would you declare war on any local sheriffs and even state police who ignore the law? If this stood a realistic chance of happening, you'd think they'd do it in New York, of all places. But a lot of that state's cops have been openly ignoring the country's "toughest" gun law, and we've heard crickets.

Or maybe you plan to escalate to door-to-door confiscation as a last resort.

In that case, I think Meghan McCain's prediction of violence is about as safe as my prediction of mass noncompliance and law enforcement nullification. There would probably be a lot of ugliness and not a few dead bodies, not to mention a massive waste of the political capital of any party pushing the police into a shooting war with even a relatively small number of AR-15-owning bitter enders.

Even if you think gun owners are bluffing and will hand 'em over peacefully when the time comes, you'd risk a violent escalation of America's worsening culture war solely for the sake of outlawing a category of weapons that are involved in the low triple-digits of U.S. deaths in any given year? Really?

This doesn't seem rational to me. It seems more like the kind of culture-war red meat you throw out there when you're trying to revive a flagging presidential campaign.

Jon Stokes is one of the founders of Ars Technica, a former Wired editor, and currently an editor at The Prepared. He's also a contributing editor at TheFirearmBlog.com and is one of the people behind opensourcedefense.org, a post-culture-war gun rights collective.