When Oregon tried a gun buyback program several years back, it apparently turned into a bidding war between the organizers and gun enthusiasts.
Tom Perritt said people were outside the buyback location with stacks of cash and signs saying “We buy guns.”
“The people would walk up and go, ‘I’ve got this and they’re going to give me $125. How much will you give me?’ Guy would say, I’ll give you 200 bucks.’ ‘OK, here you go,'” Mr. Perritt recalled.
He said he ended up selling to the organizers — three pistols he said were “junk,” but for which he received a voucher for $375. He used the money to buy a scope for a rifle and several ammunition magazines for his Ruger.
In the wake of two mass shootings this month, Democratic politicians have called for a national policy of gun buybacks, saying something needs to be done to get “assault weapons” off the streets.
They point to the experience of countries such as Australia, which held a mandatory buyback after a mass shooting in the 1990s, and saw gun violence rates tumble.
The calls also have ignited a debate over whether an Australian-style buyback would work in the U.S., or whether it would even be legal.
President Trump has his own ideas. On Wednesday, he labeled gun violence a public health emergency, though he continued to reach for solutions.
Mr. Trump said he spoke with the head of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, this week and has been conferring regularly with lawmakers from both parties. He said he wants to “fill in some of the loopholes” in laws requiring background checks on firearms purchases, particularly for those with mental illnesses.
But he said he’s worried any debate will be an invitation for Democrats to push the nation down a “slippery slope” of even stricter controls.
Democrats say the time has come for those kinds of strict laws, in the wake of the shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that left more than 30 people dead.
For some, that means a ban on future sales of the AR-15-style rifle used in Ohio or the AK-47-style one used in El Paso — and an effort to reclaim the millions of rifles that have been sold over the years.
“We must as a country buy those weapons, take them off the streets altogether,” Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke said this month.
Mr. O’Rourke, a former congressman from El Paso, recently outlined a gun control plan that includes a ban and a mandatory buyback of military-style “assault” weapons, plus a voluntary buyback program for handguns. He also would raise excise taxes on gun manufacturers and increase fines on illegal gun traffickers, using the money to fund the buybacks.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock are among those who have expressed interest in bans on future purchases, coupled with voluntary buybacks — though they say a mandatory program might go too far.
“Right now, there’s no legal way that I’m aware of that you could deny them the right” to have legally purchased guns, Mr. Biden told CNN this month. “But we can in fact make a major effort to get them off the street and out of the possession of people.”
While in the Senate, Mr. Biden had championed a 1994 ban on the sale and manufacturing of many models of semiautomatic weapons for public use. But previously purchased weapons were grandfathered in, and the ban lapsed in 2004.
The world offers a number of test cases.
In Brazil, a 2004 voluntary buyback got more than 450,000 weapons off the streets, vastly exceeding officials’ expectations. And a subsequent drop in firearms-related deaths was due at least in part to the buyback, along with stiffer rules on gun ownership, according to a 2007 study from the University of Pennsylvania.
A voluntary buyback in Argentina in 2007 and 2008, though, was much more mixed. It cut the rate of firearms accidents, but didn’t curtail suicides or homicides, researchers from the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella concluded in a 2010 study.
The most common parallel drawn by politicians is Australia. After a mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania, in 1996 left 35 people dead, Australia enacted a ban on some weapons and a mandatory buyback law, along with universal firearms registration.
Some 650,000 weapons were turned in, accounting for about 20 percent of the total number of firearms held privately at the time, according to a 2003 study. But the effects were large.
According to the website GunPolicy.org, hosted by the Sydney School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, gun-related deaths in Australia peaked in 1987 at 694 and declined to 516 by 1996, the year of the massacre. Numbers declined significantly in the years after the new laws passed, reaching 243 in 2004 and have remained between 190 and 250 ever since.
Those death numbers are not broken out by suicide, homicide and accident, though.
In the 18 years before the 1996 law passed, there had been 13 gun “massacres” — the killing of four or more people at one time — resulting in more than 100 deaths, according to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.
No such mass killings occurred in Australia for more than a decade after the law was passed, the center found, though four people were killed in a shooting in June in Darwin, and seven people died in an apparent murder-suicide in Osmington last year.
But more recent analysis of Australia’s programs called into question the extent to which they affected homicides or suicides, said Mike Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing at Arizona State University.
“The American gun experience is somewhat unique in the world,” Mr. Scott said. “Unless we dramatically change the laws relating to the manufacture, sale, transfer, possession of guns, we’re going to live in a society that is heavily armed at all times. And I don’t sense that there is any public, or certainly political, appetite for fundamentally changing that reality.”
In addition to the constitutional hurdles raised by Mr. Biden, there’s also a massive difference in the scale of ownership. One estimate says Australia had about 3.2 million firearms for its 18.3 million residents in 1996 — almost six people for each firearm. By contrast, the Small Arms Survey last year estimated that there were 393 million firearms in America, a number greater than U.S. population of less than 330 million.
Still, the public wants to see something done.
Three-quarters of respondents said they would support a voluntary program in which the government would buy back firearms that people no longer wanted, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released this week.
Local law enforcement agencies such as those in Oregon already try to do that on a voluntary basis.
Monica Kirk, an activist in the state, said they are “very pleased” with the voluntary turn-in program, one of which is run cooperatively between a local chapter of the Ceasefire Oregon Education Foundation and the Newport police department.
She said one major coup has been a local pawn shop owner turning in inexpensive handguns in exchange for payments. She said police have identified those “Saturday Night Specials” as used in a disproportionate number of petty crimes, and getting them out of circulation improves safety.
“A voluntary national buyback would at least give people a way to safely and permanently remove unwanted guns from their homes,” she said.
But the local programs that U.S. cities have tried are essentially photo-ops where local authorities can tout stashes of firearms they pile up that will no longer be on the streets, said Mr. Scott, a former police chief in Lauderhill, Fla. He said the typical program can bring in roughly 150 firearms.
“The supply of them is just so plentiful that taking a thousand of them episodically out of circulation doesn’t do much to diminish the supply,” he said. “It lends itself to a perception of action — that the officials are doing something … something tangible, something visible, something that seems dramatic and to some extent seems fair.”
Mr. Perritt, now a retired police officer, said Australia’s program amounted to “the right thing at the right time for them,” but doubted it would translate to the U.S.
“If the crime rate, or murder rate, or quote, gun violence, unquote has dropped because of their buyback program, then hey, good on ’em — something worked for once,” Mr. Perritt said. “I just don’t see something like that working on such a national level that’s to decrease the amount of firearms in the public at large.”
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