Matt Miller: Buy back guns, boost the economy

December 18, 2012

Everyone knows we need to reduce gun violence in America. Everyone knows we still need to boost the economy, too. Usually these goals are debated in completely different policy silos. But what if there was a way to boost the economy and shrink gun violence? Wouldn’t that be the holy grail at this hour? Might that not answer the president’s call for new ideas?

Allow me to propose a massive, debt-financed gun buyback program.

Here’s the case for it. Critics of fresh gun-safety measures argue that laws pushed at moments like this won’t make a dent in gun violence. Banning assault weapons, limiting magazine capacity or closing background-check loopholes, we’re told, do nothing about the estimated 250 million guns already in private hands.

The gun lobby is surely wrong to suggest that the measures above won’t save some lives. If Aurora shooter James Holmes hadn’t had an assault rifle and high-capacity clips, for example, far fewer people than 70 would have been killed or injured that awful night.

But the gun lobby is right about the existing stock of weapons. The 12,000 Americans murdered with guns every year are killed with guns already out there.

The right response isn’t to shrug and say we’re powerless. If we’re serious, we need to think bigger. A gun buyback program could be the way.

Usually these efforts are local and tiny. Last Saturday, in Oakland and San Francisco, nearly 600 handguns and rifles were collected at $200 each, no questions asked. They’ll be melted down and turned into stop signs, light posts and park benches. The program was funded, the Oakland Tribune reported, by nonprofit groups and a private donor.

This past Mother’s Day, a buyback program in Los Angeles brought in 1,650 guns, each in exchange for a prepaid Visa or grocery-store card of up to $200, depending on the gun. Police departments in the District, New York, Detroit, Boston, Baltimore and elsewhere have organized such buybacks, often partnering with churches in communities devastated by gun violence.

Each of these buybacks has been small. But the only limit to their scale is our imagination. Australia’s experience shows what it looks like when you aim high.

In 1996, after a horrific mass killing of 35 people at a resort in Tasmania, Australian politicians came together around a major reform. The “National Firearms Agreement,” reached within two weeks of that tragedy, banned semi-automatic and automatic rifles and shotguns, and it created a compulsory buyback program for the outlawed weapons. (To do otherwise would have amounted to a taking of property without compensation.)

The result? The number of homicides involving firearms has dropped 59 percent in Australia since then, and the number of suicides by firearm fell by 74 percent, according to the Journal of Law and Economics. The percentage of homes with guns has dropped in half. A Harvard study found that, while Australia experienced 13 gun massacres in the 18 years before 1996, there has been none since.

The government purchased and destroyed 700,000 weapons between 1996 and 1998 – about one-fifth of Australia’s estimated stock of firearms. That would be like destroying 50 million guns in America today.

Ann Telnaes animation: The aftermath of the Newtown shooting. (Ann Telnaes/The Washington Post)

The Australian “outlaw and repurchase” option is one approach. But if Congress balks at banning certain weapons entirely, there’s an all-American answer: Make gun owners an offer they can’t refuse. Instead of a measly $200 a gun, Uncle Sam might offer $500. After all, overpaying powerful constituencies to achieve public policy goals is a time-honored American tradition; we do it every day with Medicare drug benefits and defense contractors, to name just two.

So imagine a $100 billion, one-time program aimed at buying back 200 million firearms at $500 a pop. We issue the payments in prepaid credit cards that expire in three months (good thinking, Los Angeles!) to be sure the money is spent fast.

Presto! So long as the federal money is borrowed, we get an immediate boost to demand, jobs and growth. And with long-term interest rates at all-time lows, there’s never been a better time for the feds to overpay gun owners and get these weapons out of circulation. The president can even pitch selling a gun to Uncle Sam as a patriotic act — part of a national rethinking of our gun culture in the wake of Newtown.

If you think a gun buyback stimulus sounds beyond the pale, it’s only because you’ve been conditioned to live with a pinched view of what’s possible. Which is really more outlandish: my gun buyback stimulus, or the self-inflicted recession Washington is working overtime to un-inflict? The only idea that is truly bonkers is to think we’re helpless to reverse the carnage that just claimed its most innocent victims yet.

Besides, by structuring the buyback so that half is administered via refundable tax credits, Republicans could take credit for a major tax cut, to boot.

The White House and Congress can tweak the details (especially to make sure that the government doesn’t buy back old nonworking guns or junk that gun dealers can’t unload anywhere else). I’m not here to write the legislation. I’m just trying to get the conversation started.

But we need to think fast about policies equal to the scale of the problem. If we don’t, and this window of opportunity closes, we’ll end up (at best) with symbolic “first steps” that our leaders pretend are serious — but which will only doom Americans to more blood and tears.

Matt Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center.” His e-mail address is mattino2@gmail.com.

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