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.