Hand Over Your Weapons

People scrambled for shelter October 1 after a gunman opened fire in Las Vegas. (Photo: David Becker/Getty Images)

Hand Over Your Weapons

If gun-control advocates really want to stanch the blood, they'll have to persuade more people of the need to confiscate millions of firearms

In the aftermath of the Texas church shooting last week, Democratic lawmakers did what they always do: They skewered their Republican colleagues for offering only "thoughts and prayers," and demanded swift action on gun control.

"The time is now," said Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, "for Congress to shed its cowardly cover and do something."

Trouble is, it's not clear the "something" Democrats typically demand would make a real dent in the nation's epidemic of gun violence. Congress can ban assault weapons, but they account for just a tiny sliver of the country's 33,000 annual firearm deaths. And tighter background checks will do nothing to cut down on the 310 million guns already in circulation.

In other words, the proposals aren't just difficult to enact in the current political climate; their practical effects would also be quite limited. On occasion, though, leading Democrats will make oblique reference to a more sweeping policy change: seizing a huge number of weapons from law-abiding citizens.

Get Arguable with Jeff Jacoby in your inbox:

From the Globe's must-read columnist, an extra offering each week of opinion and ideas.

At a New Hampshire forum in the fall of 2015, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke approvingly of an Australian gun buyback program that collected more than 650,000 weapons--a buyback that, she neglected to mention, was compulsory.

And just a few months earlier, then-President Barack Obama offered coded support for the same confiscatory approach. "When Australia had a mass killing--I think it was in Tasmania--about 25 years ago, it was just so shocking, the entire country said, 'Well, we're going to completely change our gun laws,' and they did," he said.

Democrats have even let the word "confiscation" slip out, on occasion. After the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. in 2012, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a radio interview that when it came to assault weapons "confiscation could be an option, mandatory sale to the state could be an option."

It was an option Cuomo didn't pursue. But five years after that slaughter of schoolchildren--and with fresh tales of murdered kids on the floor of a Texas church--might gun-control advocates expand their agenda?

The logic of gun control lies, at bottom, in substantially reducing the number of deadly weapons on the street--and confiscation is far and away the most effective approach. Is there any conceivable turn of events in our politics that could make confiscation happen? And what would a mass seizure look like?

On April 28, 1996 a deranged man named Martin Bryant used a semi-automatic rifle to slaughter 12 people in 15 seconds at the Broad Arrow cafe in Port Arthur, Tasmania, a popular tourist spot on the site of a former Australian prison colony.

He killed eight more in the gift shop, and several others in the parking lot. And as he drove away, he came across Nanette Mikac and her two daughters fleeing the scene.

Bryant told Mikac to get on her knees and as she wailed, "Please don't hurt my babies," he blew a hole through her forehead and fired several shots into her 3-year-old, Madeline. Alannah, 6, ran into the woods and Bryant gave chase. When he found her curled up behind a tree, he put his gun to her neck and fired.

Bryant, who killed 35 people that Sunday afternoon, shocked Australia into action.

It took just 12 days for conservative Prime Minister John Howard to announce a full slate of gun restrictions in a nation with a long tradition of frontier firearms. There was a ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons and shotguns, an extensive registration system, and a 28-day waiting period between getting a permit and buying a gun.

But the centerpiece was the mandatory buyback, with a temporary tax financing the multimillion dollar purchase of hundreds of thousands of weapons deemed illegal under the new law.

Some feared resistance. Howard, at one point, wore a bulletproof vest during a speech to a group of gun rights supporters. But the buyback went forward peacefully, and it claimed an estimated one-fifth of Australia's gun stock -- one of the largest gun confiscations in modern history.

The seizure and the other gun control measures seem to have had a significant effect. Since passage of the law, the country hasn't seen a single mass shooting--defined as a killing of five or more people, not including the gunman.

A study by researchers at Australian National University and Wilfrid Laurier University found a 59 percent drop in the firearm homicide rate and a 65 percent decline in the firearm suicide rate in the decade after the law was introduced. And while critics have noted the firearm death rate was already declining before passage of the legislation, the data show it dropped twice as fast afterward.

Here in the United States, interest in large-scale gun buybacks--both voluntary and involuntary--has mounted with each mass shooting. Matt Miller, a journalist and onetime senior fellow with the left-leaning Center for American Progress, has proposed what he calls a "massive, debt-financed" buyback.

The idea is to supersize the small-scale, voluntary buybacks that happen in American cities--offering hundreds of dollars more per weapon in a bid to make them more effective. "Instead of $200 a gun, Uncle Sam might offer $500," Miller wrote, in an opinion piece in the Washington Post after Sandy Hook. "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."

John Rosenthal, co-founder and chairman of Massachusetts-based Stop Handgun Violence, says it may be time to embrace a mandatory buyback--the relentless tide of mass shootings leaving weary activists with little choice.

"I am so struggling right now to find the strength to keep going," he said earlier this week, a day after the Texas church shooting. "And guess what, I have been thinking a lot about Australia. They had that one horrific event, with 35 killed, with an assault weapon. They banned them, they bought them back--and there hasn't been a mass shooting since."

It's a model the Aussies themselves have been touting to any Americans who will listen--suggesting it could succeed in the United States with a little political courage, especially on the right.

In Australia "many farmers resented being told to surrender weapons they had used safely all of their lives," wrote Howard, the former prime minister, in The New York Times a few years ago. "Penalizing decent, law-abiding citizens because of the criminal behavior of others seemed unfair. Many of them had been lifelong supporters of my coalition and felt bewildered and betrayed by these new laws. I understood their misgivings. Yet I felt there was no alternative."

The trouble with all of this is that America is not Australia.

As Howard himself has noted, Australia is a more intensely urban society than the United States, meaning there is a larger natural constituency for gun control Down Under--and a smaller rural opposition.

The Australian gun lobby, moreover, is not as powerful or well-financed as the National Rifle Association. And the Aussies don't have a constitutionally protected right to bear arms.

While the Second Amendment isn't absolute--no less than conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia ruled that it's "not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose"--it would undoubtedly serve as the basis for a robust legal challenge to any involuntary buyback program. And the courts would not be the only site of resistance.

Gun culture runs especially deep in a country born of violent rebellion. And over the last couple of decades, firearms have become one of the most important fault lines in American culture. It is hard to overstate the devotion--or if you prefer, the fanaticism--of the 3 percent of the population that owns half the guns in circulation.

Many of those hard-core gun owners see their weapons as a guard against government overreach. And sending government agents to claim them could end very, very badly. An NRA article on the specter of Australian-style confiscation coming to the United States is subtitled "There Will Be Blood."

Part of the problem is the sheer scale of the enterprise. An operation on par with the Australian buyback--claiming one-fifth of American guns--would mean tens of thousands of police officers collecting some 60 million guns. It is, on some level, simply unimaginable.

But perhaps gun-control advocates can propose something smaller--something more targeted.

Before Elliot Rodger killed six and wounded 14 in a shooting spree in Santa Barbara, Calif. in 2014, his mother and a social worker raised concerns with the police. But because Rodger had broken no law, there was nothing law enforcement could do.

After the rampage, California lawmakers passed a measure allowing family members to seek court orders seizing guns from disturbed people before they can hurt anybody. Similar laws are in place in Washington, Indiana, and Connecticut. And legislators in 18 other states, including Massachusetts, considered so-called "extreme risk protective order" legislation this year, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Laura Cutilletta, legal director for the Giffords Law Center, says Devin Kelley, the Texas church killer, would have been a "perfect candidate" for an order of this kind. "People knew that there was something going on with him," she says. "He was sending threatening messages to his mother-in-law.... He had [committed] domestic violence and animal abuse."

Cutilletta says restraining orders and other measures designed to deprive the most dangerous people of guns--like background checks and tighter restrictions on domestic abusers--are more politically viable, and legally defensible, than gun confiscation. And they can have an impact, she says: States with tougher gun laws have fewer firearm-related deaths.

Still, even if we find a way to keep guns out of the hands of people who have engaged in disturbing or violent behavior--no small task, given all the stories of the troubled shooters who slipped through the cracks--it will only get us so far.

The United States' astronomically high rates of firearm violence aren't rooted in some unique American propensity for derangement and delinquency. Studies show our levels of mental illness and basic criminality are on par with other wealthy countries.

Other common explanations, like the social fissures created by our racial diversity, have been debunked by researchers, too. The only explanation left--an explanation borne out by a number of careful studies--is the sheer size of the American arsenal. There are 310 million handguns, shotguns, and semi-automatic weapons in American homes, garages, and waistbands.

Ultimately, if gun-control advocates really want to stanch the blood, there's no way around it: They'll have to persuade more people of the need to confiscate millions of those firearms, as radical as that idea may now seem.

© 2023 Boston Globe