Beto’s Impossible Gun Ban Dreams

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Maybe Beto O’Rourke, the long-shot presidential hopeful (polling in the low single digits), didn’t get the memo about soft-pedaling gun control advocacy as “common sense” proposals, or maybe he’s making a desperate move to revive his faltering bid for the Democratic nomination. Either way, he announced over the weekend that under a hypothetical O’Rourke administration, “Americans who own AR-15s, AK-47s, will have to sell them to the government.”

Like prohibitionists of the past, O’Rourke has yet to come up with a credible scheme for getting people who oppose restrictive laws to obey them. But in his open call for confiscation of so-called “assault weapons”—semiautomatic rifles classified largely according to cosmetic characteristics—O’Rourke isn’t alone.

“The newest purity test for Democrats is whether to mandate assault weapons buybacks,” The Washington Post reported recently—with “buybacks” a popular euphemism for compensated confiscation. Donkey party potentates including Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Cory Booker (N.J.) share Beto’s taste for imposing a new form of prohibition.

Maybe that’s a winning formula for harvesting votes, but it’s terrible as policies go, unless they really want to make the government look thoroughly impotent. Similar bans, restrictions, and confiscations have been tried before, with minimal success.

“More than a year after New Jersey imposed the toughest assault-weapons law in the country, the law is proving difficult if not impossible to enforce,” reported The New York Times in 1991. “Only four military-style weapons have been turned in to the State Police and another 14 were confiscated.” Police also knew “the whereabouts of fewer than 2,000 other guns”—out of an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 privately owned weapons in the state.

Note that New Jersey officials threatened resisters with felony prosecutions and got mass defiance in return. By contrast, O’Rourke says that “individuals who fail to participate in the mandatory buyback of assault weapons will be fined.” Where stiff prison sentences failed, fines seem unlikely to overcome opposition.

Honestly, New Jersey’s gun confiscation was easy to defy because the state had no gun registration requirement—officials had no idea as to who owned what. Compliance, then, was on the honor system.

Registration also does not exist in most of the U.S., and it’s far too late to bring it in.

Registration is a policy that works only when it appears innocuous. If people know that you want to seize their property, and then you ask them to itemize the soon-to-be-forbidden items on a list, the effort doesn’t go so well.

When, preliminary to introducing restrictions on semiautomatic rifles, California made the attempt to register them, “only about 7,000 weapons of an estimated 300,000 in private hands in the state have been registered,” The New York Times reported in 1990. “This non-compliance has virtually nullified the first step of a March 1989 law that set the pattern for similar attempts to limit ownership of assault rifles in other states and in Washington.”

More recently, Connecticut’s 2014 effort to register so-called “assault weapons” met with an estimated 15 percent compliance rate. Soon after, New York had to be sued before it released figures revealing less than 5 percent compliance with a similar registration law.

“There is some evidence from a number of countries over a substantial time period that roughly a sixth of guns will find their way into the registration system,” wrote Gary Mauser, of Canada’s Simon Fraser University, in 2007.

Mauser’s insights are interesting since he wrote in the context of Canada’s efforts to implement a national gun registry. That registry was more successful than most—it may ultimately have included half of the guns that were supposed to have been registered, though with “an error rate that remains embarrassingly high,” Mauser noted. But that registration rate came at high cost. From an initial projected cost of C$2 million in 1995, the price tag soared close to C$2 billion by 2004. The registry was dumped in 2012.

Quebec has since implemented its own gun registry. As of January 2019 compliance stood at less than 20 percent of what was registered under the much-spurned national registry.

All this is to say that gun registration is almost impossible to implement because gun owners don’t trust politicians to leave them alone.

Feeding such suspicion is the fact that politicians have tipped their hands, revealing that they do, in fact, have restrictive intentions. But without registration of items—like guns—that governments want to seize, such restrictions are impossible to implement.

So, what the hell is the point?

The point, almost certainly, is for political hopefuls like O’Rourke and his rivals to gin up their bases by playing to people’s fears. No, not rational fear of violent crime—crime has been declining since the early 1990s. Instead, politicians play off fears of relatively rare but disturbing mass attacks that are resistant to solutions but have people clamoring for government to “do something.”

That “doing something” can include lashing out at political and cultural enemies—largely conservative and suburban or rural gun owners in this case—seems to be a plus in this politically polarized country. Demonizing the enemy excites a party’s core voters about smashing their foes at the polls.

But while weaponizing laws against political opponents may buy votes among the faithful in the short term, it delegitimizes laws and their enforcers in the eyes of their targets. That further reduces any possibility of compliance with laws that already have a history of being honored only in the breach. When the dust settles, the government ends up looking weak and the law pointless. And the country will be more divided than ever.

Maybe O’Rourke and his colleagues will eventually be able to turn their gun confiscation wishes into law, but history is very clear that most people will defy the prohibition.

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