Effectiveness of gun buyback programs cause divide in Democratic presidential candidates

Democratic candidates disagree on the effectiveness of gun-buyback programs in ending gun violence. Some experts say they don’t think these programs are the most effective in achieving that goal.

Some professors specializing in gun policy are skeptical that mandatory gun buyback programs — a contentious topic among Democratic presidential hopefuls — would reduce the amount of guns in circulation in the long term.

Gun buyback programs have been discussed at length at several presidential forums in Iowa, and activist organizations, such as Moms Demand Action, have kept gun policy in the forefront of caucus conversations after a sequence of mass shootings in Texas and Ohio in August.

A majority of Democratic candidates support some sort of voluntary version of buybacks, which gives gun owners a choice to turn in their guns to the government for monetary compensation. A few — including Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and most notably former U.S. Rep. from Texas Beto O’Rourke — have shown support for mandatory buyback programs, which would fine or provide other penalties for those who are found to have not turned in certain weapons. 

Richard Rosenfeld, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said that while buybacks could work in areas of the U.S. with low gun violence levels, a majority of Americans wouldn’t support buyback programs if the issue reached Congress. 

“I don’t see how mandatory buybacks would pass in the U.S.,” Rosenfeld said. “… There’s no way of knowing what impact would have the U.S.”

Fifty-three percent of Americans oppose a mandatory buyback program of assault weapons, according to a September poll from Monmouth University that surveyed 800 adults with a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percentage points. 

One problem of a mandatory program would be enforcing the buyback, said Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA and author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. He added that only people who want to get rid of their guns would likely comply with the program.

O’Rourke has been vocal about gun buybacks, saying in the September Democratic debate, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

O’Rourke took some time off the campaign trail after the Aug. 3 shooting in El Paso, Texas, that killed 22 people, missing the Iowa State Fair. Since then, he’s rolled out a laundry list of proposed policies that includes mandatory gun buybacks on assault weapons such as AR-15s and AK-47s and a voluntary handgun buyback program.

Harris called a mandatory buyback “a good idea” when she appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, saying assault weapons meant to kill many people at one time have no place on the street. Though, she’s stopped short of explaining how she would enforce this program.

In an email to The Daily Iowan, Harris’ Iowa press secretary referred to Harris’ comments on the show as Harris’ stance on the topic. 

Studying buyback effects

Other countries have implemented gun buyback programs. In 1996 and 2003, Australia implemented temporary gun buyback programs in response to gun violence.

At an Oct. 2 gun forum to discuss gun policies organized by March for Our Lives and Giffords in Las Vegas — nearly on the day that marked two years since a mass shooting in the city killed 58 people — Booker said he supports mandatory gun buybacks, citing the Australian buyback program as a successful example.

Australia’s program led to the 42 percent decrease in firearm homicides and 58 percent decrease in firearm suicides, Harvard researchers found.

However, the number of guns in Australia has climbed to over 3 million in 2016, the University of Sydney reported — more than the amount before the 1996 buybacks.

I’m slightly skeptical of that conclusion [that Australia buybacks were successful], because they only bought back certain kinds of guns,” Winkler said. “There’s still a lot of handguns out there, and that’s what most mass shootings conducted with.” 

Both Rosenfeld and Winkler said that while Australian officials and citizens have perceived the country’s buyback programs as successful, the U.S. has higher rates of gun violence to overcome and many Americans are suspicious of infringements on their 2nd Amendment rights. 

Rosenfeld has evaluated the effectiveness of voluntary gun buybacks set up in the 1990s in St. Louis to decrease homicide rates. Through this research, he found gun buyback programs have little to no effect on gun violence rates — in fact, they may encourage people to buy new guns. 

“We surveyed participants who brought their guns in, and we found a large proportion, when asked what they were going to do with funds, said they would buy a new gun,” he said.

After interviewing study participants to see their thoughts on what to do with the money they received for their guns, Rosenfeld said the buyback programs may instead encourage people to continue buying weapons now that they have new funds to buy better guns, which is the opposite intent of buyback programs. 

An enforcement conundrum

According to a statement Frances Swanson, O’Rourke’s Iowa press secretary, those who do not comply with O’Rourke’s mandatory buyback would face legal consequences should they be caught bringing a weapon into a public space or if an on-duty police officer finds them with one. Consequences would include a fine and law enforcement taking the weapon away without compensation, the statement read. 

“But the expectation is that Americans will follow the law. I believe in this country. I believe in my fellow Americans. I believe that they will do the right thing,” O’Rourke said at the Oct. 15 debate.

Democratic Winkler said there isn’t a way for the government to enforce a buyback program, as the government won’t go to every door to see if the residents own a gun. Under the 4th Amendment, people and homes cannot be searched for weapons without probable cause. 

If a buyback program was put in place, he said, owning a gun would be a separate crime. 

For example, Winkler cited California’s ban on high capacity magazines. That ban exempted guns bought before 2000 until the Legislature passed an additional law in 2016 requiring owners of those grandfathered guns to either dispose of them or alter them to limit capacity. He said there wasn’t a way for the state to keep track of who had turned their now-illegal guns in without going into people’s homes. 

When 2020 hopefuls talk about mandatory buyback programs, Winkler said, a danger of losing the opportunity to pass less aggressive gun laws exists. However, President Obama proposed moderate gun control laws, he said, and the National Rifle Association was hostile to those as well.

“There probably won’t be a compromise [on buybacks], but it doesn’t seem likely to come to a compromise [on any gun laws] anyway,” he said.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he supports voluntary gun buyback programs and criticizes mandatory programs. 

At the Las Vegas gun forum, Buttigieg called these mandatory programs “a shiny object [that] makes it hard for us to focus” on other forms of gun legislation and could hinder legislative efforts that are more likely to pass now, such as background checks and red-flag laws. 

At the October debate, Buttigieg directly criticized O’Rourke’s buyback plan, saying, “On guns, we are this close to an assault weapons ban. That would be huge. And we’re going to get wrapped around the axle in a debate over whether it’s ‘Hell, yes, we’re going to take your guns?’” he said.

Other candidates have shown support for a voluntary buyback program. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s website said that, if elected, Biden would implement a buyback program that will require those who own an assault weapon or high-capacity magazines to either sell their weapons to the government or register them under the National Firearms Act.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., also supports a voluntary program, saying those who wish can return weapons for disposal and penalizing those who don’t register weapons. 

Parkland, Florida Mayor Christine Hunschofsky, speaking on behalf and in support of Buttigieg, said onstage at the Johnson County Democrats BBQ Fundraiser Oct. 13 a shooting scare had occurred earlier that day at Town Center Mall in Boca Raton, Florida, where many Parkland students shop.

The students of Parkland High School have been demanding gun control action since the Feb. 14, 2018 shooting at a school resulted in the death of 17 people. Hearing reports of a shooting at a mall re-traumatized the teenagers who already once feared for their lives in a public space, Hunschofsky said at the fundraiser, and said she favors Buttigieg’s plans and ideas for gun policies and mental health to stop gun violence.  

“At some point, enough is enough,” she said. “… We had high schoolers that said enough is enough.” 

Even these voluntary programs may have their caveats, Winkler said, as the only people who are seeking a way to get rid of their guns will participate in the program.

“And people with AR-15s, those are their favorite guns,” he said. “…You’re not going to take them [guns] away from the people you want.”