Gun control advocate: Pushing mandatory buybacks will hand victory to the NRA, again

Matt Bennett, Opinion contributor

“Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

That was former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas at the Democratic debate in Houston in September, underscoring his commitment to a new gun policy idea. He wanted not only to ban the sale of new assault weapons but also to impose a mandatory government buyback of the assault weapons already in private hands. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California support that idea as well. 

I understand the sentiment. I’ve worked on the gun issue for nearly two decades. I sit on the board of Sandy Hook Promise. And I know well that assault weapons contribute to the obscene carnage of mass shootings, including at a Walmart in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso. These are weapons of war and should not be in private hands. If we could wave a magic wand to take them away, I would be all for it.

But we can’t. As former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg noted in last week's debate, a mandatory buyback isn’t feasible policy. And it’s very bad politics for Democrats.

No central registry, no way to find guns

Let’s start with the policy. There are a lot of assault weapons out there. The gun dealer trade group National Shooting Sports Foundation estimates that 15 to 20 million such rifles are in circulation.

But whose hands are they in? Nobody knows. America has no central registry of guns or gun owners. That means that the authorities have no idea how many are out there, who owns them or where they are.

Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, at the presidential debate in Houston on Sept. 12, 2019.

O’Rourke says he wouldn’t send the authorities “door to door” to collect them, which is good news. As Castro noted, in communities of color like where he grew up, “we weren't exactly looking for another reason for cops to come banging on the door.” 

Moreover, it would be quite an undertaking. Consider that the authorities have trouble getting their hands on the small number of guns we are already supposed to be taking back. Right now, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives should be collecting guns from people who failed background checks but who got their firearms anyway under a “default proceed.” That means if the check takes too long, the sale goes through. And it often takes too long because there are red flags in the potential buyer's record. 

Buyback politics couldn't be worse

Keep in mind, these people have just bought a gun and have provided their address on a form. That makes these relatively easy gun retrievals, and they are incredibly high-priority. (Dylann Roof, the shooter in the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, got his gun through a default proceed.) And their numbers, about 5,000 a year, are minuscule compared with the millions of assault weapons. What makes us think government authorities could handle locating and confiscating these rifles?

Heart-stopping school shooting ad: No child should have to text last words to mom.

And what about the politics? Those couldn’t be worse. Because let’s face it, if it’s mandatory that a gun is turned over to the government, that is confiscation. That is not, as some have charged, an "NRA talking point." That is a fact.

Gun confiscation is the wrong battle for the gun violence prevention movement to fight. We are winning the gun debate for the first time in a quarter century. Voters are sickened by the toll of gun violence. They are tired of their kids doing active shooter drills in school. They are disgusted by the empty “thoughts and prayers” of the National Rifle Association and its allies. And they are demanding action.

Keep NRA reeling, build on gains

That fight is being led by powerful, well-funded gun safety groups, with huge grassroots armies behind them. And the scandal-plagued NRA is on its heels.

If we are smart and strategic, and have a new president who is not under the control of the NRA, we can make background checks universal, closing the loopholes that allow criminals to buy guns on the internet and at gun shows. We can get federal law behind Extreme Risk Protective Orders, allowing families to take guns out of the hands of their loved ones in crisis. And with some big political wins, we could even ban the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. These steps would be among the most significant gun safety laws ever passed in America. And these laws would save lives.

Cardiologist's view: Gun violence is a health crisis, not a political football. It's time to act.

But we are in danger of forfeiting those gains if we change the subject. If we go beyond what we know will work and try to do things that strike voters (and an increasingly hostile Supreme Court) as too far, we will lose. And the NRA will win.

This is not about timidity or caution; this is about reality and cold hard facts. To support gun violence prevention, we should harness our momentum to pass commonsense gun laws that supermajorities of Americans support. And we should start by ensuring that the Democratic nominee is best positioned to beat Donald Trump, the NRA’s all-time favorite president.

Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, was director of communications for Americans for Gun Safety and sits on the Board of Directors of Sandy Hook Promise. Follow him on Twitter: @ThirdWayMattB 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mandatory gun buybacks will hurt gun safety progress, hand win to NRA