Want an assault weapons ban? Don't couple it with a mandatory gun buyback.

The Editorial Board

When actor Charlton Heston raised a replica musket over his head at a National Rifle Association convention in 2000 and uttered the iconic challenge, "From my cold, dead hands," it brought the audience to its feet.

Melodramatic, to be sure. But Heston's bumper-sticker remark when he was NRA president resonated because it played to a fear widely shared among the 42% of American households where firearms are kept — that the government wants to take away their guns.

Now some of the Democratic presidential hopefuls are playing right into the NRA's hands by advocating mandatory buybacks of assault-style rifles already in circulation.

Somewhere between confiscating every gun, which is impossible under the Supreme Court's current interpretation of the Second Amendment, and allowing the United States to drown in an ocean of firearms — estimated at 393 million — are commonsense gun laws.

One example is universal background checks. Another is banning high-capacity magazines. And a third is a ban on semi-automatic assault-style rifles efficient for mass killing and inspiring for young men bent on carnage, such as those who opened fire in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in recent weeks. Seventy percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, now favor such a ban.

The problem that comes with banning these weapons is what to do about the millions of them already legally owned in the United States.

Counterproductive gun proposal

This is where gun-control advocates such as Democratic presidential candidate and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas — who is calling for a mandatory government buyback of outlawed assault-style rifles — cross the line between sensible and inflammatory. Three other Democratic candidates — Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio — have signaled support for this counterproductive idea.

In the real world, a federal ban on these military-style rifles would be a tough enough pill for Congress to swallow, given what would almost certainly be feverish opposition by the NRA, gun-makers and many gun owners.

BETO O’ROURKE: As president, I’d institute a mandatory buyback of assault weapons

Citizens offering cash for guns in 2013 in Detroit.
Citizens offering cash for guns in 2013 in Detroit.

But the legislation would absolutely be doomed if it included a mandatory buyback provision, making millions of law-abiding firearm owners criminals for not selling their rifles back to the federal government. Anything smacking of confiscation would breathe life and energy into the not-from-my-cold-dead-hands crowd, endangering law enforcement and likely putting a full stop to any further gun safety measures.

Improve 1994 assault weapons law

A better proposal would mirror the assault weapons ban of 1994, which outlawed the manufacture, sale and possession of these military-style rifles from the date of the bill's enactment. Assault-style rifles legally owned before enactment were grandfathered. That law lapsed a decade later, and researchers said that was too soon to judge effectiveness, although some evidence suggests it reduced mass killings.

Absent a mandatory buyback, it's true that a ban would allow millions of existing assault-style rifles to remain in circulation. But there has been a familiar pattern in many recent mass killings where someone bent on murder purchases a new assault-style rifle from a licensed dealer and then proceeds to kill.

A new assault-weapons ban — with fewer loopholes than the previous one but without a mandatory buyback provision — would end that path-of-least-resistance opportunity and have the best chance of becoming law.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Want an assault weapons ban? Don't link it with mandatory gun buyback