Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s recent vow to take away people’s AR-15 and AK-47 rifles raised one big question: How is it possible to round up the millions of such guns that exist in the United States?
The number of AR-15 and AK-47s in the U.S. is estimated at a staggering 16 million, creating logistical challenges to take them out of circulation. Many gun owners are also unwilling to turn over the weapons, and if the government offered to buy them all back at face value, the price tag could easily run into the billions of dollars.
O’Rourke’s pointed declaration during a recent debate — “Hell yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15, your AK-47” — stoked longstanding fears among gun owners that Democrats are less interested in safety or finding a middle ground, and just want to confiscate guns. Even some gun-control advocates aren’t so sure that confiscating firearms will work.
“In some regards, this horse is out of the barn,” said David Chipman, a retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and now the senior policy adviser for the Giffords group. “For years we’ve allowed these to be sold.”
O’Rourke’s remarks came in the wake of several high-profile shootings, including two in his home state of Texas that involved AR- or AK-style guns, which resemble military-style weapons and generally carry more rounds than regular rifles. A summer of carnage was marked by shootings in Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; Dayton, Ohio; and in a 10-mile stretch between Midland and Odessa, Texas. In all, more than 40 people were killed and about 100 were wounded in the attacks.
The prospect of significant gun measures has faded in recent weeks under the Republican-controlled Senate and President Donald Trump, and Democratic candidates have offered a range of proposals for what they would do on guns if elected president.
O’Rourke believes that most people would follow the law and turn their weapons in under his proposal for a mandatory buyback program and assault weapons ban. He also wants to outlaw high-capacity magazines and expand background checks.
Cory Booker has proposed a similar program that would involve civil penalties for those who fail to comply and hand in their AR-15s. They would not be subject to criminal offenses, however.
There is a precedent for the ideas proposed by O’Rourke and Booker, as difficult as they would be to implement.
The Trump administration recently banned bump stocks — devices that allow semiautomatic long guns to mimic fully automatic fire — and ordered owners to turn them in to be destroyed. But there were only about a half million of those devices, and they cost far less than an AR, which can run upwards of $1,000 or more. The ban was largely based on an honor system, though Washington state did offer a buyback program that quickly exhausted the $150,000 set aside to shell out $150 each device turned in.
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