Is Australian-style gun confiscation possible in the U.S.?
After high-profile shootings, gun control advocates and prominent political figures, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, often point to Australia's infamous “buyback” program as an example of what U.S. lawmakers should consider for a solution. They claim that since it worked there, it could work here.
But could it work here? In other words …
1) Could it reduce murders?
2) Could it be enacted and enforced?
To answer the first question, let's first take a look at what really happened down under.
In April of 1996, a 28-year old man used a rifle and other firearms to murder 35 people and wound 23 in Port Arthur, Australia. It was the the deadliest mass shooting in the country's history. Within days, Prime Minister John Howard introduced what is known as the National Firearms Agreement (NFA), mandating strict gun control measures.
The new laws featured a “buyback" program, but because it was mandatory, it functioned as de facto gun confiscation. Over 650,000 firearms were collected and destroyed at a cost of $230 million, paid for by citizens through a tax increase.
The program also effectively banned both automatic and semiautomatic "assault" rifles retroactively, stiffened licensing and ownership rules, mandated firearm safety courses and secure storage, created a national gun registry and 28-day waiting period for sales, and required licensees to demonstrate a "genuine need" for a particular gun, specifying that personal protection did not qualify.
While there are other countries with even more restrictive gun laws, such as Japan and South Korea, many consider Australia's NFA the gold standard for gun control in a modern democracy. And yet, it had no effect on firearm homicides.
In a 2008 study by Wang-Sheng Lee and Sandy Suardi of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, the authors concluded their report by saying this:
This paper takes a closer look at the effects of the National Firearms Agreement on gun deaths. Using a battery of structural break tests, there is little evidence to suggest that it had any significant effects on firearm homicides and suicides. In addition, there also does not appear to be any substitution effects – that reduced access to firearms may have led those bent on committing homicide or suicide to use alternative methods.
A 2007 study by Jeanine Baker and Samara McPhedran showed similar results:
Homicide patterns (firearm and non-firearm) were not influenced by the NFA, the conclusion being that the gun buy-back and restrictive legislative changes had no influence on firearm homicide in Australia.
Harsh gun control legislation enacted. Hundreds of millions of dollars spent. And no results to show for it. So the idea that the buyback worked is a complete myth. It didn't work in Australia and there is no reason to believe that such a program would fare any better in the U.S.
Next, could an Australian-style gun control program be enacted and enforced in the U.S.? To answer this question, we have to visualize the vast scope of the proposal.
In 1996, the population of Australia was about 18 million. The current population of the U.S. is about 326 million, or 18 times the population. The NFA is said to have cost Australian taxpayers about $230 million. Assuming the cost in the U.S. would be the same, we're looking at well over $4 billion in taxpayer funds.
And if you further factor in inflation over the last two decades, the value of the U.S. dollar relative to the Australian dollar, the vastly larger number of firearms in the U.S., waste and fraud, and the natural tendency for any government program to go over budget, the actual cost could easily be in the tens of billions of dollars. And that would be for just ONE program in a country that spends about $100 billion on public safety across the country each year.
But that's nothing compared to the political cost.
In the U.S., the right to keep and bear arms is protected by the Constitution. Taking gun control to the level of gun confiscation would be an unfathomable infringement that could not possibly stand up to judicial scrutiny in the America we know, especially after the D.C. v Heller Supreme Court ruling in 2008 that affirmed an individual right to possess firearms.
Yes, we routinely see the more liberal cities and states sometimes pass laws that nibble at the edges of gun rights, such as Seattle's ammo tax initiative or California's Proposition 63, which bans magazines holding more than 10 rounds. But outright firearm bans are difficult to pass and tend to be short-lived even on the local level.
We have a gun culture in America that runs much deeper than in other counties along with a large and highly active pro-gun voter base that does not tolerate more than the most minor infringements. Even attempting to bring back Clinton's 1994 national Assault Weapons Ban could be political suicide today, let alone passing a draconian cartload of laws such as the NFA.
Further, while the gun rights community tends to be made up of law and order citizens who have proven to be more law-abiding than the general population, there are limits. And it's doubtful that there would be significant compliance. Even in Australia, the guns turned in amounted to a fifth, or at best a third, of the existing firearms in the county.
I am confident in saying that in the U.S. there would be widespread noncompliance. Buckeye Firearms Association recently conducted a survey of gun owners focused on the Australian NFA. The survey asked the following question: Assuming such a gun confiscation plan could pass into law, would you voluntarily comply? Out of 3,370 responses, more than 85% said “No.” Nearly 13% said “It would depend on the penalties for non compliance.” Only 1% said “Yes” and 1% chose not to answer.
It's even questionable whether authorities would enforce such laws. I think we would have to be living in a very different America, something far removed from our current Republic and representative democracy for anything approaching the NFA to be enacted or enforced in the United States.
The Lessons of Prohibition
The so-called “noble experiment” of prohibition spanned more than a decade, from 1920 to 1933. Supporters sought to reduce crime and corruption, improve public health, solve a variety of social ills, and reduce the tax burden imposed by prisons and poorhouses.
Needless to say, it failed on all counts. While images of Eliot Ness bravely battling the forces of crime dominate our memory of that era, the truth is sobering. According to a Cato Institute Policy Analysis,
And the Volstead Act, passed to enforce the 18th Amendment, actually helped to increase crime by 24%. Arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct rose 41% and rose an astonishing 81% for drunken driving. Thefts and burglary rose 9%. Homicides and battery rose 13%.
While prohibition and gun control are very different subjects, there are lessons to be learned by the comparison, the most important of which is that you cannot engineer the society you want. Just as pious progressives sought to change America with emotional arguments and strict drinking laws, so too do gun rights activists seek to alter our culture through high-profile and heartbreaking stories of personal loss, backed up with ever more intrusive gun laws.
Prohibition and gun control fail because unless you are willing to harshly enforce laws at all costs, social engineering is doomed. The U.S. public views both drinking and gun ownership as largely harmless and acceptable. And efforts to enforce either in an unreasonable way strikes most people as illegitimate.
Ironically, the only way to fully accomplish the goals of prohibition or gun control would be to dismantle the society advocates wish to protect. In a dictatorship, either may be possible to some degree. But in a culture that values liberty, neither is.
Dean Rieck is Executive Director of Buckeye Firearms Association, a former competitive shooter, NRA Patron Member, #1 NRA Recruiter for 2013, business owner and partner with Second Call Defense.