SALT LAKE CITY — In one of the biggest moments of the third Democratic presidential debate, candidate Beto O’Rourke said something many would consider politically taboo: he threatened to take away the guns of American citizens. 

“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” said O’Rourke. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans any more.”

His comment came in the wake of several recent high-profile shootings, including two in his home state of Texas involving AR- or AK-style guns, and a spate of shootings throughout the summer resulting in more than 40 people killed and more than 100 wounded.

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The NRA swiftly came out in protest of O’Rourke’s comments. The group released a petition on Sept. 18 asking supporters to “Tell Beto NO on Gun Confiscation.” 

“Let’s send a message to Beto and all the other gun-grabbers that they will never, ever take away our firearms,” the petition reads.

Central to O’Rourke’s plan — and the opposition to it — is what’s known as a “gun buyback program,” in which the government would compensate gun owners for handing over their AR-15s and AK-47s, no questions asked. 

It might seem like a simple way to get guns off the street. But experts say O’Rourke’s proposal could violate the Constitution, and that despite some success in Australia and New Zealand, similar programs in America have done little to combat criminal gun violence — and are primarily symbolic measures to make people feel safer in their communities.

That’s because these programs are typically small-scale and may only collect 1 to 2 percent of the guns in a given community. People who intend to commit a mass shooting or a crime involving a firearm are unlikely to comply with such a program at all — and enforcement would be a daunting and costly endeavor, said Michael Scott, clinical professor at the Arizona State University School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and director of the Center for Problem Oriented Policing. 

“The main concern today is that gun buybacks simply have not yielded the guns that are most likely to be used in a violent crime.”

“The main concern today is that gun buybacks simply have not yielded the guns that are most likely to be used in a violent crime,” said Scott.

At a time in which many are deeply concerned about this issue, the Deseret News asked experts: would gun buybacks help stem the tide of gun violence in America?

Is Beto’s proposal unconstitutional?

Gun buyback programs in America are nothing new, said Adam Winkler, professor of constitutional law at UCLA and the author ofGunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.”

Such programs have been launched by local officials in Florida, Connecticut, Arkansas, California, Massachusetts and more, usually in response to violent shootings or rising crime rates. 

While these programs vary in their scale and implementation, they have one thing in common: they are generally voluntary. Gun owners are encouraged to hand over their weapons to law enforcement, and those that do are rewarded with some form of compensation, such as a $200 Walmart gift card. The guns are then destroyed. 

But what O’Rourke was suggesting, said Winkler, is different: it is a mandatory gun buyback program, in which the government requires that anyone with an assault weapon turn it in to the government, and then be compensated for it. 

Winkler said such a program has never been tried in the United States, but that it would be challenging to enforce, with the number of AR-15 and AK-47s in the United States estimated at 16 million. Many gun owners would not readily comply with such a law, and if the government offered to buy them back at face value, it could cost the government billions, according to The Associated Press

“One of the biggest challenges of a mandatory gun buyback program is the threat of widespread noncompliance,” said Winkler.

Moreover, such an approach could face constitutional challenges, said Scott.

“A mandatory buyback program is in essence a confiscation of property and that is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. I cannot imagine that it would be politically palatable or likely to generate results,” he said.

Lara Smith, national spokesperson for the Liberal Gun Club, an organization for people who are politically left of center who support the Second Amendment, shares Scott’s concerns.

“Our organization completely opposes it,” said Smith. “If we don’t stand for every single civil right for every single person, I see it as a slippery slope.”

‘The bad guys are not turning in their guns’

Even if O’Rourke’s plan escaped constitutional challenges, experts say even voluntary gun buyback programs are ineffective in combating criminal-related gun violence. 

“People often end up turning in guns that are not useful,” said Winkler. “They’re broken or otherwise not working or very old. Sometimes, there’s been rumors of criminals trading in their bad guns to get enough money to go buy a better gun. So there’s not much evidence a gun buyback program does much good.”

FILE - In this Sept. 7, 2019 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, speaks during the New Hampshire state Democratic Party convention, in Manchester, NH. | Robert F. Bukaty, Associated Press

A 1990s Harvard University study concluded that buybacks weren’t effective in reducing gun violence because they didn’t get the right kinds of weapons off the street.

Experts say gun buybacks are ineffective both for legal gun owners, and for owners of illegally purchased guns.

Those that own guns legally are unlikely to voluntarily want to give them up, said Smith with the Liberal Gun Club. 

“Legal gun owners don’t turn their guns in. And legal firearms vastly outnumber illegal firearms in the United States,” she said.

And those that own them illegally are unlikely to hand over their guns to police officers, especially if the guns have been used for criminal activity or if that person intends to commit a crime involving a gun in the future, said James Copenhaver, a retired sheriff’s detective with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office who was assigned to an FBI task force on violent crime for 15 years.

Most U.S. gun buyback programs are “no questions asked” of the person turning the gun in, though some programs weed out guns that were stolen or used to commit a crime, preserving them as evidence, before destroying the rest.

Those with plans to commit mass shootings are unlikely to hand their guns over to police — mandatory buyback or not.

“The bad guys are not turning in their guns,” he said.

While Democrats that have advocated for gun buybacks have referred to similar policies in New Zealand and Australia, the number of AR-style guns in those countries is far less than in the United States, and those countries do not have constitutions that protect gun rights, The Associated Press reported.

But Ian Johnstone, founder of Gun by Gun, a San Francisco-based nonprofit advocating for gun violence prevention, said such criticism misses an important benefit that gun buybacks provide. 

Many Americans, he said, have guns in their homes that they do not know how to safely dispose of that can present a risk of accidental death or suicide. In 2017, almost half of the nation’s 47,173 suicides involved a firearm. Firearms are the second-leading cause of death among American children and adolescents, after car crashes. 

Allowing people to safely remove guns from their homes can save the lives of children and prevent domestic violence-related gun homicides, he said. 

He said removing guns from homes through buybacks also lowers the likelihood that a gun will be stolen from a home and then used for criminal purposes. For Johnstone, it’s personal: his father was shot and killed by a gun that had been legally owned in a San Francisco suburb, and then was stolen.

“If you can reduce the availability of guns, you can make them a little bit harder for criminals to get,” he said.

Political pushback 

At the Democratic debate, O’Rourke’s comments were met with generous applause. An ABC/Washington Post poll showed that his gun buyback idea registered 52% support among Americans. 

But his stance was also met with significant pushback, both by Republicans and some Democrats, for using rhetoric that some said inflamed the gun debate by threatened to confiscate guns from American citizens.

“I think we should take him at his word when he stood on stage and told everybody, we’re going to take your AR-15, take your AR-47,” said Mark Oliva, director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. “We should believe him when he said he’s going to come take them. That’s exactly what he intends to do.”

“There are a lot of people in the Democratic party leadership that are very angry right now. I think there’s a lot of them who believe that talking about gun confiscation is a huge mistake,” said Winkler.

Smith with the Liberal Gun Club agrees. 

“I think this is how Democrats lose the election. ... It absolutely blew the lid off the idea that we’re not coming to take your guns,” she said. “I think it shifts the narrative in a way that perhaps the party might not have wanted.”

“I think it shifts the narrative in a way that perhaps the party might not have wanted.”

When asked about the criticisms of his proposal on “Meet the Press,” O’Rourke defended his plan.

“I think this just shows how screwed up the priorities in Washington, D.C., are,” O’Rourke said. “What’s truly awful is 22 people killed in a Walmart the Saturday before school starts that next Monday buying their school supplies, innocent of any crime or any threat to this country — in fact living in one of the safest cities in American, El Paso, Texas — hunted down by their ethnicity with a weapon that was designed for use on a battlefield.”

But Johnstone with Gun by Gun said he was heartened to hear O’Rourke take such a strong stand at a time when so many are asking their elected representatives to take decisive action to prevent gun violence and mass shootings.

“I think there’s a huge disconnect between what the public wants and what Congress is doing,” he said. “There’s no silver bullet piece of legislation that will fix this. These are complex problems that require comprehensive, multi-prong efforts.”