During last night’s presidential debate, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke forcefully endorsed a mandatory assault weapons buyback, declaring, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15.” He is one of more than a dozen Democratic candidates who have now called for some form of a buyback policy, which would require or request that gun owners sell their assault-style weapons to the government.
To call such a proposal bold is an understatement. Gun owners, who form the core of the conservative base, have long sown opposition to gun control legislation with hyperbole, declaring attempts to pass new gun laws as part of a broader scheme of mass civilian disarmament. A buyback, though supported by roughly 50 percent of Americans, would realize those fears. Since Democratic primary candidates first floated the proposal, several conservative media personalities, including Fox News’s Tucker Carlson and The View’s Meghan McCain, have gone so far as to forewarn violence should a buyback become reality.
But the problems are not just political — they’re logistical, too. While several states and cities have run their own voluntary buyback programs, only two nations, Australia and New Zealand, have undertaken a mandatory gun buyback. The United States has 10 times as many people as Australia and New Zealand combined, with more guns than adults. Is it really possible to take a sizable subset of those guns away? And can the country afford to do so?
We attempted to find out.
How Many “Assault Weapons” Do Americans Own?
Any buyback program would require, first, a clear definition of what qualifies as an assault weapon.
Generally, this term applies to a semiautomatic rifle with a range of additional features, which may be functional or cosmetic. California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York have each passed bans restricting slightly different subsets of firearms they call “assault weapons.” Likewise, Australia and New Zealand forbid broad categories of firearms that differ from one another.
America’s 1994 assault weapons ban provides the most frequently cited classification. But even 1994’s ban and 2019’s proposed bill, which awaits a vote in the House and Senate, conflict on several essential criteria.
What Makes a Rifle an Assault Weapon?
|Under the 1994 ban||In the 2019 bill|
|Able to accept detachable magazine||Able to accept detachable magazine|
|Two of the following:||One of the following:|
|OR semiautomatic with a fixed magazine that can hold more than 10 rounds|
|OR appears on a list of individually banned makes and models (section 110102)||OR appears on a list of individually banned makes and models|
Despite these inconsistencies, several industry stakeholders have attempted to quantify the number of assault weapons in circulation. Below, we take a (skeptical) look at their findings:
The earliest estimate we could find for the number of assault weapons in the United States comes from Mark Overstreet, a research coordinator at the National Rifle Association. During 2009’s landmark District of Columbia v. Heller case, Overstreet wrote an amicus brief calculating a lowest-possible estimate for the number of assault rifles manufactured between 1986 and 2009.
How Many Assault Weapons Do Americans Own?
He did this by tracking production figures from a small cohort of domestic manufacturers that exclusively produce AR-15-style rifles. These numbers only existed through 2007, though, so he used variation in the number of background checks conducted in the following two years to estimate changes in production among the cohort over that time period. He estimated 2.1 million AR-15-style rifles were manufactured between 1986 and 2009.
Using an identical methodology, we updated Overstreet’s estimate through 2017, the latest year for which manufacturing numbers exist. This lifted the number of AR-15-style rifles manufactured since 1986 to 3.3 million.
This number is almost certainly too low. Even Overstreet doesn’t trust it, writing in a footnote in his amicus brief that “the total is an undercount.” Because his estimate only looks at companies that exclusively produce AR-15-style rifles, it excludes most major American gunmakers — Sturm, Ruger, Smith & Wesson, the list goes on. And because it only considers domestic production, it fails to account for foreign-manufactured weapons.
In 2018, the NRA’s public affairs director told McClatchy that “according to manufacturer data,” there are between 8.5 million and 15 million assault-style rifles in circulation.
The NRA hasn’t disclosed its methodology for this figure and did not respond to a request for comment, so there’s no way to gauge its accuracy. However, the number has been cited several times since McClatchy published its piece, most notably by U.S. Representative and former Democratic presidential candidate Eric Swalwell, of California.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s trade group, has estimated the number of “modern sporting rifles” manufactured between 1990 and 2016 at 16 million. (“Modern sporting rifle” is the industry’s preferred term for assault-style rifles, though it, too, has no precise definition).
We don’t know the data or methodology behind this estimate. The NSSF did not respond to our requests for comment.
87 million (all rifles)
An estimate of the total number of rifles in the country can serve as a (very) high estimate for the possible number of weapons that might be covered by a ban. The 2015 National Firearms Survey, which drew on data collected from thousands of participants, placed the total American gun stock at 265 million weapons, and found that 33 percent of them were rifles, leading to an overall estimate of 87.4 million rifles.
Notably, all of these estimates count only rifles, whereas the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban and current draft legislation also classify certain pistols and shotguns as assault weapons. To gauge exactly what these estimates miss, The Trace analyzed a batch of 3,000 gun listings posted for sale on the online gun marketplace Armslist (1,000 each for rifles, pistols, and shotguns). We found that 7 percent of pistols and 7 percent of shotguns met the criteria for an assault weapon laid out in the latest draft bill. By comparison, 51 percent of the rifle listings we examined qualified. Thus, we can infer that the vast majority of the weapons covered by a ban would be rifles.
Still another caveat bears mentioning: None of these estimates account for ownership of homemade ghost guns, many of which would also become illegal under an assault weapons ban. For your sake and ours, we won’t try to count those.
The compensation element of a buyback could work in one of two ways: paying gun owners a fixed price for their weapons, or compensating them based on a percentage of each weapon’s original or market value.
The total cost under either strategy shouldn’t differ much. But the logistical legwork certainly would. Most voluntary buybacks run by city and state governments have opted for the fixed-price model: for example, in 2016 the Boston Police Department handed out $200 Target gift cards in exchange for returned firearms, and a Los Angeles buyback program implemented after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting offered $200 gift cards for returned assault weapons. On the other hand, New Zealand’s national buyback, which is ongoing, is offering between 25 and 95 percent of the pre-tax price of a new gun, depending on its condition.
Swalwell, the California congressman, has proposed two additional approaches. In a USA Today op-ed, he describes minimum and maximum flat-rate cash payouts of $200 and $1,000, respectively. But in the “Freedom from Assault Weapons Act” bill he introduced in June of this year, Swalwell would have the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives pay “an amount equal to the average retail price” of the gun in the United States over the course of the previous year.
That’s a lot of abstraction, but the gist is: Buyback administrators have no interest in haggling. The federal government would probably land on a price, or a schedule of prices.
In order to determine what that number might look like, we calculated the median asking price for assault-style rifle listings on Armslist. The result: $800. Combining the above estimates of the number of guns that would be banned and the possible cost per weapon, we were able to generate a range of estimates for the cost of a national buyback.
How Much Would a Buyback Cost?
Estimating the answer depends on the number of guns and the price paid per weapon. The Overstreet estimate is a definite undercount and the NFS estimate is a definite overcount.
|Price Per Weapon|
|Number of Weapons||Low-end$200||Armslist$800||High-end$1000|
|Overstreet AR-15-style rifles3.3 million||$0.7B||$2.6B||$3.3B|
|NRA (low) Assault rifles8.5 million||$1.7B||$6.8B||$8.5B|
|NRA (high) Assault rifles15 million||$3.0B||$12.0B||$15.0B|
|NSSF Modern sporting rifles16 million||$3.2B||$12.8B||$16.0B|
|NFS All rifles87.4 million||$17.5B||$69.9B||$87.4B|
Even the lowest dollar amount on this chart — $700 million — would represent the largest single investment in gun violence prevention in American history. By way of comparison, the Obama administration’s 2017 budget proposal included roughly $300 million total for a suite of programs aimed at reducing community gun violence and suicide.
How Would This Work?
The 2020 presidential candidates who have endorsed some form of assault weapons buyback have offered scant details about how they would implement it. The lone bill that includes a buyback would leave a lot of the logistical planning to the ATF.
We reached out to every candidate who has proposed a buyback to ask for clarification. Three responded.
- A spokesperson for Beto O’Rourke’s campaign said a buyback program under his administration would apply to all of the guns covered in the 2019 Assault Weapons Ban, including gun accessories like high-capacity magazines, and would be funded with a tax on gun manufacturers. To determine compensation, his administration would rely on an independent commission that would use the market value of each gun as a benchmark. Those refusing to comply with the buyback would be fined.
- A spokesperson for Pete Buttigieg’s campaign declined to clarify the candidate’s buyback proposal beyond the public statements he has made.
- A spokesperson for Swalwell, who dropped out of the running in July, referred to the congressman’s “Freedom from Assault Weapons Act,” which sets a timeline for the ATF to publish a schedule of prices. It also orders the ATF to destroy all collected weapons, while permitting the delayed destruction of any weapons needed in ongoing investigations or legal proceedings. When asked why the ATF should spell out the terms of a buyback rather than Congress in a bill, a spokesperson for Swalwell’s office cited the ATF’s technical expertise. “They are equipped to deal with weapons and the sale of weapons and the classification of weapons. They are the experts,” he said. “We’d like to give them some latitude to figure out the most efficacious way to do this.”
It’s true that the ATF does have some experience in the matter. In 2018, the agency banned bump stocks, the devices used in the Las Vegas mass shooting. Agents were tasked with collecting thousands of the devices from civilians and sellers before destroying them. The crackdown on bumpstocks did not include a buyback, but it still provides a roadmap for how the federal government might put a dollar figure on other steps of the process. The agency laid out the costs surrounding the ban in detail, including lost value from future sales, the expense of disposal and destruction, government administrative costs, loss of wages for those employed in manufacturing roles, and the cost of educating the public about the ban. An assault weapons ban would incur these costs as well.
What Can We Learn From the Countries That Have Tried This Before?
Let’s take a look at Australia and New Zealand, the only two countries to have actually implemented national buyback programs. Both countries’ buybacks, like proposals in the United States, focused public outrage at mass shootings, and both targeted the kind of weapons used in those shootings: assault rifles. Likewise, gun owners in both countries objected to the confiscation of their weapons, as they do here. (In Australia, the pushback was so extreme that former Australian Prime Minister John Howard addressed a crowd of gun-rights supporters in a bulletproof vest around the time he announced the program. The buyback eventually progressed without violence, but gun-rights groups quickly seized on it as a rallying point for more aggressive lobbying efforts.)
In Australia’s buyback, which took place between October of 1996 and September of 1997, state police collected citizens’ guns at local police stations and designated drop-off sites. Each gun was made inoperable immediately upon recovery, both to reassure concerned citizens that their weapons would not be used by law enforcement, and to protect the guns against theft during transport. The guns were ultimately melted down.
According to a government audit, Australia funded the project with a one-time 0.2 percent increase in Medicare taxes, ultimately raising about $340 million. A portion of the funds paid for a public education campaign about the buyback, and for a national firearms training program.
New Zealand’s buyback, which started in July, requires owners of now-prohibited weapons to turn them in at local police stations. Police take down bank details from participating citizens, and deposit payouts into their accounts within a few days. After police officers collect the guns, they use hydraulic machines to crush the guns’ barrels and triggers and then load them into trucks for disposal.
New Zealand’s government set aside a little over $130 million to fund the program, a portion of which will be used to compensate dealers for their stock of banned weapons. Citizens have until December 20, 2019 to turn in their guns or face fines.
How Applicable Are These Lessons to the U.S.?
Neither Australia nor New Zealand is a perfect model for an American buyback, but they do provide some important takeaways.
Compliance may be a challenge. A buyback can’t work if people refuse to participate. As New Zealand’s continues, reports have described compliance rates as unclear at best, and low at worst, a risk American legislators, too, would have to contend with. In recent years, states including Connecticut, New York, and California have passed laws mandating that assault weapon owners register their firearms. Each has faced extremely low compliance rates: reportedly around 15 percent in Connecticut, and below 5 percent in New York and California. Tony Guglielmo, a Republican state senator from Connecticut, told The Hartford Courant that many assault-rifle-owners were flatly ignoring the law.
Any buyback would require local buy-in. Whether or not a federal agency administers the program, state, county, or city entities would probably run collections, as they have in various local buybacks across the country dating back to the mid-70s. Dr. Michael Hirsh, a pediatric trauma surgeon at UMass Memorial Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, has run local gun buyback programs in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts since 1994. He said that collection in a national buyback should mirror local efforts, in which city police designate collection sites and accept weapons no-questions-asked to encourage compliance. “The only major impediment to local buybacks in the past has been funding,” he said. “That’s the real problem that federal involvement would solve.”
A clear definition of “assault weapon” would ease implementation. Both Australia and New Zealand, rather than basing their bans on attachments and accessories that manufacturers can easily alter, banned much broader categories of weapons according to standardized firearm characteristics that are more difficult to sidestep. This obviates the need for a definitional debate over precisely which weapons fall under the prohibition. In the United States, what little political will exists for a buyback among Republicans would likely evaporate if the proposed bans were made any more restrictive.
What Effect Do Buybacks Have on Gun Violence?
Where the 2020 Democratic Candidates Stand on Guns
Australia’s buyback ultimately collected some 650,000 guns, and studies of gun fatalities in its aftermath show a steep decline in deadly shootings. Since the massacre that motivated Australia’s sweeping gun control legislation in 1996, there have been only seven mass shootings on Australian soil per the Obama administration’s definition of the term, four of which were familicides. Additionally, in the seven years after the bill passed, the average firearm suicide rate declined by 57 percent compared with the seven years prior. The average firearm homicide rate dropped by about 42 percent. With that said, it’s important to note that Australia’s homicide rate was already declining before 1996, so you can’t attribute the total decline to the new laws. But there’s good reason to believe that the legislation, especially the buyback provisions, contributed a great deal.
New Zealand’s program is still underway, so it’s too early to tell if it will have any effect on gun violence.
As the 2020 election nears, a gridlocked Congress will have to contend with an electorate that increasingly supports the removal of assault weapons from civilian life. Buybacks are likely to be a point of debate among a Democratic field that is largely unified across other matters of gun policy, and the jury is still out on whether such a proposal could garner a political majority. But at least one leading candidate showed indifference to the prospect of agitating conservative fears to get his passed. Asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper whether a Biden gun buyback would amount to coming for conservatives’ guns, the former vice president said, “Bingo!”