Beto O’Rourke and I de­spise as­sault ri­fles, but we dis­agree

The Morning Call - - TOWN SQUARE - Paul Muschick Morn­ing Call colum­nist Paul Muschick can be reached at 610-820-6582 or [email protected]

So let’s pre­tend that Beto O’Rourke’s plan to rid so­ci­ety of as­sault ri­fles be­comes law. I doubt it ever will, but let’s pre­tend. Un­der his plan, ev­ery­one who owns an as­sault ri­fle would have to come for­ward and sell it back to the govern­ment.

If they don’t, they’re a crim­i­nal. Crim­i­nals must pay penal­ties. And the penalty for not par­tic­i­pat­ing in the buy­back pro­gram is … a fine.

Yawn.

That’s it? I bet plenty of AR-15 own­ers would gladly pay to keep their weapons. Then life goes on.

Kind of wa­ters down the procla­ma­tion the for­mer Texas con­gress­man made dur­ing Thurs­day night’s Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial de­bate be­fore a friendly stu­dio au­di­ence in Hous­ton, doesn’t it?

“Hell, yes, we’re go­ing to take your AR-15, your AK-47, and we’re not go­ing to al­low it to be used against your fel­low Amer­i­cans anymore,” O’Rourke said to roar­ing ap­plause.

His cam­paign web­site says vi­o­la­tors would be fined, but doesn’t say how much or of­fer fur­ther de­tails. A spokesper­son told me that peo­ple who con­tinue to vi­o­late the law after be­ing fined would face es­ca­lat­ing penal­ties, but did not elab­o­rate.

I sup­pose if the of­fense is clas­si­fied as felony, that could trig­ger a re­quire­ment for own­ers to sur­ren­der all of their firearms. So maybe that’s a back­door way to col­lect them. Penal­ties for a felon pos­sess­ing a gun in­clude jail time, and while as­sault ri­fle own­ers may be able to af­ford a fine, they may not want to risk go­ing to prison.

It’s worth not­ing that O’Rourke had out­lined his plan prior to Thurs­day’s de­bate. He’s been talk­ing pub­licly about it for a month. It just took off when he said it be­fore a na­tional tele­vi­sion au­di­ence.

Look, I largely agree with him. AR-15s and sim­i­lar ri­fles are weapons of war. They shouldn’t be in the hands of the pub­lic. They make it too easy to kill and maim. I’d love to see them all dis­ap­pear.

Al­len­town ex­pe­ri­enced what can hap­pen if those guns get in the wrong hands when 10 peo­ple were wounded in a gang shootout that in­volved mul­ti­ple AR-15s this sum­mer. So did O’Rourke’s state when a gun­man used an AK-47style ri­fle to kill 22 peo­ple at a Wal­mart in his home­town of El Paso last month.

I’ve sup­ported Pitts­burgh’s plan to ban as­sault weapons and have called for Penn­syl­va­nia to en­act a ban on fu­ture sales. I’m all for a vol­un­tary buy­back, one that would pay well enough to make peo­ple re­ally con­sider it.

But it isn’t right to ap­prove a retroac­tive ban that forces peo­ple to turn in weapons they legally bought.

I raised the same ar­gu­ment in March when the fed­eral govern­ment retroac­tively banned bump stocks and re­quired them to be turned in.

I agree with those who fear O’Rourke’s idea will send Sec­ond Amend­ment wor­shipers run­ning back to their bunkers and stock­ing up on as­sault weapons while they can. This kind of talk could make it harder to make progress against gun vi­o­lence in other ways.

The big­gest fear of many gun own­ers is the govern­ment seiz­ing their weapons. That’s a fear I’ve al­ways con­sid­ered to be far-fetched. Now O’Rourke’s plan le­git­imizes it.

My other con­cern is that the pub­lic de­bate about what to do about Amer­ica’s pre­pos­ter­ous amount of gun vi­o­lence is fo­cus­ing too much on as­sault ri­fles.

They get a lot of at­ten­tion be­cause they look men­ac­ing to some peo­ple and be­cause they can do a lot of dam­age in a short amount of time. That’s why they of­ten are used in mass shoot­ings, in­clud­ing school shoot­ings.

But those mas­sacres don’t hap­pen ev­ery day. What hap­pens ev­ery day is that peo­ple are killed in their homes and neigh­bor­hoods by hand­guns.

Uni­ver­sal back­ground checks and red-flag laws could pre­vent some of those deaths by keep­ing firearms away from dan­ger­ous peo­ple. It seems like we’re mak­ing progress on those fronts.

I give O’Rourke credit for be­ing bold. He’s right that bans go­ing for­ward aren’t as ef­fec­tive be­cause they al­low as­sault ri­fles to re­main in cir­cu­la­tion. And there are a lot of them. No one knows for sure how many be­cause own­ers don’t have to reg­is­ter them.

There could be any­where from 5 mil­lion to 20 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to a re­port last month from Poli­tiFact, a project of the Poyn­ter In­sti­tute that fact-checks po­lit­i­cal state­ments and claims.

O’Rourke also is call­ing for vol­un­tary buy­backs of hand­guns. He pro­poses cov­er­ing the cost of that, and of manda­tory buy­backs of as­sault weapons, by rais­ing the ex­cise tax on gun man­u­fac­tur­ers and by us­ing in­come from fines im­posed on gun traf­fick­ers.

Vol­un­tary hand­gun buy­backs is an idea wor­thy of sup­port, though he shouldn’t count on much fine money, as many crim­i­nals never pay their fines.

I un­der­stand where O’Rourke is com­ing from. The fed­eral govern­ment, and many state gov­ern­ments in­clud­ing Penn­syl­va­nia’s, have re­fused to take a tough stand against gun vi­o­lence. When you’re run­ning for pres­i­dent you have to be bold, and go­ing after as­sault ri­fles is bold.

I’ve crit­i­cized politi­cians for be­ing weak on the is­sue. Some may con­sider me to be hyp­o­crit­i­cal for crit­i­ciz­ing O’Rourke for want­ing to do some­thing about it. But his plan just isn’t re­al­is­tic.

WIN MCNAMEE/GETTY

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Beto O’Rourke, a for­mer Texas con­gress­man, speaks dur­ing Thurs­day’s de­bate in Hous­ton.

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