Beto O’Rourke and I despise assault rifles, but we disagree
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.
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.
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman, speaks during Thursday’s debate in Houston.